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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Who is a Christian? Bible vs Human Teaching

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Lately, as I watch debates among Christians, I've realized that we are continuing the human pattern of adding human teaching to God's word. The Bible is sometimes hard to understand, so those in authority interpret it and tell us that their interpretation is the only right way to believe. We were warned not to do this:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. Deuteronomy 4:2

In Jesus's day, devout Jews quoted from the law of Moses, but more than that, they memorized, taught, and quoted from the Oral law. The Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. We see this throughout the Gospels in the disputes between Jesus and the teachers of the law about how to observe the Sabbath rest. Jesus warned that the teachers of the law and Pharisees were wrong to give people extra legal burdens:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Matthew 23:4

In the early Christian church, there were simple creeds that outline what beliefs defined orthodox Christianity. A creed is a statement of beliefs agreed on by a group of people. Orthodox means 'traditionally accepted as true, normal, or usual.

This post will look at the evolution of creeds and confessions of faith that have united communities of Christian believers, and five schisms that have divided Christian believers.

Biblical Definition of a Christian?

According to the Bible, whoever believes in God's son will have eternal life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV
Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life John 6:47 NIV
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God John 1:12 NIV

First Creed of Christians

As followers of the Way separated from orthodox Judaism, they needed to clarify their statement of beliefs. The earliest creed defining what Christians believe may be:

"Jesus is Lord"

Thomas says 'My Lord and my God!' immediately after realizing Jesus rose from the dead (John 20:28). Confessing that Jesus is the 'Lord' means believing that Jesus holds 'all authority in heaven and on earth' (Matthew 28:18). It means you have decided to let God rule in your heart, and you show your faith by your word and actions (Luke 11:28, James 2:18, Galatians 5:6-13). Peter says, 'Jesus is 'both Lord and Messiah' (Acts 2:36). Declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ, means believing he is the anointed deliverer promised by the Hebrew prophets, the Son of God sent.

This statement of faith is all that was needed to label yourself as a Christian. Early followers of the Way seemed to repeat this creed or declaration of belief as part of their ritual as they joined the body of faith. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked if he could be baptized, Philip replied 'If you believe with your heart, you may', and the Ethiopian declared, 'I believe Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 8:36-37).

Paul quotes from the prophecy in Isaiah 45:23 looking forward to the time when 'every knee shall bow and every tongue confess' that 'Jesus Christ is Lord' (Philippians 2:9-11). This confession or declaration becomes a creed meaning that we believe Jesus is the anointed Christ (Messiah) sent by God and Jesus is our Lord/Master.

The earliest agreement on the definition of a Christian is simple and clear. Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox agree on this early creed: Jesus is Lord. A person who does not believe 'Jesus is Lord' does not fall under the definition of a person with Christian beliefs. Those who see Jesus as a teacher or historical figure would not be considered a Christian if they do not believe Jesus is Lord and Messiah.

Second Creed of Christians

If you want something a little longer, many theologians believe Paul is quoting an early Christian creed in his letter to the Corinthians. He lists proofs that Jesus, the Lord and Messiah, rose from the dead. Paul adds his name to the end of the list:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 1 Corinthians 15:14 NIV
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9

As above, the Bible promises salvation to whoever believes:

  • Jesus is Lord

  • Jesus is the Messiah (Christ, the anointed one sent by God, Son of God)

  • Jesus died to make amends for our wrongdoing, fulfilling the Scriptures

  • Jesus rose from the dead

What Creeds Defined Christian Beliefs as the Church Organized?

In the 4th century, Constantine was the Roman Emperor (AD 306-337) and transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople (today's Istanbul, Turkey). He decriminalized Christian worship in AD 313 and stopped the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the State church of the Roman Empire. In AD 325 Emperor Constantine convened an ecumenical council in Nicaea to define orthodoxy for the whole church.

The Nicene Creed is an ecumenical creed because it is accepted as authoritative by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and major Protestant churches. It was updated at an ecumenical council in AD 451 and is the most widely accepted statement of what Christians believe. At the time, the worldwide church was governed by a Pentarchy with Bishops (Patriarchs) in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, each having authority over their own area.

