Many people have this monolithic notion about Christianity—that it has been the same since Jesus and Paul walked the earth. But the truth of the matter is that the Church has often changed its mind on what it deems to be the essential elements of faith.
One way to look at this is to ask, “What has been the litmus test for inclusion/exclusion in the Church?”
One of the earliest of these might be hinted at in Matthew 6, where Jesus states that if you fail to forgive others you will not be forgiven. In other words, one’s ability to demonstrate acts of love and grace may very well have been one of the first standards of behavior expected among followers of Jesus.
As the church became bigger and more formal, other litmus tests associated with behavior were added. For example, one could be excommunicated for participating in pagan worship, dabbling in magic, or sexual immorality.
Eventually theology gets added to the mix. At first, the Jesus movement was quite diverse in theology and practice, adhering mainly to oral traditions found in the Apostolic teachings and a few important works like the four gospels and the letters of Paul.
The first big theological litmus test whereby one might get kicked out of the church was over whether one believed that Jesus was made of the “same substance” as the Father or of a “similar substance?” A bunch of Christians called Arians were excommunicated for believing the latter in the fourth century.
The fights escalated over other theological minutiae. Suffice it to say that for many bishops, one’s Christology determined admittance into the church (and therefore heaven). They imagined St. Peter standing at the pearly gates handing out pop quizzes to all who arrived with questions like,
Circle all that apply about Jesus: one nature, two natures, same substance, different substances, one person, two persons, co-eternal, having a beginning, begotten, created, adopted, hypostasis, consubstantiality with the Father….
How would you do?
During the Middle Ages, the question about whether or not you were a Christian shifted to institutional loyalty. In other words, if you were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and practiced your faith by participating in the sacraments you were going to heaven.
Now, in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, you did have the concept of “mortal sins,” which basically listed the more serious sins where if you died without confessing them, you would go to hell. But as long as you confessed them, you were safe.
Then came the Reformation in the 16th Century when a Pandora’s Box was opened over the true nature of faith. By the end of the era, Protestants believed Catholics were going to hell. Catholics believed Protestants were going to hell. And all the above believed Anabaptists were going to hell. Though culture and politics played a role, the major litmus test for inclusion was based on theology more than behavior (with some exceptions, like the Anabaptists). Was the Word of God the final authority for your life? Then you were a Protestant. Was the Apostolic Church dating back to Peter your final authority? Then you were Catholic. And if you found yourself differing with the pastor or priest on any of these matters, you might very well find yourself not only excommunicated but burned at the stake.
When we get to the 18th century and the New World, the definition of a Christian took on a new meaning and behavior is once again emphasized over doctrine. No longer was it assumed that just because you grew up in the Church and affirmed its creed that you were a Christian. Now, you had to exhibit evidence. This meant that you had to have a “conversion experience” whereby the Holy Spirit convicted you of your sinfulness, and you responded with repentance and a holy life.
Many local churches were pretty serious about the latter, too. As I’ve poured over business meeting notes going back the last couple of centuries, I’ve seen votes “churching” people for such things as playing cards, fiddlin’, dancing, drinking, and going to the opera.
Owning slaves was OK, though.
Interestingly, in my lifetime I’ve never witnessed an excommunication, which seems to have fallen out of favor. This probably coincides with the church growth movement where the emphasis over the last several decades has been on growing a big church rather than enforcing a holy lifestyle.
Along with this trend, however, I’ve noticed another change. The litmus test for Christianity has shifted from behavior and practice to what one believes about hot button social issues.
This shift seems to have started back in the seventies, when the Moral Majority found allies in the Roman Catholic church in their fight to overturn Roe vs. Wade. All of a sudden, despite centuries of condemning Catholics to hell, Fundamentalist Christians declared Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ and formed alliances with them to fight against legalizing abortion and civil rights for gays.
The umbrella expanded in the 2012 elections when many evangelical leaders (including Billy Graham) did the same thing with Mormon Mitt Romney, declaring the LDS within the bounds of Christianity because of its alliance with these values.
Now, it seems for a growing number of Christians, what one believes about Jesus doesn’t matter nearly as much as what one believes about social issues.
Or, to put it another way, to believe in Jesus means to be anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-open boarders, and anti-gun control. To be fair, on the other side are those who believe that to be a true Christian means to be pro-choice, pro-environmentalism, multicultural, and pro-gun control. And let’s face it, both sides have loud voices condemning the opposition for being anti-Christian.
We’ve come a long way from the early days when acts of grace and love toward both friend and foe were the litmus tests of the Christian faith.