Explaining Wayward Christianity

The core crisis of Christianity is how could a religion based on the teachings of Jesus, who called for peace through love and generosity to the poor – and who disdained the rich – have grown so tolerant of war, greed and inequality. The Rev. Howard Bess traces this conundrum to the Church’s early days.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Paul was Christianity’s first theologian, with his writings making up about half of the entire New Testament. Indeed, though Paul did not become a believer until years after Jesus’s crucifixion, Paul wrote before any of the four gospels describing Jesus’s life and teachings were committed to the written word.

Thus, Paul – more than anyone else – set the standard for what is required to be a Christian. And, in the 10thchapter of his letter to the Romans, he wrote these words: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Paul, the Apostle

So, being a Christian was for Paul a matter of head and heart, not actions. By his standard, there is no amount of good deeds that can bring salvation. It is a matter of belief and belief only.

Paul’s standard has been challenged by some Christians over the centuries – and the New Testament’s Book of James stresses the value of good works – but never has Paul’s “head and heart” standard been dislodged as a central tenet of Christianity.

In the Fourth Century CE, under pressure from Roman rulers, the Church began to define what a Christian must believe, leading to the two dominant creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, both based on Paul’s standard.

Before the Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity was incredibly diverse. However, even then, Paul’s insistence that Christianity was defined by head and heart was dominant. The central issue of the two creeds was what was to be confessed by Christians as their core beliefs.

The Apostles’ Creed, by tradition, has its roots in the 12 apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. However, there is no documented connection to first, second or third centuries CE.  In the Fourth Century CE, the wording of the Apostles’ Creed was set and remains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, beginning “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth…”

The Nicene Creed comes to us out of the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Church leaders that was charged by Roman Emperor Constantine to settle once and for all what a person must believe to be saved and to be a full participant in the Kingdom of God. The key issue was the relationship between Jesus, the son, and God, the father.

It begins: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …”

Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed have the same structure. Even some of the wording is identical. And they have remained central to Christian teaching ever since.

The Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was a serious jolt to the world of Christianity, with the meaning and the necessity of the Reformation still debated. My own understanding is that Martin Luther was convinced that the Roman Church in practice had strayed from the “head and heart” standard of the Apostle Paul.

During the Reformation, the content of the long-established creeds was never in question. Instead, Luther believed that the Roman Church was compromising Paul’s formula for salvation through corrupt practices such as the selling of indulgences. Luther taught that salvation was a gift of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ.

The depth of Luther’s convictions that salvation was by faith alone was made plain by his questioning of the inclusion of the Book of James in the Christian New Testament. James raised the question, “Can a person be saved by faith without works?” Luther’s response was to say the Book of James was unworthy to be included in the New Testament.

As a Baptist, my tradition is adamantly non-creedal, meaning every Baptist has the right to interpret the Christian faith. However, in the Baptist tradition, an individual dare not question Paul’s understanding of salvation by head and heart – without requirement of good works.

Believing that a person can become acceptable to God by good works or charity is the most offensive heresy imaginable. Yet, as far as we know, Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived a very moral and ethical life. He also called for peace and justice through love.

Though Christians with our lips confess that Jesus is Lord and pledge to follow his path, there are profound contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of many Christians.

How is it that our behavior is so out of step with the one we call “Lord?” With immunity of conscience, we fight and kill one another. We are motivated by greed and unbridled desire. Truth-telling is not honored. Hoarding material goods triumphs over generosity. Locks and high fences abound as though they can insure safety.

There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. Together, we have the power in numbers to bring peace, love, generosity and justice to the world. Collectively, we have the resources to make the world a much better place.

On Sunday, many Christians will recite in unison the Apostles’ Creed. Yet, nothing new and positive will happen on Monday since salvation is not tied to deeds, but only to faith.

Is it possible that Paul, Christianity’s first theologian, led us terribly astray?

The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.   

