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Thought provoking questions we have received, with our responses

Part 1

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Topics discussed in this essay:

bulletInteresting Emails discussed in this essay:
bulletMine is the only Christian denominations

bulletWho is a Christian?

bulletGroup prayer with an Atheist

Mine is the only true Christian denomination:

Incoming Email: "You are wrong when you state that Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. are Christian. They are not because they hold unbiblical beliefs."

Our response: Your Email is the most common single type of complaint that we receive.

There is an enormous diversity of definitions of the term "Christian." You use one, which we can only guess at. We have what appears to be a very different one. There are many dozens of other definitions in common use -- all different.

I assume that you are a conservative Protestant. If so, then:

bullet Certainly Roman Catholics are not Christians, within your definition of the term. But in their statement Dominus Iesus (2000) they state that the Roman Catholic church was the only one created by Jesus. They regard the Orthodox Churches as "true particular Churches," and united with them. They believe that the Church of Christ is "present and operative" in those churches. But the Catholic Church considers the rest of the tens of thousands of groups which call themselves Christian as not being "churches in the proper sense." We suspect that this latter group includes your denomination.
 
bulletCertainly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the other denominations in the Mormon movement are not Christians within your definition of the term. Mormons believe in Restorationism. This is the concept that:
bullet

The true Christian church died out early in the 2nd Century CE, when religious leaders abandoned many of the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles.


bullet

It was restored by Joseph Smith in 1830 CE, when he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They regard all of the other denominations -- including Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, Protestant Churches, the Anglican Communion, etc. -- as mired in heresy. We suspect that this includes your denomination.
 

bulletCertainly Jehovah's Witnesses are not Christians, within your definition of the term. But Jehovah's Witnesses teach that theirs is the only true Christian church. They teach that when the end of the world happens in the near future, Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing will survive. However, all of the other groups who consider themselves Christian will be largely destroyed in the largest genocide in the history of the human race.

By now, the pattern is clear. There are over 1,000 faith groups in the U.S. alone that consider themselves to be Christian. Many, perhaps most, regard themselves to be the "true" Christian church. They look upon other denominations as being at least partly in a state of error; they are regarded as near Christian, quasi-Christian, part-Christian, or perhaps even unchristian.

Each group is certain that they are following the religion created by Jesus and are in harmony with the Bible's message. A few denominations have attempted to enter into dialogue with outher faith groups in an attempt to harmonize their differences. But this is rare.

There is one obvious solution to this problem. Jesus or God could decide to communicate directly with people by opening up a myspace account, a facebook account, a telephone number, an email account, a postal address. or some other means of communication. Then people could ask questions and receive back authoritative answers. He could identify which, if any, of the over 20,000 Christian faith groups teach the truth. But every indication is that God wants to let humanity flounder in its ingnorance. We conducted a pilot study to see if people could assess the will of God throuh prayer. It appears that people cannot.

So, our site is not in error. Also, your belief that Roman Catholics and other denominations are in error is not incorrect. You and we are simply using two of the hundred or so various definitions of "Christian." We intentionally chose a more inclusive definition.

Sincere, thoughtful, thorough, dedicated, and intelligent theologians have studied the Bible and interpreted what is says. Unfortunately, they have come to very different conclusions. Most of the over 1,000 faith groups who consider themselves Christian in the U.S. regard their own denomination, alone, as having the fullness of truth. That, of course, is impossible because there can only be one faith group that is true; the others must be wrong to at least some degree. If there is a totally true faith group, then the chance of any one group being true is less than one in a thousand. If there is no totally true faith group, then the chance is zero.

Multiple, conflicting interpretations of passages in the Bible by different faith groups appears to prove that the Bible is ambiguous. However, viewing the Bible as an ambiguous document is not something that most Christians can easily accept.

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Who is a Christian?

Incoming Email: "...There can only be one Type Of Christian. There was only one Christ, thus there is only one type of Christian."

Our response: Your reasoning sounds neat, but it may contain a logical error. People who consider themselves Christians approach the Bible and 1st/2nd century historical documents with very different pre-conceptions. For example: 

bullet

Most conservative Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God and is inerrant -- free of error. They are immediately faced with internal conflicts: places where two biblical passages appear to say different things. Let's call them passages "A" and "B." Theologians often harmonize the conflict by interpreting one passage literally and the other symbolically. This approach immediately produces differences of opinion among Christians, because one denomination might select "A" to be the passage that is interpreted literally and "B" to be interpreted symbolically. Another faith group might select "B" to be understood literally. Multiply this confusion by the 200 or so apparent and significant conflicts in the Bible, and you end up with the situation that we have today: over 1,000 Christian faith groups in North America, teaching slightly belief systems, yet all based on the Bible.

Sometimes, this solution doesn't work. If sufficiently desperate, theologians will sometimes speculate that one or more passages in the Bible is incorrect because of an ancient scribe's copying error. Theologian's rely on the belief that Biblical inerrancy only refers to the original hand-written copy by the author, and not to subsequent copies. Theologians normally don't like to take this option because it weakens believers' faith in the reliability of the Bible. If all else fails, then they simply ignore passages, as in those approving of human slavery, requiring non-virgin brides to be stoned to death, allowing soldiers to rape female prisoners of war, and other activities now considered by both theologians and secularists profoundly immoral.