The Nicene Creed outlines the belief of the Trinity, that there is One God in three co-eternal, co-equal, divine persons: Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. It states that Jesus became human, was killed, buried, and rose again for our salvation. The creed specifically wanted to affirm Jesus as equal to the Father and of the same substance. The original version of the Nicene Creed, still used by the Eastern Orthodox churches, states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.

1. Great East-West Schism

In the 6th century, the western church started using a version of the Nicene Creed that states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The insertion of this clause 'and the Son' was authorized by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), without consulting the other four Bishops of the Pentarchy. Adding this clause was said to trigger the East-West Schism that divided Orthodox and Roman churches in 1053, but the break was about more than that. There were differences in beliefs about communion and priests being able to marry and other items, but largely it was about whether the Pope had primacy over the four Eastern Patriarchs. Did they each have jurisdiction over their area or were they subject to the Pope's authority? The Pope claims primacy under the succession of Peter, possibly the 'greatest disciple'. It may have been the old debate about 'who's the greatest' and men seeking power.

Both East and West claim to be the true, orthodox, universal church, with the other one being the break-away group.

The western church excommunicated the eastern church in 1054. The eastern church retaliated by excommunicating the Roman Catholic church.

The western and eastern branches of Christianity lifted their mutual ex-communications in 1965. The Apostles' Creed is a statement of faith that may be the result of questions asked to new believers; answered in the affirmative, these become statements of faith. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit existed from the beginning (Genesis 1:2), and the Apostles' Creed does not say the Holy Spirit proceeded from either the Father or the Son. Its phrase of belief in the 'holy Catholic' church' means the 'holy, universal' church. It may have been used as early as the 4th century, but it was not acknowledged as an official statement of faith of the western church until the 12th century (after the Great Schism). The Eastern Orthodox churches do not accept the authority of the Apostle's Creed because it was never approved by a major ecumenical Council.

Since Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic tradition, Protestants who use the Nicene Creed use the Roman Catholic version, and may also use the Apostles' Creed.

The Apostle's Creed is based on a variety of Bible verses, as shown here.

There is also very little biblical evidence for the statement that Jesus descended into hell after being crucified, though it may be based on 1 Peter 3:19 and on John 20:17. On the other hand, Jesus may have gone immediately to paradise based on Luke 23:43.

2. Protestant - Roman Catholic Schism

By the 1500s, several theologians protested the Catholic Church and sought reforms. While Roman Catholics teach salvation is only available by God's grace and is unmerited by works, the organization had a practice of asking people to make payments to the church to receive forgiveness (these payments were called indulgences). Reformers affirmed we are saved by God's grace alone, not by payments to the church. Catholic priests accepted members' confessions, assigned penance, and seemed to pardon sin, while Reformers affirmed forgiveness through God and faith alone. The Church encouraged praying through saints as intermediaries, while Reformers said the way to God is by Christ alone. The Catholic Church encouraged the illiterate population to listen to the church teachings and biblical interpretations as a better way to understand the Bible. Reformers said believers should read the Bible, which had become more widely available since the use of the printing press in 1450. The Catholic Church controlled both government and religion in many European countries. It was able to build glorious cathedrals and strengthen political control by punishing anyone who was considered a heretic. Reformers said they wanted glory not for the church but for God alone.

After the Reformation, Roman Catholics changed many of these practices but retain certain rituals, sacraments, and practices to remind believers of the truth and help guide them. While Protestants hold most of the same Christian beliefs of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, most Reformers left the Catholic Church and formed Protestant churches.

Some denominations use a confession of faith which is a formal statement of doctrinal beliefs, often more extensive than a creed. Many Protestant churches developed their own creeds or confessions of faith, which outline approved biblical interpretations. Charismatics, such as Quakers and Pentecostals, may avoid creeds as a way to worship as an equal priesthood of believers, allowing for the work of the Holy Spirit as members work out their own beliefs. Most Baptists avoid creeds, preferring a distinctive statement of beliefs which affirms the authority of Scriptures while allowing local church autonomy and personal Christian freedom to interpret the Bible. However, those who do not agree to the statement of beliefs may not have full membership, voting, or leadership privileges.

Protestant Reformers thought they understood the true, orthodox meaning of God's word and that those who opposed their biblical interpretation were sinful. Some Protestant churches now encourage following church teachings as a better way to understand the biblical teachings. Martin Luther accused Pope Paul III of keeping boys for the purpose of sodomy.