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15 comments on “Explaining Wayward Christianity

  1. Much that is here regarding Paul is pretty thin. I’ll leave it at that. The main thrust of Bess’es piece seems to be: “Though Christians with our lips confess that Jesus is Lord and pledge to follow his path, there are profound contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of many Christians.” With that, I lamentably agree.

  2. rosemerry on said:

    Certainly Paul gave alimited idea of christianity, but present-day “christians” in the USA bear no relation to what I would consider a beneficial influence. They claim God wrote the Bible, yet interpret it as it suits them. Instead of tolerance,peace,”turning the other cheek”, giving to the poor etc, they concentrate on demonising other people’s private sex lives. How is that related to believing in God and accepting Jesus?

  3. equity on said:

    As Bass says, the Creed is important. But, he seems to place Paul above Christ as the source of Christian direction. Bass’s Baptist notion that everyone should interpret the Bible as it suits them has led to all manner of nonsense and division. That practice has scandalized Christianity. It is worth remembering that the Church antedates the Bible and that it is the Church that established as authentic the content of the Bible. Since all denominations are made up of us sinners, there will be mistakes and even crimes occasionally done by members of these denominations, including some of the most prestigious members. That includes the Reformation figures; Luther succeeded parlty because of support from powerful secular figures who saw that they could increase their personal power and wealth by breaking with the Catholic Church. The moder way is increasingly inclined to reject all institutions in favor of a non-committal “spirituality’ (or, in other words, saying, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” which is simply giving oneself a license to feel fuzzy about “something” and to do as one pleases. It’s an inward, selfish, and ultimately narcissic way to go on. It is also the legacy of the Protestant approach that tells people they can read the Bible (and consequently make religion) in any way they choose. That is fatal.

  4. Rory B on said:

    I spent six years immersed in the Catholic school system and now refer to myself as a recovering Catholic. I got to see first hand the hypocrisy of organized religion. I don’t believe the Bible was written or inspired by God. I think Jesus’ teachings as we know them are really just an expansion on the golden rule and common sense. In other words treat people and nature with respect and go through life acting like an ass. I don’t believe just having faith without doing the decent thing is good enough. A statement that has stuck with me throughout my adulthood is, “It’s not what you did but what you didn’t do that counts”.

  5. Rory B on said:

    Sorry, I meant DON’T go through life acting like an ass.

    • Rory,
      In the words of Bob Dylan: “You had no faith to lose, and you know it.”
      Catholicism and some of the other organized Christian faiths ask you to live as Jesus did and take care of the poor, sick, old and children and those less fortunate. Your religion (and some of the other new age faiths and pseudo Ann Rynd Christiams seems to be concerned only with rationalizing why its good take care of yourself first.

  6. Pingback: Rev. Howqard Bess: Explaining Wayward Christianity « Peace and Justice Post

  7. Ojkelly on said:

    The paradox that one could perform no works or even bad works yet be saved by faith alone was and is
    the great argment against reformation and was taught to me as proof that Rome was right. Such a doctrine certainly would explain how good Christians could stand by as others engage in the taking of hundreds of thousands of lives and evacuation of millions from their homes. A good Christian has no obligation to try to stop evil or immorality even when committed by hIs or her group as long as faith in Jesus remains.
    A fair point to explain a seeming lack of concern over the fate of others even though the Originator of the movement is reported to have considered all talk and no action to be hypocrisy .
    Paul explained the Crucifiction as a sacrifice necessary for salvation of innately evil men, and this innate evil can be cured by faith and acceptance. So, we can go from evil to not evil. But, what about being good.

  8. Has anyone considered that Paul may have accomplished the destruction of Christianity as he originally intended? From my reading of the New Testament, Jesus told people how to live. Paul said only the death of Jesus was really important, effectively turning Christianity into a “death cult.” Thomas Jefferson confined his version of the New Testament to just what Jesus was supposed to have “said.” I see Paul as deeply troubled, he fought with Peter. Maybe the Apostles “who knew Jesus” were glad to see him leave to preach to the Gentiles.

  9. There is nothing wrong with the Creeds per se. What is wrong is that too many Christians think that simply being saved (head, heart) is enough, and that there is nothing else. True, no actions or deeds can save one, but that does not mean actions and deeds have no value, even in the Judeo-Christian construct.

