Friday, November 08, 2013

Christians A and Christians B

An idea has occurred to me which I want to lay out in a post just to see where it leads. It has to do with two different types of religious people and how they fit together within Christianity.

Christians A

I read a post over at the Orthosphere some weeks ago on the role of sacrifice within historic cultures. People felt a burden of sin and were motivated to make sacrifices in order to be purified or redeemed.

The core theology of Christianity fits within this framework: it is through the sacrifice of Christ - the lamb of God - that the sins of the world are taken away.

This feeling - of the burden of sin - is obviously a powerful one, as it remained very strong in the West right up to the early modern period.

And today? It is still found powerfully within the churches. There is still a strong current of belief which emphasises how broken we are and how much in need of being saved.

This is the part of the church which sets itself amongst the moral outcasts, or those wounded or suffering - as Christ himself did.

There are secular liberals, too, who still seem to follow, in their own way, a similar framework. There are liberals who feel a burden of guilt and who seek atonement (sometimes through the sacrifice of their coethnics). In this way, liberalism does connect with a longstanding and significant part of the human experience, but it does so in a way that is unusually self-destructive.

Christians B

The second kind of Christian is the one who seeks communion, or who is oriented to the experience of God's presence in the world.

This kind of Christianity is not very theological, as what matters is the lived experience. It has been strongest in the Orthodox and the High Catholic and Anglican traditions. It is oriented to virtue, to the sacraments, to the dignity and solemnity of the mass, to the beauty of church architecture and music, and, more generally, to the experience of the transcendent in life, as for instance in the beauty of nature.

It is not a type of Christianity that is focused much on brokenness, as it is oriented to what is good, true and beautiful, so these Christians want to be held to high moral standards as part of a church culture.

A fusion?

So the question is whether the churches are to go with Christians A or Christians B. I should declare here that I fit much more readily in the B category. Even so, I don't think that the B category can ever fully represent Christianity. In its core theology, in the life of Christ, and in the powerful tendency for people to feel the burden of sin, there is much support for Christianity A.

The recent trend, anyway, has been for the Catholic church to try to divest itself of Christians B. If you go to a suburban Catholic parish, now, you will not find a beautiful church building, or a solemn and dignified mass, or a respect for the sacraments, or a focus on standards of personal morality.

It seems to me, too, that Pope Francis is attempting to steer the Catholic church in the direction of Christianity A. I get a sense of this when Pope Francis seeks to downplay church moral teachings in order to bring the church closer to those who are morally outcast.

Will the church be better off without Christians B? I don't think so. Christianity B is there in the Bible too and it has been in the church tradition from early on. Without it, Christianity would tend to drift in the direction (admittedly this is an extreme example) of the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber. (hat tip: Laura Wood)

Nadia Bolz-Weber


She is one of those moral outcasts:
A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers . . . cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

She is almost celebrated for her moral brokenness rather than her virtue:
“You show us all your dirty laundry! It’s all out there!” the Rev. John Elford of the University United Methodist Church booms, as if he is introducing a rock star, leading the cheering crowd into an impassioned round of hymn-singing.

She's not too concerned about rules:
Her message: Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.

Christianity, Bolz-Weber preaches, has nothing to do with rules

She seems to deliberately set herself apart from Christians B here:
“I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset,” she says. God is present in these challenging interactions, she says.

“I never experience God in camping or trees or nature. I hate nature,” she told the Austin crowd as she paced the stage. “God invented takeout and duvets for a reason.”

Everything is broken, everything a mess:
Bolz-Weber says she abhors “spirituality,” which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.

“God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing,” she writes about Jesus’s resurrection and the idea that the story is used as fodder for judgment. “God is not distant at the cross. . . . God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [bad] as the rest of us.”

She is not oriented to what is excellent:
Four years and a seminary degree later, Bolz-Weber founded what today is casually called House. It’s a start-up of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with an “anti-excellence, pro-participation” policy.

She is a very pure (radical?) type of Christian A. Unsurprisingly, she has attracted something of a following - as I wrote earlier, Christianity A does connect to something significant. But could a pure type of Christianity A really hold the same kind of numbers as one that brings together both A and B?

