A. INTRODUCTION

Every now and again it is good to stop and reflect on one’s progress in the Christian faith. It’s also good to take a step back and to check the things that we believe, to make sure that they are actually part of the faith that we believe in, and not something we have adopted from elsewhere.

As a consequence, today, I thought I would raise nine issues – all of which relate to things that many people assume to be a normal part of the Christian faith. And I’m going to give you a few minutes to look at them, and ask you to decide which of three classifications they fit best with.

And the three options are:
1. Is this an issue which is basic to the Christian Faith?
2. Is this an issue which is part of Christian Tradition?
3. Or is this an issue which is neither, but rather part of our Inherited Culture?

B. QUESTIONAIRRE


Christian Faith, Christian Tradition
or Inherited Culture?

Questionnaire

For each issue listed below, please indicate whether you think that belief or practice has its origins in either: our Christian Faith: our Christian Tradition; or is part of our Inherited Culture.

(please circle one only)

1. Monogamy
Monogamy (the marriage of one man and one woman) as the basis of the family unit

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

2. Democracy
Democracy (government by the mass of people or by their duly elected representatives) as a system of government

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

3. Discipleship
Discipleship as the basis of the Christian faith

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

4. Holy Communion
The practice of having Holy Communion as part of a church service

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

5. Regular Worship
Regular weekly worship and attendance at all major festivals

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

6. Weddings and Funerals
The conducting of Weddings and Funerals by the Church

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

7. The Baptism of Children
The baptism of children

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

8. Good Works
The belief that doing good deeds is sufficient to earn one’s salvation

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

9. The Beginning of Life
The belief that human life begins at (or before) conception

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture


So, nine questions to which you need to decided which is the best option. Is it basic to the Christian Faith? Is it part of Christian Tradition? Or is simply part of our Inherited Culture?

Now you are not going to be asked to share answers. The completed questionnaires are not to be handed in. But please hold on to the pens to mark the correct answers.

Any questions?

[Give a few minutes for people to mark their responses]

C. ISSUES AND ANSWERS

1. Monogamy
Issue: Monogamy (the marriage of one man and one woman) as the basis of the family unit
Answer: Inherited Culture

In the Old Testament it was not unheard of for polygamy – a man marrying more than one woman – to be practiced. Sarah, for example, gave Abraham her servant Hagar as a means for them to have children (Genesis 16:1-2a), and in one passage Hagar is actually called Abraham’s wife. Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:14b-30). Although it must be said he only intended to marry Rachel.

Whilst it may have been more normal for poorer people to have only one wife, King David had eight wives of whom we know their names, plus several other wives and concubines. And King Solomon had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

By New Testament times it had become normal for monogamy to be practiced. However even then polygamy was not unheard of or forbidden. For example, Paul himself alludes to polygamy in his comments to Timothy about Christian Leadership. Paul had a personal preference for all leaders in the church to be single. However in his first letter to Timothy he suggested a compromise – that at the very most leaders must be the husband of only one wife. (1 Tim 3:12a).

Now today around the world monogamy has become the generally accepted norm. However there are places where Christians practice polygamy, in terms of one husband with several wives – or one wife with several husbands.

2. Democracy
Issue: Democracy (government by the mass of people or by their duly elected representatives) as a system of government
Answer: Inherited Culture (i.e. Western (and increasingly) other cultures

In the bible the standard is not democracy, but rather theocracy: Government by God or by his representatives.

This was the standard that God set from the beginning. It was the way that God governed his people throughout the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, through the period of Moses and the Exodus, through the conquering of the Promised Land, and as the people were settling in the Promised Land.

However the people became dissatisfied with the judges. They wanted more consistent and continuous leadership. So they looked around at the surrounding nations, and demanded a king. Hence the adoption of a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:1-21).

As time progressed the idea of a future ideal Davidic king blossomed. So come New Testament times what the people were looking for in the Messiah was a king to lead them forward.

As a consequence, over the centuries the church has often been favourable to some form of constitutional aristocracy (or monarchy). However with some of the authoritarian regimes with which some churches had to learn to live with, today there is a tendency to accept democracy as a better alternative.

Nevertheless the ideal remains that theocracy – the rule by God – is the system that all Christians should be seeking.

3. Discipleship
Issue: Discipleship as the basis of the Christian faith
Answer: Christian Faith

Discipleship has always been the basic response to the Christian faith. In the Old Testament, and the New, the emphasis is on being believers – not just having some intellectual acquaintance.

For example, in the Old Testament Covenant, the contract was that if people obeyed God’s laws then they would be blessed by him. And the covenant was a typical covenant of the period. If you do this – then expect blessings. But if you don’t do this – then expect disaster (Deuteronomy 28:1-68). However, the point is that the response to God was not just an intellectual exercise, but the need to be active in the faith.