You can see this problem in action by reading our web site's section on salvation. Salvation is perhaps the most important topic for a Christian over which to have clarity. Most conservative Christians believe that people who are saved will attain Heaven after death; the unsaved will be dispatched to the torture chambers of Hell to be punished for all eternity. Thus Christians should be very concerned about whether they meet the Bible's criteria for salvation. Unfortunately, the Bible's various descriptions of salvation criteria are hopelessly confused and conflicted.
 

bullet Many liberal Christians believe that each of the authors of the Bible was trying to promote their own particular spiritual and religious beliefs. Many apparent conflicts in the Bible are real; they represent the different positions of the writers. The gospel writers, for example, reported some sayings and acts of Jesus verbatim, and some with poor accuracy. They created sayings and acts that promoted their own beliefs, and attributed them to Jesus. They incorporated some features of Pagan religions in the Mediterranean region in order to make Christianity more competitive with those religions -- the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus were three such features. Finally, they inserted some anti-Jewish propaganda. Modern-day theologians then attempt to strip away these layers of theology in order to reach an understanding of the historical Jesus. Some interpret him as a Greek cynic philosopher; some as a student of Buddhism; some as a magician; some as a liberal Jew with a message of reform to his fellow Jews, etc. These theologians end up with many different concepts of the historical Jesus. 

So there is not a single version of Christianity; there are literally thousands. Many of these faith groups believe that they alone are following Jesus' teachings; they are the "true" church. The Roman Catholic Church issued a formal statement to that effect in 2000-SEP. Although many ecumenical efforts are active today, the Christian religion remains split into thousands of denominations -- in essence thousands of varieties of Christians.

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Group prayer with an Atheist:

Incoming Email: "I am a public school student. I asked my group whether they would like to pray together before each meeting. They all seemed to agree, but I asked anyone who wasn't comfortable with the idea to see me privately. Nobody did. Before the next meeting, I asked the group again to pray, and mentioned that anyone who didn't want to pray could simply not join the group, or could stand with us and remain silent. Before the next meeting one of the group came to me and said that they were an Atheist, that what I was doing was wrong, and that it shamed our group and organization. 

Did I do wrong? What do I do now?

Our response: Some people might tell you that what you did is illegal because it violates the principle of separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court has read this concept into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some people believe that public schools should be religion-free zones. But they are wrong. Students can pray, carry their Bible, read their Bible, talk about religion, wear religious T-shirts, etc. They can do these things on the school bus, by the flagpole, in the school corridors, in the classroom before and after a class, in the cafeteria, etc. If the school allows as few as one extra-curricular student-led club, then it must allow students to organize and advertise a Bible club. Since you are a student, you have every right to pray before a non-classroom student meeting, and to invite others to join with you in prayer. In fact, there are relatively few forms of religious expression that are forbidden students in public schools before, between and after classes. 

You showed a great deal of sensitivity to the other group members. Religion is a hot topic. There is always the possibility that in your group, there is one or more students who are members of a non-Christian faith. To them, a Christian prayer would be very offensive. Imagine how you would feel if the majority of your group were Hindus and wanted to pray to a Goddess before every meeting. Also, there is the possibility that one of the students is an Atheist, Humanist or other non-theist to whom a prayer to a personal God would be stupid -- as as ridiculous as a prayer to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Some Atheists might consider prayer to be as disgusting as a racist, sexist or homophobic statement.

But perhaps a better way to implement a prayer might have been to contact each member of the group individually and in confidence to see if any objected to the prayer. By asking them as a group, there is always the possibility that one team member felt awkward about public prayer but was reluctant to come out and say so due to peer pressure.

What you did is certainly not "wrong" in the legal sense. A student can pray; a group of students can pray; a student can suggest that other students pray. If you were a staff member of the school, then you could not pray out loud or gather students around to pray because this would involve a leader of the school promoting religion over a secular lifestyle; that would be unconstitutional.

So your question becomes:

bullet Whether your actions were wrong religiously? In Matthew 6:1-6, Jesus is recorded as forbidding public prayer. Prayer is only to be done in private, alone. The Living Bible paraphrases this section "go away by yourself, all alone and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly." So at least according to that one passage, public prayer is an inappropriate activity.
 
bullet Whether your actions were wrong morally? Almost all religions have an "ethic of reciprocity" which governs how their members should behave towards other humans. In Christianity, this is called the Golden Rule: to do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Group prayer is apparently causing  significant levels of discomfort to at least one member of your group. I would suggest that you try to find another way to accomplish your goal, without causing distress. I suggest that you talk to the Atheist, explain that you understand his/her objection, and that you would like to try an alternative procedure. You plan to give the the group a short, purely secular, pep-talk about striving to accomplish their personal best, to behave in a responsible manner, to work effectively as a team, etc. Then you will ask for a moment of silence so that the members can meditate, pray silently, or simply think about the task ahead. Each student would then follow the dictates of their own heart. Everyone on the team would probably be comfortable with at least one of the three alternatives. I think that this arrangement would be sensitive to the Atheist's concerns, and would not be offensive to anyone. There is also the distinct probability that there are others on the team that were uncomfortable with prayer but did not want to object for fear of being alienated; these teammates would probably feel more comfortable with a multiple choice option. Matthew 6 would not be a concern, because it would not be obvious whether anyone was praying.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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Copyright © 2000 to 2014by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-SEP-23
Latest update: 2014-OCT-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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