The Extraneous and Essential in Christianity

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 12, 2012

Acts 15:1-2, 6-14, 19 GNT

Several years ago, when Europe and America began sending Christian missionaries to places like Africa and South America, some of the missionaries expected the native peoples to become Europeanized or Americanized before becoming Christians.  That is, the missionaries expected the natives to adopt American dress, American eating habits, the English language, and other social customs and mores before they could be baptized into the Christian faith.  Well, that plan didn’t seem to work.  Eventually missionaries and foreign mission boards realized that they were going to have to change their way of thinking and doing Christian missions.  It was extremely difficult for many of the native peoples to convert to an American or European lifestyle in order to become Christians.  The natives would just as soon keep their own religious practices.

Missionaries and foreign mission boards finally realized that turning native peoples into Americans or Europeans is not what Christianity is about any way.  So they started nurturing what was called “indigenous churches,” churches where the kernel of Christianity was planted in the native tribes and then allowed to grow naturally.  The native peoples were allowed to keep their own language, dress, eating habits, and other social customs and mores that did not gravely conflict with the Christian faith.  They were encouraged to adopt their own form of worship practices, which sometimes included such things as native dance.  The results were much more favorable.

Defining the essential in Christianity has never been a new problem in the church by any means.  We have read in the book of Acts (chapter 15) about one of the first problems the early church had to deal with head on—whether to force Gentile converts to become full-fledged Jews before becoming Christians.  There were those early Christian disciples who contended that Gentile converts should receive Jewish circumcision, observe all the eating and purity laws in Leviticus, and so on, before they could then be baptized into the Christian faith.  The question caused no small controversy among the apostles and churches.  But in the end, the liberals won out, and it was decided that Gentile converts did not have to first become Jews before becoming Christians.

The point I am getting at is this: there is in Christianity (or any major religion, for that matter) a pure essence of truth which might be seen as unchanging.  But there is, and there always has been, additional external wrappings that purport to be true Christianity or true religion, but these are wrappings and interpretations of men that are constantly changing.  In other words, there is in the Christian faith what we might call the transient and the eternal, the changing and the steadfast, the interpretations of men and the truth that doesn’t change. 

Speaking of the transient and the eternal, in 1841, a Unitarian preacher by the name of Theodore Parker preached a sermon titled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”  It was to become one of the most famous, celebrated, and published sermons in American history.  Hear what Parker has to say, because I believe it is important, from a historical standpoint, if for no other reason: “Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. . . .  But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable. . . .true religion is always the same thing . . .  In actual Christianity . . . there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent.  It must be confessed, though with sorrow, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as Religion.  An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, love to God, and love to man.”  Now, we realize that Parker was speaking in 19th century theological language.  But in reality, he was ahead of his times.

Translated, one thing this means is that as we read the Bible, we find from cover to cover those precepts and teachings that are transient, temporary, changing, and mostly cultural in nature, but we also find mixed up with all the temporary teachings of the Bible truth which will never change.  Let me give you some examples of what I mean of the cultural and temporary.

When we read the book of Leviticus, we find much there that is cultural and temporary, such as the commandment to not mix and sow two different kinds of seeds in your field (19:19); the idea that a woman is ritually and religiously unclean a number of days in each month (12:2; 15:19); the teaching that a man who has to touch a dead body of a loved one is ritually and religiously unclean for a certain period of time (21:11); and the injunction to gouge out the eye of anyone who accidentally gouges out the eye of another or knock out the tooth of anyone who knocks out the tooth of another (24:20).  These were all temporary, cultural teachings that some have looked upon as being permanent or eternal.  But today we think differently.

Another example from the New Testament: when we read what someone writing in the Apostle Paul’s name said in the letter to the church at Corinth to the effect that “women should be silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), we take into account the problem that may have existed in that one congregation, as well as the cultural biases and prejudices against women in that male-dominated society.  We know that we cannot take this one verse as a blanket teaching about the role of women in the church, because we also know there were excellent women leaders in other New Testament churches, including women who worked with Paul.  We believe that men and women are equal, and that a woman teacher or minister can be just as effective, or more so, than a male one.

And that thought brings us to another point: The transient and the eternal, the temporary and the essential applies to church rituals and church politics as well.  (And I am speaking of the Church at large.)  How many rituals are performed in Christian worship that might be considered temporal and are no longer meaningful to modern day worshippers?  And how many church doctrines and regulations are outdated and no longer valid for today’s world?  Referring back to the injunction noted above that women should be silent in churches, a number of Christian denominations still will not allow women to be ordained into the Christian ministry.  And some only did so a few years ago.  In the words of contemporary Christian theologian, John Shelby Spong, “The primary apologetic task facing the Christian church today is that of separating the extraneous from the essential, the timeless God experience from the time-warped God-explanations of the past.”1  

So then, what is timeless, religious truth?  How do we discern it?  That is the question, isn’t it?  And that is what we as 21st-century Christians are to uncover as we read the scriptures and consider Christian rituals and practices.  It is our task, and our joy, to read the Bible with open eyes, enlightened minds, human reason, and with all the biblical tools and scholarship available to us, so that we may discern the truth from that which is cultural and temporary.  And our task is to consider what we do as a church to make sure it is relevant and meaningful and not something we do simply because it has always been done that way. 

In his definition of true Christianity, Theodore Parker said (in part): “Christianity is a simple thing; very simple. . . the love of man; the love of God . . . doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.”  Or as John Shelby Spong puts it in more contemporary language, “The mission of the Christian Church is not to convert the world, but to call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life.”2  Or to put it in my own words: Christianity is seeking to connect with the Sacred and to live a life of compassion.

May this be our aim: to discern between the extraneous and the essential, which (as I see it) is to seek to connect with the Sacred or God; strive toward love of neighbors (that is, live a life of compassion); do the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives; and seek to live life as fully as we can live it.   Amen.

 1John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New Age.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001, 12.

2John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  New York: HarperCollins, 1998, 196.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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