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Visiting a United Church of Christ Church

In the June 21, 2007 Chicago Sun-Times was an article on Barack Obama: “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ, one of the country’s most racially diverse and liberal Protestant denominations — the first to ordain an openly gay minister and to call for equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of gender. The UCC prides itself as being “out front” on social justice issues, battling civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights ahead of the mainstream. One Sunday hymnal equally celebrates male and female images of God.”?i Wikipedia says that the United Church of Christ has 1.2 million members and that individual churches have authority over doctrine.ii

I was curiouos. What does a bastion of Christian Liberality look like? So recently I went to a local UCC church to see this bastion of liberal Christianity promoting civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, abortion, and other issues. The church, called Pittsburgh Trinity looked like many other small churches. The service appeared very similar to Presbyterian and Lutheran services I have attended with a few exceptions. As far as similarities there was an opening prayer, announcements, scripture readings, numerous hymns from the New Century Hymnal and a sermon. The announcements included a reference to the upcoming Pentecost celebration as the birthday of the Church. Some prayers ended with “In Jesus’ name” while others were to the Creator. In the middle of the service was an infant baptism where the baby was dabbed with water in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The ending song, a “scattering song”, was full of references to being filled with the Holy Spirit and Jesus.

There were a few subtle differences: the opening prayer to the Lord of the Universe was credited as a prayer from an Islamic tradition. Perhaps because it was Memorial Day weekend or perhaps not, the children’s service was very secular. The only teaching to the kids was concerning the flag of the United States and how great it was to live in our great country. The sermon referred to Joshua 4:1-8 as an example of making a memorial and then focused on Memorial Day. The prayer hymn was America The Beautiful. Other than one comment that I’ll address below there wasn’t anything that wouldn’t be in many more conservative services.

There was a reference in support of Barack Obama’s comment to the Notre Dame students that concerning abortion we share a lot in common and we need to start there. This was obvious pro-choice support for a pro-choice president. But, other than that, in a church publicized for its openness to racial, civil, and sexual gender issues there were not any apparent hard-core activists in this particular church. This was an all white, mostly older population that looked comprised of conventional families. I’m sure that with more interaction there would be more discussion of these issues, but this church looked like any of a number of more conservative congregations that I’ve seen.

One thing that is remarkable to me is that, without researching beforehand, this church looks like so many churches where it is impossible to understand at first glance where the church stands on so many doctrines because the service looks so innocuous. And even with research, since each church is fairly autonomous, it is impossible to know where they stand without an in depth investigation into that particular church. I stopped to chat for just a minute with the pastor at the end of the service but with people milling out you can’t really get into anything, just “hi” and “thanks”

It really becomes easier to see how people slowly accept different doctrines over time because becoming part of a church is such a gradual process in so many instances. And churches look so alike with services that could almost be automatically interchanged between them.

i. http://www.suntimes.com/news/elections/437415,CST-NWS-obama21.article
ii. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Church_of_Christ

(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

June 15th, 2009 Posted by | Worship Experiences | no comments

No Creeds in Original Christianity

Today we have lots of creeds to refer to in Christianity. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed are ones that are popularly known. But there are many creeds. For example, the Athanasian creed affirms the trinity. In fact creeds, confessions, affirmations, and statements of faith have proliferated over the ages. Almost every church now publishes a statement of beliefs. With the growth and spread of heretical teachings like Marcionism it’s easy to understand why creeds, written statements of belief, became popular. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that original Christianity didn’t have any creeds. That isn’t to say there weren’t what looked like creeds in biblical writings. We have in first Corinthians chapter 15 what looks like a creed:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also. 1Co 15:3-8

The first two verses above give an essence of the Christian faith:

  1. Christ died according to the Scriptures
  2. he was buried and raised on the third day according to the Scriptures

But the more you read these verses the more they appear to be less of a creed and more of a substantiation to show that Paul’s ministry was real. Because in verse five Paul writes that Christ appeared to Cephas, Peter. Then in verse six he writes that Christ appeared to more than 500 brethren at the same time. Then the next verse he writes that Christ appeared to James, then to all the apostles. And finally, in verse eight, he writes that this same Christ, killed and resurrected according to the Scriptures, appeared to him. If a creed is a written summary statement of Christian beliefs that encapsualtes all that is important then this section, as well as any other creeds since, falls far short. There is a written statement of beliefs that is referred to in these verses and that is the Scriptures. And again, the Scriptures, when this was written, are the law and the prophets. The standard for the written statement of believers is the law and the prophets. There is no short, concise, “in a nutshell” series of statements that really suffices for the law and the prophets. On the other hand, first Corinthians chapter 15, versus three and four encapsulate the basic belief system of original Christianity as well as any other. In this newly birthed faith simplicity was the key. As I’ve written in other articles (See Simple Doctrine), there weren’t any doctrines like predestination, eternal security, the Trinity, or any of the host of issues that Christians have divided over since. The essence of Christianity is that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised according to the Scriptures, the law and the prophets. All of the creeds written since original Christianity were written to emphasize the position of one stance over another. The Nicene Creed is a prime example of this. The Council of Nicaea was formed with one goal in mind; to once and for all establish the doctrine of the deity of Christ. About 300 years after Christ died Christians were undecided over the nature of Christ. Constantine in his effort to unify Christianity as part of his establishment of Christianity as the national religion of the Roman Empire pushed this agenda. Not understanding how volatile this process would be, Constantine convened his council of bishops at which the options were to agree or be excommunicated. What many don’t know is that there was a bloody bath as a result of this move by Constantine. What many also don’t know is that the other position, that Jesus is subordinate to God the Father slowly became the dominant position by 357A.D. At the council of Sirmium the creed produced there said:

There is no uncertainty about the Father being greater: it cannot be doubted by anyone that the Father is greater in honor, in dignity, in glory, in Majesty, in the very name of “Father,” for he himself witnesses… [that “He who sent me is greater than I.”].[i]

And now, while this “anti— Nicene Creed” was certainly labeled blasphemous in later times, it must be noted that just as there was a Nicene Creed that stated Jesus is God in effect for a while there was also a creed later that opposed this doctrine. In reality, the issue was never really resolved. What happened was the issue was again reversed by the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in later years. Later statements or creeds further established new doctrines. Of course the doctrines weren’t introduced by these creeds. Rather they had been written and talked about earlier and got to the point that that they were widely accepted by significant people and were ratified by a council. Mary as mother of God was ratified at the council of Ephesus in 431 although the term “mother of God” was in the writings of Origen a couple of centuries earlier. The belief in Mary developed to the point where she became recognized as the mediatrix, an intercessor. Thus praying to Mary, which may have started as early as the third century, developed to the point where she became the intercessor for many, in stead of just going to Christ directly. This happened despite verses like:

For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, 1Ti 2:5

Creeds continue as a tool to this day. During the reformation, creeds and confessions were established as a way to establish denominational doctrine. The Westminster Confession, written mid seventeenth century, contains nearly 17, 000 words, and starts with a focus on the supremacy of the bible as the source of doctrine, has sections on major doctrines such as the trinity, the fall of man, covenants, Christ as mediator, free will, the assurance of Grace and salvation, religious worship, and the observance of the Sabbath. Especially interesting in this “creed” or confession is that the pope is declared the antichrist:

There is no other Head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God[ii]

Conclusion

Original Christianity was a simple doctrine that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised according to the Scriptures. Over the years as theologians argued over this doctrine or that creeds developed. They develop to the point where many significant doctrinal positions are stated to be the truth in opposition to other groups who hold opposing views. In this sense creeds are the tools of division. [i] Richard Patrick Crosland Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD, Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, ISBN 056703092X, 9780567030924, p345 [ii] The Westminster confession, chapter 25, of the church, number six.

(c) copyright 2009, Mark W Smith, All rights reserved

June 15th, 2009 Posted by | Original Christianity | no comments

My Quaker Experience: Intense Silence, Warm Friendship, and Vague Answers

The Quaker movement sprang out of the Puritan landscape of 17th century England. George Fox, an ardent Christian, believed he received insight from Christ that:

  • The church had become much too institutionalized and regimented.
  • People need not meet in churches as God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands.
  • People don’t need priests as all believers have the spirit within, the body of Christ is a priesthood of believers.
  • If people wait silently the spirit will give insights.