Consequently, when we get to the New Testament, one of the first things we see is Jesus going around the countryside calling people not just to believe, but to follow him. In addition, after his resurrection Jesus’s instruction to his disciples was to make more disciples, and to baptise them. Whoever responded in a positive manner would be saved, and whoever did not would be condemned (Matthew 16:16-20)

Now the term “disciple” normally means a “pupil” or “learner”. However in terms of Jesus’s expectations the commitment to being a disciple also includes the need to be willing to abandon one’s home, business ties and possessions, and the willingness to go to any lengths to fulfil his claims on one’s life.

Consequently it is discipleship which is the basis of the Christian faith.

4. Holy Communion
Issue: The practice of having Holy Communion as part of a church service
Answer: Christian Tradition

For this one we need to go back to where Communion started on the night before Jesus was put to death. Because Jesus was in an upper room with at least his 12 disciples (although there may have been others with him too) (Matthew 26:17-29).

Now at the time Jesus was having a meal with his disciples. In fact a very special meal – a meal to remember the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Now at this special meal dishes of food would have been provided, there would have been the breaking of bread, and there would have been four cups of wine at different points in the meal. And the Last Supper was probably instituted at the breaking of bread and the third cup.

However, whatever the details, the important thing to remember is that the Last Supper was a meal. And Jesus’s instructions to the disciples were “to do this in remembrance of me”.

Now the earliest recording of the Last Supper being practiced by the church is recorded in the writings of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. And it relates to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in which some people drank too much or over ate. Paul’s experience of Communion, then, is in the context of people sharing a meal, not simply including the symbols in some kind of worship service.

It was not until the second Century that the practice of using the symbols in the context of worship became well known.

Despite that, the importance of sharing a meal together cannot be over stated. In biblical times meal times was the one time of the day that people got together and shared what was going on in their lives. And that is an aspect of communion that can be so easily lost, when we reduce the fellowship meal to one or two symbols.

5. Regular Worship
Issue: Regular weekly worship and attendance at all major festivals
Answer: Christian Faith

The fourth Commandment reads: “Remember to keep the Sabbath Day holy. For six days you are to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is to be set apart as a Sabbath to YHWH your God…” (Exodus 20:8-11). If the Ten Commandments were an essential part of the Old Testament covenant, then this one would have to be the one that is the most repeated.

Indeed not only is it repeated again and again throughout the pages of the Old Testament, but other tags are added to it as well, including: “Anyone who works on the Sabbath is to be cut off from among his people,” and “Anyone who defies the Sabbath is to be put to death.”

In addition attending three specific major festivals a year was compulsory (Exodus 23:14-17).

Come New Testament times, then, what we see is Jesus on the Sabbath in a synagogue or temple; Paul also was either in a synagogue, engaging with devout Jews somewhere, or was participating in worship in one of the newly formed house churches. In addition the writer of the letter to the Hebrews provided a stern warning to those who were not meeting together as they should (Hebrews 10:25).

Now, it may not be the habit anymore of the church to disassociate itself from those who are not as regular as they should be. But we do need to hear the warning behind the Old Testament instruction. That is, a casual response to worship undermines not just the person’s faith, but it can also be instrumental in destroying other people’s faith, and all that the church stands for too. Hence the need for all believers to take seriously the fourth commandment.

6. Weddings and Funerals
Issue: The Conducting of Weddings and Funerals by the Church
Answer: Christian Tradition

Now there are no recorded Weddings or Funerals conducted in the Temple, in a synagogue, or a in church in either the Old or New Testaments. Perhaps the first recorded wedding reception is that of Jacob who believed he was marrying Rachel (Genesis 29:23). However any ceremony (if indeed they had one) was not recorded. And in this case, the reception preceded the marriage, and was probably intended to get Jacob so drunk that he couldn’t see which daughter he was marrying.

Similarly, in the New Testament, the wedding at Cana does not deal with any marriage ceremony, but rather only with the reception (John 2:1-11). And indeed the story is more concerned with the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, rather than the details of the reception itself.

Perhaps, only Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins gives us the clearest view of what used to go on with the preparation for a wedding. But still no evidence that it was conducted by a minister of religion of any kind (Matthew 25:1-13).

What we do know is that in some places during the latter part of the first century AD, betrothals needed a bishop’s approval, and that it wasn’t until the third century AD that there is any record of the church being involved in any wedding ceremony. Even in England in the Middle Ages the common people did not get married in church. Yes, they may have had to knock on the vestry door and ask the church for permission to marry. But marriage itself was most likely simply the matter of the two people concerned beginning to live together.

The history of funerals is similar. There are two burials recorded in Acts – of Ananias and Saphira. However again there is no evidence of any ceremony. Simply a comment about a few young men, wrapping the bodies up, carry them out and disposing of the bodies – which was common practice in the Middle East at the time.

Weddings and funerals by the church has more to do with the acceptance of the church’s place in society, than it has about the purpose and function of the church. Consequently the reason that we continue to do them today has very little to do with the Christian faith, but rather with traditions that have been handed down.

7. The Baptism of Children
Issue: The baptism of children
Answer: Christian Tradition

Well it must be stated from the outset that the baptism of children (on their own) is quite foreign to the bible. Indeed, the instructions of Jesus are quite clear: the church is to go out and make disciples of all people, and it is those who have become disciples who are to be baptized.

