This is part of our youth group Lent and Easter series “Roadblocks and Reasons”, where we discussed Christian belief, the things that make it more difficult, and reasons that can sustain us.
How do we process the diversity of views within Christianity? How can something that claims to be “the” universal truth have so many divisions? What even is Christianity if it changes so frequently?
I think 1 Corinthians has the answer, and here it is:
Different “versions” of Christianity can exist, even with profound disagreements, because there is a “core” to Christianity that is consistent across groups, cultures, language, time, and space. What matters is that we cling to the Resurrection and love each other in spite of those differences.
Let’s see how Paul argues this. (Here’s a deeper dive on the book to show my work.)
1 Corinthians in a nutshell
The letter is written by Paul to a church in chaos, full of deep, substantive divisions around religious teachers, styles, and even different beliefs and practices. (1:10-13).
When Paul lists these group identities, I think we can mentally substitute different Christian denominations, like Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Progressive Christians. It’s not an exact comparison, but it can help us get in the right mindset.
If you were Paul, how would you go about addressing such division? For me, I’d probably tell them which faction is more right or which beliefs are most correct. I may tell them disagreement on these things denies our unity in Christ and embarrasses the faith. Others may even be tempted to propose a more watered-down faith that may be more agreeable, but gives little reason to actually believe it.
But Paul does none of that.
He doesn’t tell them their preferences or different beliefs are wrong, and he doesn’t pick a side. And while he repeatedly attacks division, he celebrates significant difference within Christianity. In fact, a lot of the book is about how people can believe, worship, and live differently within Christianity and this is fine and by design.
For Paul, the core issue in Corinth is that they have fundamentally misunderstood “the gospel” and this makes them treat one another terribly. But still, Paul never challenges the the basis of the divisions themselves.
He does not seem to think that differing views on even important issues is a challenge to Christianity or “the gospel”–which he puts in a different category than other parts of life and faith (Ch. 3). He spends the rest of the book outlining why this is and what that looks like.
So what is this gospel?
After 14 chapters of yelling at the Corinthians about misunderstanding the gospel, Paul finally tells us what this “gospel” is that unites us, even in the midst of profound differences in faith and practice.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (15:3-5)
The Gospel is the Resurrection of Jesus. That’s it.
When Paul says “first importance” that implies there are things of “second” and “third importance”, and so on. Not every belief of every Christian group is the most important thing about them.
The message of 1 Corinthians is that we all believe different things and prefer Christianity to look different ways. But those beliefs and preferences are secondary compared to the thing that unites us–the Resurrection of Jesus. That is what saved you, is saving you, and will keep you in Christianity no matter what you or other people believe about other things.
In other words, there is a core of Christianity that is just a few things, and that’s what makes you a Christian. Not the other stuff people add on to it. This is found throughout the New Testament and early church, especially in its early sermons (Acts 2, Acts 17, and others).
And this isn’t just the Bible. It’s not just a relic of a “purer, simpler” time in the New Testament church closer to the apostles. The idea that “there is a core to Christianity and the rest is just details” continued through early church history.
“Small” Christianity in Early Church History
A lot of people don’t know that we have writings from disciples of the disciples. These second generation Christians hung out with the disciples and others who had seen the resurrected Jesus.
One of them was Ignatius of Antioch. He knew Peter and was a disciple of John. He was martyred around 100CE, less than 70 years after Jesus’ death. On his way to execution, he wrote a letter outlining the common accepted Christian beliefs of the time (lightly edited for clarity):
Don’t listen when anyone teaches something different than this: Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did truly eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and truly died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father raising Him, who in the same way will also raise us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not have true life. (Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, 9)
Another disciple of the John was Polycarp, and one of his disciples was a man named Irenaeus. This third-generation Christian wrote in 180CE (150 years after Jesus) about what people had to believe before being baptized as Christians. He calls it the “Rule of Faith” (again, lightly edited for clarity):
The church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets made known the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one” and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race. (Against Heresies 1.10)
Don’t forget: this was written during a time of extreme disagreement throughout global Christianity.
At the time Irenaeus wrote this, in the second-century, major arguments were happening about the books of the Bible, the nature of the Trinity, the nature(s) of Jesus, church government structure, worship style, baptism, the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and how to relate to politics.
This was not some expression of sentimentality when most Christians pretty much agreed on most things anyway. This was a fraught period of division (I mean, Irenaeus wrote this in a book called Against Heresies), and yet, a constant, common core of faith could still be identified as the essential content of belief among Christians.
In light of that, Irenaeus goes on to say something even more shocking:
The church, having received this preaching and this faith, carefully preserves it even though they are scattered throughout the whole world. The church believes these points of doctrine as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart. She proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she had only one mouth. Even though the languages of the world are different, the passing on of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in France, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world…. This being our faith, one and the same, it cannot be damaged or diminished, neither when intelligent and eloquent people talk about it at great length or make any addition to it, nor when someone simple or not good at talking says very little about it. (Against Heresies 1.10)
Again, Irenaeus has the audacity and security to say all that even in the midst of one of the most divisive, fragile, and contentious periods of the early church. This core of Christianity sustained them through it all.
Indeed, about 150 years Ignatius, Christian Churches around the world adopted the Apostle’s Creed as the definition and summary of what it means to be a Christian, no matter your other religious beliefs and practices. And again, it was adopted in the midst of continued theological difference and strife:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
There is a shocking number of things that Christians seem to give a lot of importance that are nowhere in this or any of the early Christian Creeds: hell, sexuality, Scripture, politics, church government, nor what Christian life looks like when lived.
The early church seemed to think there can be differences on all those other things but, if you held to the gospel of Christ’s Resurrection and these few ideas in the Creed, you were indeed a Christian.
Different “versions” of Christianity can exist, as well as contentious, heated debate between those versions, and it need not be a roadblock to Christianity as a whole. What matters is that we cling to the Resurrection and love each other in spite of those differences.
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