When does a church cease to be Christian? Timothy C. Tennent

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I have always appreciated the wonderful way in which historic Christianity is able to simultaneously embrace universality and particularity.  One the one hand, the great truths of the faith are embraced and proclaimed by all major Christian bodies.  The kerygma can be heard and recognized in movements as varied as house-church movements in China, African Independent Churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  This is known as the great semper ubique ab omnibus – the faith which is confessed and proclaimed “always, everywhere by everyone.”  On the other hand, the Christian church is marked by amazing particularity.  There are beliefs, practices and emphases which are peculiar to Quakers or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and so forth.   Often, we tend to emphasize our differences more than our catholicity.  There are quite a few unresolved tensions in the faith which tend to be reflected in various ways by Christian movements, but this should not obscure the great unanimity of Christian proclamation.  The fact that all branches of the church have embraced the Nicene Creed, for example, reflects a deep and abiding sensus communis of the church which must be acknowledged before we discuss the particularities of being a Methodist, Lutheran or a Baptist.  It is this deep unity which is so important to recognize.  We simply do not have the authority to adopt any theological position and continue to call ourselves an expression of the Christian faith.  This is why we have the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It represents the boundaries which define and mark out Christian identity.   If you study church history you will begin to hear that great shared resonance throughout the history of the church which has always affirmed the centrality of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the great saving power of the Christian gospel.  When the church strays from that – as it has done many times – the church begins to lose its power and it begins to wither and die.  Over time, God faithfully raises up better hearers of the gospel and the church is renewed once again.  This process has happened time and time again in the history of the church.

It is true, of course, that the church has not always been in unanimity as to the best way to defend the boundaries of the Church.  Some churches have tended to defend the common experience of being a Christian and living the Christian life in the midst of the world.  Other times, the church has tended to defend the institutional character of the church.  In other places it is the sacraments which must be protected, and serve as the historic link back to Christ and the original apostles.  Still other times, the church has focused on isolated doctrinal expressions.  However, we must not confuse the outposts which defend the borders (whether experiential or doctrinal or institutional or sacramental) with the core itself.  Despite the differences in how the church stays connected to the head, there is unanimity on the common worship of Jesus Christ and His Headship as defined by the Council of Nicea.  Thus, any expression of the church which ceases to worship Jesus Christ and identify Christ as its head as reflected in Nicean Christology has crossed the boundaries and ceases to be the true church.

One of the most important responsibilities of Christian leaders, whether pastors or superintendents or bishops is to make certain that the churches under their care are, in fact, expressions of Christian identity.  This is why it is so distressing to visit the website of St. Paul UMC in Denver.  Their website identifies the “church” as a “United Methodist, Reconciling, and Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community.”  Their “statement of faith” proclaims such affirmations as “We believe that love and compassion are the essence of Spirit,” and “We nurture the Sacred within us all.”

It is clear from many of the statements on the website that the members of this group have abandoned Nicea and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  From my perspective, they are perfectly free to meet together and believe or not believe whatever they want.  However, they must have the courage to remove the phrases “United Methodist” and “Christian” from their name, website and public identity.  Of course, St. Paul UMC is not an isolated situation.  This is merely an example of dozens of such groups across the country who have abandoned Nicea but persistently want to hang on to their identity as “Christian.”

I can only echo the words of Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist, who remarked, “If they are so taken by Buddhism, why do they hang on to Christianity?”


  • Dr. Tennent, is it wrong for a church to have a distinctly Christian worship experience but also offer a forum for inter-faith dialogue and cooperation? It seems that is how it is presented in the “About Us” section of their website.

  • Mark Royster says:

    I remember hearing Thomas Oden in a lecture given at ATS some years ago quote the great Anglican Divine, Lancelot Andrewes’ formula for keeping the church protected from heretical innovations: “One Canon (of Scripture) reduced to unity by God Himself, two Testaments, three Creeds, four General Councils, (over) five centuries.” This is a great companion to St Vincent’s ‘Quod Ubique, Quod Semper, Quod ab Omnibus’

  • T Tennent says:

    I have been involved in inter religious dialogue for years and think that churches should engage in it. However, effective dialogue happens from a perspective of faith, rooted deeply in our history and kerygma. See my, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable (Baker Academic) where I lay out a theological perspective on dialogue. As for the website, I can’t find anything which indicates a “distinctively Christian” anything.

  • John says:

    I think that Dr. Tennent hits it right between the eyes. We(the church) are in danger of becoming a polyglot boarding house for the religions of the world, and as a result, are on the way to losing the very thing that the world needs the most from us. How can we be faithful stewards of “the great commission” without engaging a “distinctively Christian” perspective as its basis?

  • John Meunier says:

    I used to kid my father about his Episcopalian brothers and sisters who did this sort of thing.

    I should have known that chicken would come home to roost.

  • I am a United Methodist pastor. I do not know this place or these people. I find it hard to be too hard on them until I sit and talk with them (and perhaps even pray – or meditate! – together). The long list of churches of all stripes that have abandoned Nicea is much too long to go into here. I remember visiting a colleague at another United Methodist Church back in the mid-1990’s right after he signed the confessing church statement. One of the things that struck me is that his church, in worship, never even used a creed. My own informal and completely unscientific survey showed that this was true for most of the congregations whose pastors had signed this document (and were at least on the surface of this able to shape worship at their place). I only learned this by sitting and talking with my brother – which I did well before writing or talking about what I had discovered – and at least working at understanding where this is coming from. I suppose that if one is only interested in scoring political points than not sitting and talking and praying with one another is not nearly so important.

  • Gates Lee says:

    Dr. Tennent is absolutely correct in his assessment of the St. Paul church. To even have as a part of their self-description “Buddhist Interfaith spiritual community” reveals who they are. In contrast to Pastor Mather, I find it quite easy to be hard on them. I am intolerant of churches diminshing Christ and the clear teaching of the revealed Word. St. Paul should divorce themselves immediately from the UMC fellowship. Churches in part are human organizations and because of that require decisive leadership and clear thinking. What St. Paul is doing is akin to the Republican Party renaming itself the “Republican Party of the Democratic Socialist interpolitical communion of ultra leftist ideologues.”