Thursday 20 January 2011

Become a Christian, then join a Church?


Some autobiography - but not much, I hope.

I became a Christian, like many in recent decades, under considerable influence from the writings of C.S. Lewis - especially his concept of Mere Christianity.

One aspect of this is that it should be a matter of indifference which Christian denomination you join (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal etc) - so long as they really are Christian.

And then you must join that denomination, you must join a specific church - and practice according to that church's rules.


Lewis advises joining the church of your birth, if you have one; or the national church, if you don't - but not to make a fuss about it.

He advises attending and worshiping at the nearest convenient branch of this church - and, again, not to make a fuss about this.

Just get on with it.


Good advice - which I have completely failed to follow.

My reasons, and they are not excuses - they are flaws in myself - range from sheer laziness or self-indulgence and that I do not like 'joining' any group, to the fact that I simply could not be indifferent to the denomination nor to the specific branch of the church I attended.

Indeed, after just a few weeks of blessed indifference during which I followed Lewis's prescription, I felt forced by circumstances into 'taking sides' in the current horror story that is Church of England politics; and once I had started to take notice of this I could not stop.


The difficulty, albeit one which a stronger person than I could overcome, is that secularization has proceeded so far in our society that joining a specific church can feel more like a training in fitting Christianity into the changing world of modern socio-politics than the reverse (which, presumably, ought to be the case).


Enough autobiography.

My point is this:

Do not be put-off becoming a Christian because of these kinds of reasons.

Do not be put-off because you cannot find a denomination or a local church which you find wholly acceptable.

Do not be put-off because you are too lazy or fickle to attend worship regularly.


(The real Church is not an institution in a particular time and place but is a mystical and trans-generational entity, only imperfectly understood or known. A Christian must be a part of this mystical Church - by prayer - even when not a member of a modern institution. Indeed, there have been times and places when there was no institutional church for a Christian to belong-to or worship-at - and some of the people in this situation became Saints or Martyrs through their membership of the mystical Church. This may be a consolation - it should not be a rationalization for your own weakness, nor the corruption of existing churches.)


In a nutshell: do not be put-off becoming a Christian by the problems of society or by your own deficiencies.

Maybe society's problems are just too great, maybe your own deficiencies never will be overcome - no matter: you should act anyway.


What then should you do?

If you cannot be a Mere Christian, then at least be a Minimal Christian who will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.

(Even though you probably don't know what this means at first; and if you do get glimpses, keep losing a grip on what it means.)


Pray, as often as possible, in whatever way you can manage. Address God.

Pray to Jesus Christ. Pray for belief, for strength, ask for help, give thanks.


Read what you can manage to get yourself to read about Christianity that you think is true, think about it, speak with anyone you believe may help (but probably most cannot or will not) - and in any way possible try to learn about Christianity.


And declare yourself to be a Christian if asked or when relevant.

If asked whether you are a Christian then Just say Yes.

Train yourself never ever to answer "Yes-but..."

- because that 'but' will be taken to negate the "Yes".

To the enquirer (who will be waiting for you to say the but) the phrase Yes-but means "not really...".)

So, do not qualify your answer with an apologetic account of your feebleness and deficiencies, do not say that you 'try to be'.

Except for Saints, all Christians are 'bad Christians' - that can be taken for granted.

The point is that you are a Christian.


But there are serious problems with what I recommend.

The first is ignorance. Lacking guidance you will make errors.

However, there is no reliable modern source of good advice on the real nature of Christianity. So this is something you must just struggle-with.

But the main problem is (of course) pride: the primary sin.

It is natural to try and justify oneself, to argue - and then believe - that your own weaknesses are a sign of superior spirituality and purer holiness. Rubbish!

You are a Minimal Christian merely because you are not good enough for anything better; and you must not be satisfied with this, and need to struggle to become something better.

Aim as high as you know how, and acknowledge your miserable failure to attain this. 


However, even to be the most pathetic and ineffectual Minimal Christian is the first and the most important step across the line; and it may be as far across the line as you will ever manage to get. But that is no reason for failing to take the step across that line.



dearieme said...