I really don't think so. The Catholic church did it better in the past, I believe, when it managed to draw in both.


  1. Having recently become a Christian after 27 years as a sinner, can I propose a third option?

    Christians C

    We are all sinners, Christians and non-Christians alike, but none of us are burdened by sin. The non-believers are not burdened for obvious reasons: they don't believe there will be a reckoning. The believers are not burdened because Jesus accepted the burden for us.

    The key reference from the Bible is that God created man and blessed him. Man hadn't done anything: the blessing was given, not earned (else it would not be grace). When we believe we are freed from our sin, and our good works are an act of thankfulness rather than apology.

    It seems clear to me that Bolz-Weber is in this category, as is Pastor Mark Driscoll, who preaches at my church ( - it's all good, but the start of the Ten Commandments series sets out this category better than I can). God is found in God alone, and we can find beauty and goodness in the things he has done, but not godliness. And freedom from sin is his blessing to give us, not a reward for us to earn.

    1. Anon, I think you're setting out a version of Christianity A.

      A few points. First, there are *some* secular liberals who do appear to be burdened by guilt for collective sin. I just don't think it's possible to escape this in modern liberal politics. They seek atonement, above all, through racial politics. A significant element of this is the working out of ideological beliefs, but it does seem at times to be a secularised expression of what used to be an aspect of religion.

      Second, Christianity A has its strengths, as I tried to set out in the post. It is my challenge, as a Christian B, to bring those strengths into my own understanding of Christianity. However, there are potential weaknesses as well that can develop within Christianity A.

      Here's one. Not everyone has the same sense of themselves as a sinner. Some people manage in life to hold onto a sense of their moral integrity; their conscience does not trouble them; they don't have a pressing need to be absolved from sin.

      Objectively, yes, they will have committed sins in life. But they won't have the same sense of brokenness as someone like Nadia Bolz-Weber, who clearly didn't hold together so well.

      So they won't as easily "get" a theology that is focused on the broken down, the moral outcasts, the morally queer and so on (and the projection that the world itself is messy and disordered and that God is cranky, sorrowful and confused). It won't easily make sense to them.

      They will want, instead, to be called to their better selves, to be held to a clear standard of personal morality and character, and to live within a community in pursuit of these standards. They will want to hold onto that integrity of self - and they are right to want to do so - it is a great blessing in life.

      Second, people vary in their spiritual experiences in life. Bolz-Weber is alienated from a love of nature. But to others there is a profound experience of the transcendent to be found in response to nature - and an experience of being "set right" in who we are and in our relationship with God.

  2. Seeing her makes me wonder if in the future the Russian Orthodox church will be sending missionaries west to save us.

  3. Simon, I think I read somewhere that parts of the Anglican Communion in Africa (e.g. Nigeria) felt the need to send Anglican missionaries ... to England, of all places.

  4. Christian B is not a Christian at all.

    It is people who have entered the church to get it to conform to their lives and image, not God's.

    There are no standards, no truth or goodness to live up to or fail to.

    Humans are the standard. She has joined the church not to conform to its teaching but to make it serve her.

    1. Cecil, I'm not sure I understand. Both Christian A and B are certainly represented within mainstream Christianity. It's not difficult to find aspects of the Bible or church tradition to support both. Bolz-Weber represents, in my opinion, a negative potential within Christianity A (I'm not suggesting that there aren't negative potentials within B).

  5. The problem is with the very term "Christian", which is only used once in the Bible and applied to the followers of Christ by Greek culture for the purposes of identifying them as a philosophical school. Philosophy , in ancient Greece, was very much about prestige and social status, and Greeks measured their standing by the standing of the school of philosophy with which they associated.

    There is no warrant in the bible for us to label ourselves as Christians.

  6. that photo sums the modern church, and america

  7. May I propose that there are those who would be a combination of the two? For example, those of category "A" seem to have a strong sense of their sinfulness while those in category "B" seem to more appropriately worship God. The Scriptures clearly teach that all have sinned. The trouble with some in category "A" it seems it that they have failed to realize that while God rescues sinners, He does not leave them where He finds them; otherwise they would not be rescued at all and Christianity would be pointless.