... all popes, since the beginnings of the Church, were full of devils and vomited and farted and defecated devils." Martin Luther

John Calvin thought that speaking against Calvin's view of God were blasphemers that deserved the death penalty:

And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies?” - John Calvin

There are now thousands of Protestant denominations, some separated by geography, language, and style of worship. They may agree on the biblical definition of a Christian or the ancient Creeds or they may not. Some Protestant denominations broke away over schisms on biblical interpretation or doctrine. Or maybe they formed because of the old debate about 'who's the greatest' and men seeking power.

3. Schisms over Race

Several denominations broke into distinct denominations based on their positions regarding slavery and segregation.

John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement, soundly judged anyone who tolerated slavery in his 1774 document, “Thoughts Upon Slavery”. In 1785, the first Book of Discipline published by the Methodists included legislation that any church member who buys or sells slaves is to be expelled from membership unless they free them. However, a few months later, Methodists suspended the rule banning membership to slaveowners because it limited the expansion of the church in the South.

However, even as emancipation and desegregation were argued, it was left to the local congregations to set policies on slaveholding or segregation. In many cases, Blacks were required to sit in segregated areas or meet at separate times for prayer and preaching. In response to the unequal treatment, Richard Allen, a former slave, formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794 and in 1799 he became the first ordained African-American Methodist pastor in the U.S. Allowing each local area to interpret slavery in their own way came to a crisis came in 1844. Bishop J. O. Andrew of Georgia became a slaveowner through marriage, and the Methodist Episcopal Church was divided into two denominations, those who opposed or affirmed slavery. The two Methodist denominations reunited in 1939.

Like the Methodists in 1844, the Presbyterians divided in1837, and the Baptists in 1845, forming separate denominations based on slavery and segregation. Pentecostalism started as inter-racial in 1901 but formed separate denominations by race from 1914 until 1994. The pro-slavery side said abolitionists may lose their salvation:

“We know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to unveil their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible.” Robert Lewis Dabney

“The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans... Christianity and Atheism the combatants" - James Henley Thornwell

Were the slaveowners really concerned about the salvation of abolitionists? What about Christian debates about indigenous peoples, apartheid and mixed-race marriages? Were divisions due to biblical interpretation, greed for slave labour, or the old debate about 'who's the greatest' and white men seeking power?

4. Schisms over Sex

Several denominations have developed distinct denominations based on their interpretation of the Bible's view on women in offices such as elders, deacons, and pastors. Protestant denominations vary widely in their policies of women being ordained as clergy, elders, or deacons. Quakers and Salvation Army denominations were among the first to accept women in leadership.

Anglican churches have ordained women since the 1970s, particularly in its Episcopal group, but disputes over the ordination of women have triggered conservative separatist movements. The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) began to ordain women in 1995, but some congregations split away and formed the United Reformed Churches in North America, which does not ordain women. The Presbyterian Church (USA) ordains women but the Presbyterian Church in America does not ordain women. Several Methodist denominations ordain women while others set various limits on whether a woman may hold the office of elder, deacon, or ordained clergy. The United Church of Canada was formed by a merging of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists, who had different policies on women in leadership. The United Church ordained its first woman minister, Rev. Lydia Emelie Gruchy in 1936 but it was 1966 when the Presbyterian Church in Canada began to ordain women.

However, even as many Protestant denominations ordain women, it is left to the local congregation whether or not they call a woman to a role as pastor, elder, or deacon. In many cases, churches either prohibit women from these roles, or limit them to teaching in segregated areas, to women or children only, or on foreign mission fields. Sometimes women clergy switch to more progressive or liberal churches. After 25 years of women's ordination, the CRCNA has close to 1,000 churches and just 172 women ordained in active ministry. After 75 years of women's ordination, the United Church of Canada ordained ministers include 1,990 men/1,375 women.

Canadian Baptists affiliated with the Canadian Baptist Federation all permit the ordination of women, yet allow congregations local autonomy on hiring. The Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada passed a motion in 1997 to restrict women from certain leadership roles but allowed individual congregations autonomy. In 2003 the Fellowship Baptists proposed a more restrictive motion to enforce gender roles in its churches, which was narrowly defeated.