I incline to the view that Roman Catholicism isn't really Christian - much as Mormonism isn't. It takes Christianity and adds extra bits on, bits which undermine somewhat the Christian bit. I suppose that's the conclusion that Luther & Co reached and I think they were right then. Since then things have got worse: Papal Infallibility indeed!

This is a quite separate point from the fact that in my extended family of Protestants, atheists and Roman Catholics, it's the Roman Church that comes out worst - by miles - from the family's experiences.

CorkyAgain said...

there is no reliable modern source of good advice on the real nature of Christianity

There is, however, an ancient one. You don't need to commit to the doctrine of sola scriptura in order to benefit from reading the Bible.

Steve N said...

Become a Christian, then join a Church? To paraphrase Augustine, I would not know to be a Christian (much less how), if not for the Church.

@dearieme: It is quite a feat I think to attempt to define "really Christian" whilst simultaneously ignoring what was was everywhere believed by everyone for the first 15 "Christian" centuries. Even Dr. C and I can agree on the first ten, give or take. "Added bits" indeed! Added to what?

Anonymous said...

I understand the idea that you shouldn't let uncertainty about denominations stand in the way of your becoming a Christian, but I think it's going a bit too far to say that denominational identity should be a matter of complete indifference. "Denominations" used to be called heresies, you know.

I suppose indifference to denomination makes some sense in the Protestant world, where one sect is often much like another and none makes any exclusive claims for itself. But other Christian churches -- most notably the Roman Catholics and the Mormons -- take themselves more seriously, each claiming to be the true Church. To join such a body not because you actually believe its claims but because you picked it more or less at random seems disingenuous.

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - just to clarify - the idea that "denominational identity should be a matter of complete indifference" comes from C.S Lewis, especially Mere Christianity.

Lewis was probably the most influential Christian writer of the 20th century, across all denominations; and the previous Pope - Jean Paul II was a huge admirer of Lewis (which does not, of course, mean that JP-II agreed with this specific idea).

But of course you are correct that some Churches do claim to be the sole true Church - and I do not dismiss these claims, in the sense that I think the Orthodox Church is just that.

But it is a matter of what it _means_ to be the true Church.

As I understand it - the Orthodox claim to be the true Church is explicitly a mystical truth compatible with local, current actual un-truth (such as the recent era when the Russian Orthodox Church was - mostly - run by anti-Christian Communist atheists).

It is perhaps evidence of the lack of spiritual ambition in modern times that most denominations are so purely salvation-orientated; indeed it seems to me that some protestant sects have difficulty in discriminating between degrees of holiness.

But Lewis was not like this, and in his later life expressed ideas of spiritual progression that sound like the Orthodox concept of theosis.

And Lewis was not "indifferent" to denomination in the modern sense - he would *not* have regarded many liberal Christians as being Christian, for example - and was hostile to any attempt to 'water down' the supernaturalist and miraculous core of Christiantity.

His own period as a re-converted Christian (Church of England) ran from 1931-1963 - during which he went from a Protestant and evangelical stance ever further towards the Anglo-Catholic end of the Church.

If he had lived to extreme old age he probably would have become a Roman Catholic (despite his reservations) in response to 'liberalization' in the C of E.

The later Lewis was sympathetic towards Eastern Orthodoxy:

I understand the Mormon claim to be that the LDS Church accelerates spiritual progress, and is quantitative rather than qualitative (except among a small groups of extremely evile people). So that LDS membership is not necessary to the highest levels of salvation (exaltation) since progress towards this goal can continue after death.

My understanding is that salvation is a matter of belief rather than denomination, but spiritual progress depends substantially on denomination - but also on specific local circumstances.

Truth is not all or nothing, hence not confined to a single specific Church - but over time and generations some 'heresies' are weak and drift away from truth, become partial or over emphasize specific aspects (or errors).

The mass conversions by evangelical protestants in many parts of the world probably achieves salvation for many, many souls (although not for all 'converts' - and there are tremendous problems with unchecked spiritual pride and semi-occult practices); but advanced holiness almost always seems to require a strong 'Catholic' church, and when Orthodoxy is strongest (e.g. Byzantium, Anglo Saxon England, Holy Russia) then holiness is most advanced.