Living in Pennsylvania I have always had an interest in Quakerism because William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania was a Quaker, and resolved to make it a welcome place for this sect. Quakers reportedly are called quakers because:

George Fox was arrested in Derby in October 1650 and charged with blasphemy. The magistrates who tried him were Gervase Bennett and Colonel Nathaniel Barton. George Fox was questioned intermittently over an eight hour period, during which at one point George Fox told the magistrates “Tremble at the word of the Lord”. It was Justice Bennett who coined the name “Quakers” for the followers of George Fox.[1]

All of the historical references to Christianity show it as an ardent Christian sect.

After learning some of these things I determined to visit a meeting. I arrived about ten minutes early. I was greeted warmly at the door by a nice older woman named Martha, and led to the meeting hall. Along the way I noticed bulletin boards and pamphlet racks with headlines that talked about securing peace, living green, and building community. I sat down in the meeting room and looked around. A few people were sitting quietly, mostly with their heads bowed. The meeting room was different in that all chairs faced the center. There was no podium, no speaker stand, no altar, or any of the trappings usually associated with religious service meetings. At different times I prayed, meditated, and just listened and observed

The silence was intense. No one spoke for about a half an hour at which point one lady stood and shared how she had been mentored in Quakerism. One women gently suggested over years she attend a seminar about Quakerism and finally she had and found it very rewarding. That lady passed away the week before and the speaker sat down with tears and gentle sobs.

The silence remained. Then oddly I started to feel some shaking, â??quakingâ? if you will, disturb the silence, but it was the thumping of many, mostly young ones, coming down the stairs to join the meeting. I soon recognized that there must have been a â??First dayâ? school which was just let out. Quakers use First Day, First Month for the days and months. The historical data was that this was because day and month names were named after pagan gods, for example, Thor for thursday. One person I talked to said the reason was to show that all days are holy, not just Sunday.

The silence after that was not quite the same as youngsters fidgeted around the room for a few minutes. Then suddenly, and almost simultaneously, everyone was chattering hellos and ‘how are you’s, and the â??meetingâ? was over. Then a man introduced himself as the clerk, and read some â??queriesâ?. These were focus questions that everyone was to ask themselves. â??Do we participate as fully as we can in the meeting community and accept our share of responsibility for carrying out its work?” “Do we widen our circle of friendship within the meeting and welcome newcomers?” There were others and people just listened quietly and reflectively. Then it was on to announcements. There was a focus on the word “friends.” Did any “friend” have any news about a “friend?” Yes, this “friend” was moving somewhere, and that “friend” was having a gathering about such and such. There was also a focus on “the light.” “Are meetings for business held in expectant waiting for the guidance of the Light?” Friends are to be guided by “the Light” in all they do. The point of all their process is waiting for the movement, the inspiration if you will, of “the Light.” There were many announcements and the group seem to get livelier as they were given.

Finally it was announced it was time for fellowship and light refreshments. I munched on half a bagel, and a piece of pita bread with hummus while talking with several people. They all asked me how I had discovered their meeting. I told them I was studying Christianity starting with original Christianity and the movements that developed and was looking at this one. I asked them about Quakerism. I especially wanted to know if they considered themselves “Christians”. Their response was vague. “Some people who come from Christian backgrounds believe that is true,” was one response. I asked if there believe system was similar to Unitarian Universalism. “Oh, no, we are nothing like Unitarian Universalists.” No would you say that you’re like then? “Well, that would depend on who you ask, different people will give you different responses.” Almost all of my questions where answered in the same vague manner.

Without fail everyone was upbeat, warm, and friendly. Everyone I talked to welcomed me and invited me to come back. I got the distinct impression that people there were not only friendly, but at least some of them were genuine â??friends”. They seemed committed to their process. These were nice, likable people. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the Christian background of this movement was decidedly pushed into the background, that there were no references to Christ by anyone, and questions about Christ were answered vaguely. As a Christian myself, the last question I had, which I only asked myself, was, “What is Christian about this?” I could see the parallels between references to “the light” and Christ , but I couldn’t justify not talking about Christ in a meeting of a group started by a man who said Christ told him to go in the direction that led to this group.

[1] http://www.pendle.net/attractions/quakers.htm

(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

June 15th, 2009 Posted by | Worship Experiences | no comments