Sunday, January 11, 2015

What is a Christian?

This week I attended the Gay Christian Network conference in Portland, Oregon.  It was my second GCN conference and was a tremendous experience.  One of the profound things about GCN conferences is the incredible diversity of people in attendence; not only in terms of sexual orientation/identity but also in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, disability/ability, socio-economic strata and denominational affiliation.  It is a beautiful microcosm of the Body of Christ.  It continues to be the most grace-filled and genuine Christian conference I have ever attended.  This year there were over 1,400 attendees from all over the world.

Because of the wide range of denominational backgrounds among the attendees, a great deal of emphasis is placed on having unity as a community--as a family--in spite of doctrinal and theological differences.  GCN does a really great job of this.  And so Catholics and Southern Baptists and Pentecostals and Quakers and nearly every other flavor of Christian you can imagine worship together in beautiful harmony and treat each other with compassion and patience and kindness and forbearance.

At the conference this week, during the Q&A of a workshop with pastor Danny Cortez, a young woman asked what was the core thing around which this diversity of conference-goers orbited that made us all "Christian."  Cortez answered that it was probably an agreement upon the Nicene Creed (one of the oldest Christian creeds, formulated at the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and expanded at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D).  The next day in a Q&A with theologian/worship-leader Vicky Beeching the same young woman asked the same question.  Beeching likewise responded that the core thing which unified us as Christians was probably our acceptance of the Nicene Creed.

I disagree with Cortez and Beeching.  I don't think that acceptance of a creed makes one a Christian or provides a basis for any kind of meaningful unity.

The Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Portland on the third day of the Gay Christian Network conference.  They stood outside the convention center with their hateful signs.  One hundred or so people, mostly Christians from Portland-area churches who were not attending the conference but had heard in advance that Westboro was going to be there, organized a "wall of love" to block off the picketers from the conference attendees.  One insightful news reporter described it as "Christians protecting Christians from Christians."

But are the Westboro folks Christians?  They too subscribe to the ancient Christian creeds.  On core doctrinal matters they are "orthodox."  And yet the word "Christian" literally means "little Christ."  To be a Christian is to be Christ-like; to reflect Christ's character the way that the moon reflects the light of the sun.  Is it reflecting Christ to hold a sign that says "God Hates Fags"?

The LGBTQ Christians and their straight allies inside the GCN conference would have likely nearly all affirmed agreement with the Nicene Creed.  The sweet Christians who stood outside in the rain to "wall off" the Westboro picketers from the conference-goers likely affirm the Nicene Creed.  The majority of Christians in the world--most of whom think (with varying degrees of harshness) that to be LGBTQ and Christian is an oxymoron--surely affirm the Nicene Creed.  The Westboro Baptist Church affirms the Nicene Creed.

Richard Rohr points out that what is missing from the Nicene Creed is the word "love."  In the 4th century, when the creed was formulated, the preoccupation was with power, not love.    Yet Jesus said that Christians would be known not by their creedal adherence, but by their love for one another.  The New Testament is replete with affirmations that it is love which marks out the followers of Jesus.

Creeds and covenants and statements of faith and doctrinal formulations are great for marking boundaries and defining who is "in" and who is "out."  But really all that they indicate is a mental assent to a set of propositions.  Creeds do not transform hearts or make disciples.  St. Paul urged the early Christians to "walk in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5), not to write a creed and follow it.  Creeds are static.  Creeds are dead letters.  But God is living and active and on the move and at work in the hearts of all people. 

So, if I had been asked the same question that Cortez and Beeching were asked--of what identifies and unites the incredible diversity of Christ followers--I would have said "love"--as fuzzy and amorphous and imprecise as that is.  And the implication of this, I suppose, is that being a Christian is not a noun, but a verb.


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