Evangelical Questions: Who is – and who is not – a Christian?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about what being a Christian means. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
I will remind you about the FAIR Conference August 2-4 in Provo, Utah. I’ve told you about a lot of the speakers already but I want to tell you about another one who is speaking on a topic near and dear to my heart: The Pathyways program. Brian Ashton is the president of the Pathways program. Pathways, if you don’t know, is a way for adults around the world who have either not started college, or not been successful at college to get a path toward success. One of the things I do in life is teach a remote class for BYU-Idaho and while I don’t teach Pathways students I often have them in my classes after they’ve finished Pathways. And I’ll tell you what, 9 times out of 10 they are more serious students than my non-Pathways students. The year they spend in Pathways really prepares them to do college-level work. When I was 18, I went to “junior” college and it was a disaster. I’d had a lot of trauma in my life by that point and the only support I had was what I was able to cobble together for short amounts of time. Predictably, I failed out of school. I would make a couple other attempts in my early 20’s but just could never get myself to a place where college worked for me. Honestly, I started to believe that I was too dumb for college. It took me into my 30’s before I tried again. My life was stable by then and it worked. I ended up getting 2 Master’s degrees. So today when I look at the people who come up through Pathways I am so happy for them – it’s a program absolutely tailored to the needs of students who couldn’t make the traditional college experience work, but they generally end up being very successful with the high level of support they get.
Okay, so today we’re going to talk about what a Christian actually is. Our scripture is Acts 11:26:
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
In the past, we’ve talked about this subject by looking at the traditional Christian Creeds and that’s a fair way to answer this question. Back in 2004 when Larry King interviews President Hinkley this is the answer he gives – that if being a Christian means agreeing to the Creeds 100%, then you wouldn’t call us Christians – but if it means having faith in Christ as he is found in the scriptures, then yes of course we are Christians. And when we’re talking about faith in this way – does the person believe the correct things – we’er talking about Orthodoxy, that is “correct beliefs.” Ortho means “straight” like a straight line. And doxa is “beliefs or opinions.” But being a Christian is not a cognitive exercise that happens only in your mind – it is also how you live your life and the practices you engage in. This is “orthopraxy.” The “praxy” here means “conduct” in both the ethical and liturgical sense. That’s the way we’re going to talk about the question this time. It’s not that correct belief doesn’t matter, it does, but you need both correct beliefs and correct practices. What is a Christian as evaluated by considering: What are correct practices?
I’ll make a mental health analogy here. Most of the time we humans believe that if something is wrong we need to figure it out in our minds or our emotions first – and then we can easily figure out the right way to act. And that’s fine when you can do it – but most people get lost in their own minds and don’t know how to find their way out. They just spool on the same anxiety for decades. We call this “top-down processing” meaning you’re trying to figure it out in your head so that your body can do the right things. But it’s not the only way to make a change in your life. You also can do, “bottom-up” processing which is where you act in a way you believe is right or ethical, and wait for the emotions or thoughts to follow. This is getting at the differences between orthodoxy (beliefs in your head) and orthopraxy (practices you do.)
Let’s look at a historical example of orthopraxy. The Holy Kiss.
Unless you are Eastern Orthodox you probably have little idea of what this means. In some EO churches, not all, they still practice this. During the service, after the scripture readings are complete, the congregation – which is separated by gender, women on one side, men on the other – give each other the kiss of peace. Traditionally this is not cheek-kissing, but mouth-to-mouth short kisses. There are 2 reasons they do this…1) Paul teaches it in the New Testament and tells the believers to greet each other with a kiss. This is the symbol of the love that should be between believers and a reminder that the Holy Spirit is with them. Their highest goal is union with God – that is for humans to grow up to be like their Heavenly Father. 2) The kiss comes right before they ask the non-baptized adults to leave in preparation to take the sacrament. The priest of deacon would shout, “The doors, the doors.” and all non-baptized adults are excused from the room – the moment of the sacrament being considered very private worship. And they don’t want people who don’t understand to be gawking. But they are given this kiss of peace before they leave.
Now, no Protestant or Evangelical church that I know of uses this practice today. Some of them might ask the people in the congregation to turn and greet someone sitting next to them, but they certainly aren’t being asked to kiss that person on the mouth. To our ears, it’s a very odd practice.
But if you study the practice, and really listen to what they’re saying about why they do this, and how it shapes them, it makes a lot of sense in their context. And this same dynamic comes up in discussions between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. For the most part, Evangelicals do not understand our beliefs, our orthodoxy. Likewise, they do not understand our practices either – some of our practices sound as odd to them as the Eastern Orthodox Christians practicing the Holy Kiss sounds to us.
So, how do we decide what is actually orthopraxy – what are the right practices? If you’ve been following these episodes you probably already know the answer here. Latter-day Saints have a Prophet who can give a final word. Evangelicals are very independent-minded and they each want to decide for themselves what the correct practices are.
Here is a simple example: Our Latter-day Saint churches have gone through a variety of schedule changes. Most of you know the details of those better than I do. The one I experienced was moving from 3-hour church to 2-hour church. I wasn’t officially a member until after we started 2-hour church but I attended for months while it was still 3 hours. All of our congregations around the world were instructed to make this change and on what date. Evangelicals don’t work that way for lots of reasons, the most basic one of which is that there is no central governing body for them. Some of them might choose to group together into denominations or coalitions, but even then, the denomination isn’t going to prescribe how long church should be. If an Evangelical person is attending a church and that church changes their schedule and the person doesn’t like it, he simply moves to another church. And in most areas of the country, he would have dozens of choices. In their way of thinking this isn’t a problem in the slightest. Latter-day Saints think more collectively. If someone attends outside the boundaries of their assigned ward there has to be a pretty good reason why that is happening. The reason being that we belong together, we shoulder the responsibility of the church together. To voluntarily refuse to worship with your neighbors would cause most Latter-day Saints to wonder what was going on.
You can see why our 2 groups would approach something as simple as the church schedule so differently. Evangelicals would have a hard time understanding why you would want to voluntarily give up your independence and allow someone else and let them decide how your church should be structured. Some of them would be very suspicious and skeptical of such a thing! It can really cause problems in conversation.
But the way out is pretty simple, and honestly, it applies to both groups. Our practice of allowing our leaders to decide details like our church schedule is informed by our beliefs that God expresses his love to us by providing prophets. And our following their teaching (in this example, switching from 3 hours to 2 hours) gives us experience in learning that we can trust their leadership. Of course, Evangelicals would see their version of this the same way. They themselves are their own “prophets” as it were. Each one individually gets to have the final word over what is correct belief and correct practice. Their practice informs their belief and vice versa. All of this is to say….There are reasons why each group does what they do. We get bogged down by rejecting their practices – or them rejecting ours – as “crazy” simply because we don’t understand why they are being done, or what results they are producing. Moving from the “what” to the “why” is a really helpful trick for having conversations where you can understand each other better.
The last part I want to talk about here, and this really is an aside, not the main point, is just to say that moving from the Evangelical system (where the individual gets to be their own authority) to the Latter-day Saint system (where Prophets of God are authorities) is tricky. I’ve been in the church about 5 years and it’s still tricky for me sometimes. And I’ve walked with enough other people who have converted from Evangelicalism to see how it is hard for them too and long-term members don’t always see why. I hope this can help you see the struggle from their point of view and have patience as they learn.
Okay. Next week we’re going to talk about the idea that the Bible contains all truth – and anything else claiming to be revelation from God can’t possibly be such. That will be a fun one. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.