At Christmas, Baptists, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics sing the same songs.
Most of the time, we hardly know that we have anything in common. We can’t receive communion together, we baptize differently, and man, do we ever sing different songs!
At Christmas however, of that all changes. We visit each other’s churches. We enjoy the sermons, dramas and music in all sorts of churches.
So why are Christians so different one from another during the rest of the year?
Well, we’re not really that different. It’s just that some groups are old and maintain forms of worship and musical styles from centuries past. Others are new and create new forms of worship based on musical styles from contemporary cultural environment. Many churches are based on ethnic backgrounds that mold the expression of faith in ways that seem strange to outsiders.
What Christian often argue about is the difference between eternal values (things that must not change) and temporal values (things that change from culture to culture and age to age). Is the way we celebrate Holy Communion a Biblically-mandated issue or a time and cultural thing? How about sermons? Or pastors, for that matter.
I doubt that I can settle any of those things in this blog!
What I can do is identify the core beliefs that unite all Christians. Those are the things at the core of the covenant God made with His people.
It is irresponsible to even call oneself a Christian without knowing them.
So, what are they?
Ahh, glad you asked! After all, many believers no longer know what they are. They are even surprised that it matters.
Most of you reading probably attend a non-denominational church. So it might surprise you to know that churches like these are quite new. Non-denominational churches tend to be independent and made up of believers from every conceivable background.
A young, independent congregation does not offer a common root system to its people. Therefore, it tends to be cautious about doctrine. The unity of such churches is built on an unspoken compromise. The believers in them have enjoyed a generation of unity because they once decided not to discuss doctrinal differences. The problem is, most of them have now come to the time when they must decide what to teach their children, or to their new converts.
C. S. Lewis called the common core of faith, those beliefs that we recognize together (especially at Christmas time) “Mere Christianity.” Previous generations called those common beliefs “orthodoxy.”
How they came to be identified is interesting.
Even during the lifetime of the apostles, Christians often disagreed among themselves about how to interpret the Scriptures or to explain the nature of Christ. Such differences led to divisions and strife.
Believers began to hold special meetings (called councils) to settle their divisions. Churches from all parts of the Mediterranean sent representatives to these counsels in order to define their common faith.
You can read the minutes of the very first church council! They are recorded in Acts, chapter 15. St. Luke sums up the spirit of that meeting by remarking, “There was no small dissension!” (I bet! I have been in some of those kinds of meetings!)
Over the next few centuries, Christians would call several more councils. They would decide such things as which writings would be included in the New Testament, which Jewish practices would or would not be retained in Christian worship and what they would teach about Jesus Christ.
Through the centuries, the overwhelming majority of Christians have agreed with the decisions of these early church councils made. They have stood the test of time. They have become the common heritage of all believers. They are the things we sing about during Christmas.
You can learn the vocabulary of orthodox Christianity in a few hours. In fact, you can do that just by memorizing the two great creeds. However, defining the meanings of these beliefs, deciding how they should impact everyday life and what level of authority one grants to them– that’s another thing!
All Christians believe in the “communion of saints,” for example. But the phrase means something very different to a Roman Catholic than it does to a Southern Baptist! To acknowledge “one baptism for the remission of sins,” takes us into arguments about the meaning of the word “for!”
So Christian creeds both celebrate our unity and expose our differences.
But leave all of that for the other months! This is the season to smile at one another as we go into our various churches.
We know that one service will open with a pipe organ and the other with a guitar; that one will involve dance and the other silence; that one will be held in a warehouse and the other in a cathedral. But during advent we also know that these are surface matters. They conceal a massive body, consisting of the living and the dead, gathered from every tribe and nation under heaven.
The guitar strums. The pipe organ bellows. For a moment the voices of a boys choir in their while robes join with the voices of young people in jeans:
“Oh Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”