    Indeed, the “missing piece” here is that Christians are also called to live “Christ-like” lives. That is, to emulate Jesus to the greatest degree possible within our mortal, sinful frames. In this regard, Jesus’ life and ministry were based on eleven precepts: love, peace, forgiveness, compassion, humility, patience, charity, selflessness, service, justice and truth.

    Given this – and even if one “confesses” and “believes” in Christ – one can hardly self-proclaim as Christian if one actively (as opposed to simply “failing” and then repeneting for that failure) violates any or all of these precepts. One cannot believe in love, but then hate. One cannot believe in peace, but then be aggressive, violent or warlike. One cannot believe in compassion, but then lack it. One cannot believe in humility, but then be arrogant, condescending or dismissive. One cannot believe in charity, selflessness and service, but then be stingy and unhelpful to those in need. One cannot believe in justice, but then deny it to others. One cannot believe in truth, but then engage in falsehood.

    As I have noted elsewhere, there are all too many Christians who wouldn’t know Jesus if He bit them on the ear.

    Peace.

  10. Gail H on said:

    I suspect that Paul believed that once people truly realized the enormity of what Christ had done for them, that they would automatically want to also follow Christ’s teachings. Sadly, it seems many people are “saved,” because theyve accepted the gift of salvation, but they are not real followers of Christ. And that’s a shame.

  11. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Paul.
    “If you confess with your lips that Allah is God and the Prophet Muhammad is His final messenger, be conscious of the day on which you shall be brought back unto God, whereupon every human being shall be repaid in full for what he has earned, and none shall be wronged” Surah 2, verse 281, The Holy Qur’an.

    Both holy books are political treatises interpreted to control the behavior of believers and sustain the authority of the interpreters of the text. The same is true of all religious texts alleging divine authority. The results have been constant internecine warfare, genocide, paranoia, and xenophobia in the name of brotherhood and peace.

    The idiot who proclaims that his God is better than your God and kills to preserve that belief is blameless compared
    to the politician who instills dogmatic obedience through fear in his followers.
    The attributes of God, the Names of God are the same in all beliefs. Sane people know without religious instruction what a good life is, what peace,courtesy, kindness, and respect should be without the benefit of clergy.
    All governments, including religious organizations evolve into self sustaining bureaucracies that change their rules only through revolution. This is the historic prof of the fallacy of belief.

  12. Gretchen Robinson on said:

    Christianity should be called “Paulianity.” Paul was not an apostle though he is called that, not one of the original 12. Paul created Christianity in his own image, Platonism and all.

  13. fosforos on said:

    All the problems Christians have with their religion stem from one basic fact: Neither Jesus nor his brothers nor his disciples were Christians–they were Jews who called their faction the “Nazarenes,” who worshipped in the Temple like all other Jews, and who were close to and protected by the leaders of the Pharisee party. The Christians worship a fleshless purely “spiritual” figure invented by a Roman citizen repudiated by the real followers of the real Jesus. Luther was right to follow his inspirer Saul and repudiate the Epistle of the jew James, the brother of Jesus and his successor as head of the Nazarene Jerusalem Church. (See *Revolution in Judaea* and *Paul the Mythmaker* by Hyam Maccoby; *The Brother of Jesus* by Jeffrey Bütz; and *The Jesus Dynasty* by James Tabor).

    As for the business of Jesus preaching peace–never forget that he, as Messaianic King, brought “not peace but a sword;” that he instructed his disciples to buy swords even if they had to sell their cloaks to do so; and that at Gethsemane those immediate disciples used their swords, drawing blood, until Jesus recognized that they were confronted by overwhelming force (a whole Roman cohort) and told them to put up their swords and escape.

  14. Frank McEvoy on said:

    On the verse in Romans about professing on the lips: I read once that St. Paul wrote that because a lot of Romans were killing themselves rather than risk falling into sin. St. Paul wrote the verse to tell the Roman Christians to lighten up.