Having said that, however, the tradition in the New Testament was that when the master of the house was baptized, then his whole family: wife, servants and children were baptised with him (Acts 16:13-15).

Of course, what happened to babies born after the master of the household was baptized, brings us to the issue of the baptism of infants today. The issue was not raised in the New Testament. As a consequence different denominations have different responses.

However, for those churches who practice infant baptism, it has been on the basis of Jesus’s words about letting children come to him, because the kingdom belongs to such as them (Matthew 19:14).

In the Anglican church, the baptism of infants is based on on two grounds: firstly, that the parents are disciples of Christ, and active members of the church; and secondly, that Jesus commanded that children be brought to him. Consequently those ideas are reflected in the baptism service.

Having said that, sadly, the practice of baptising children of parents who show no allegiance to the faith or the church has become common practice. This has been a major sticking point creating division in the church universal. It also denies Jesus’s basic demand for the need for discipleship.

8. Good Works
Issue: The belief that doing good deeds is sufficient to earn one’s own salvation
Answer: Inherited Culture

Indeed not just western culture, but many other cultures. Despite that the bible is quite clear: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

In other words it doesn’t matter what we do, none of us are good enough to be in God’s presence. We cannot undo the mistakes we have made, and there is a price we have to pay for our mistakes. No matter what we do, no matter how good we are from now on, we will continue to make mistakes, and we are required to pay the penalty for them.

Except for the fact that those who believe – who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour – “are justified freely through the grace of Christ Jesus, by his redemption” (Romans 3:24).

So the first part of the answer is that no matter what we do, on our own, we will never be good enough. We will never be able to earn salvation on our own.

The other aspect to this issue, however, is that as a result of having faith, we are expected to do good works. James, the brother of Jesus quite clearly illustrates that by saying “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” (James 2: 26).

In other words faith comes first, and deeds follow as a result of faith. But it doesn’t work the other way around.

9. The Beginning of Life
Issue: The belief that human life begins at (or before) conception
Answer: Christian Faith

Throughout the bible are scattered images of the creation of individual human beings. In the book of Psalms we read: “Yes, you indeed created my kidneys and my inwards parts; you wove them together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13). And that is a concept that is repeated time after time in the pages of the Old Testament.

Indeed the Old Testament also talks about God knowing individuals before they were born. Regarding the Messiah, there are many things detailed about him before his birth; like the circumstances of his birth; where he was to be born; what kind of death he would face etc etc.. And the words of God to Jeremiah were: “I knew you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

These days many people want to redefine the commencement of human life to be so many days or weeks after conception. And the reason for doing so, is so that then allows a time frame in which an embryo can be claimed not to be a human being, and can, therefore, be legitimately experimented on. And regarding things like stem cell research you can understand some people’s desperation to do so. But the bible puts no such limitations on human life. Indeed it makes no distinction between the undeveloped life in the womb, and the more developed life after birth. So from a Christian point of view, the sixth commandment: “You shall not kill” still stands.

D. SUMMARY

So, how did you go? How many got all the questions right? Nine out of nine? What do your answers say about where you are in the Christian faith?

Now, the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that there are often things we take for granted, believing them to be part of our faith. And consequently we pass them on openly or inadvertently to others by either words or example, when they may have nothing to do with the faith at all.

1. Faith
In all the questions for which there were three alternative answers. Only three of them related to the Christian faith: question 3 about Discipleship; question 5 about Regular Worship; and Question 9 about The Beginning of Life.

Only those three I’ve raised today are issues on which Christians should base their faith.

2. Culture
Meanwhile the three questions which relate to our inherited culture, we should simply accept as cultural issues: question 1 about Monogamy; question 2 about Democracy; and Question 8 about Good Works.

As a consequence we shouldn’t be accepting them as part of the Christian faith, and we shouldn’t be trying to impose them on anyone else either.

3. Christian Tradition
But in regard to Christian Tradition we have to be careful. Thai is: question 4 about Communion; question 6 about Weddings and Funerals; and question 7 about The Baptism of Children.

Because whilst some of these practices may reflect good intentions in the beginning, we need to be aware of the traps that are inherent in each. We also need to be aware of their use and misuse over the centuries.

E. CONCLUSION

Faith, tradition or inherited culture?. So, how did you go? Well if you got nine out of nine. Well done. But regardless of your score, an exercise like this demonstrates – how easy it is to confuse Christian Tradition and Inherited Culture, with the Christian Faith. And after all, isn’t that a major reason the church is in the mess that’s in?

The reality is that we all need to keep on our toes, and we all need to use every opportunity to steep ourselves in the beliefs of our faith.

Because if we don’t then the lines between faith, tradition and culture get increasingly blurred. And when that happens not only will we find it hard to know what the difference is, but the people we mix with will have increasing difficulty in being able to distinguish between them as well.

Hand Out:
Questionnaires and Pens

Posted: 2nd January 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

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