    1. "that while God rescues sinners, He does not leave them where He finds them; otherwise they would not be rescued at all and Christianity would be pointless."

      That seems reasonable to me. If there are counterarguments I'd be interested to hear them.

    2. God rescues sinners, but only those who respond to his call and repent of their sins, have faith in God and keep God's commandments. For those who do not repent or have Faith, there is no salvation.

  8. "Christian A" as you describe is not Christian at all. The inherent logic and entire purpose of Christianity is that the guilt felt by the sinner is transferred to Christ who made the ultimate and final sacrifice. The Christian is therefore one who gains sanctification and salvation in Christ by faith in Christ and by keeping God's Laws ie the commandments and by fear of the Lord and the final judgement. Salvation and Judgement are the two cornerstones of Christianity.

    1. Anon, but that is Christianity A. It is centered on the need for redemption from sin. As I wrote in the post, it is the core of Christian theology. It relates to something deep-seated within the religious life, as can be seen from the long history of human communities seeking redemption through sacrifice.

      What I was trying to point out in the post, is that this aspect of religion will make sense to those who have a sense of a need for redemption from sin, which will often include those who have not held well to moral integrity, like for instance Bolz-Weber. Even in the New Testament isn't it true that Christ was rebuked for drawing to himself thieves and prostitutes and the like?

      And so the potential is there for two different orientations. You get those like Bolz-Weber who see brokenness and disorder as a norm of human life, with Christianity tending to this, whilst others seek communion through an orientation to the higher, peak experiences of life.

      I'm interested in this because there has been tremendous tension within the church I belong to, the Catholic Church for many decades now. It hasn't been successfully recognised or resolved.

  9. The need for redemption from sin is a feature of all humans and is the point of Christ's Crucifixion. There are not two orientations in the Church. The Church exists to fulfill the redemptive work of Christ and rescue man from Sin and also to seek God's presence in the world and the lived experience of that presence. One cannot separate the two and such distinctions are artificial.

    " that this aspect of religion will make sense to those who have a sense of a need for redemption from sin, which will often include those who have not held well to moral integrity, like for instance Bolz-Weber. Even in the New Testament isn't it true that Christ was rebuked for drawing to himself thieves and prostitutes and the like? "

    The point of Christianity is that ALL NEED REDEMPTION FROM SIN and not just those who have not lead moral lives. No one has lead a perfectly moral life, all have broken the Lord's commandments and therefore no one is free from the need for redemption. It is not just Boltz Weber who see brokenness and disorder as a norm of human life. Brokenness and disorder are integral features of human life which are the consequence of human weakness and inherent tendency to rebel against God. One cannot simply go to Church for a transcendent experience without the full recognition that one is a sinner in need of redemption. A church which focuses on one aspect alone is not a Church.

  10. "The Church exists to fulfill the redemptive work of Christ and rescue man from Sin and also to seek God's presence in the world and the lived experience of that presence."

    Anon, that would be my ideal church. I hope you're right that it's possible to have both. But from what I've observed churches tend to divide into high and low churches. High churches cater for those like myself who are especially oriented to the lived experience of God's presence. Low churches to those who have a strong awareness of being saved from sin by Christ. In the high churches there is a stronger sense of the solemnity of the mass, of the significance of the sacraments, of the ancient mysteries of the church, of the beauty of church architecture and music, of being held to standards of excellence in our behaviour. I think there is some work to do in harmonising a church culture so that the two don't break away from each other. But I agree with you very much that a Christian church cannot focus on one aspect alone.

    1. Most high churches provide a transcendent experience but no serious theological instruction and they fail to adequately deal with the concept of sin and redemption. Jesus never discussed church architecture or music and indeed the early churches did not allow musical instruments. The point of Christianity is to redeem the sinner (and all are sinners) through repentance and grace and this therefore is the main purpose of the Church. Architecture and music are secondary considerations. There are Churches which deal with both aspects and provide sound theological teaching.

    2. Anon, you're possibly right in your first sentence. Can I say, though, that I wrote the post as a beginning framework to try to get to a better understanding of the differences in church culture. Some of the smaller differences, like architecture or music, are interesting to me right now as indicators of larger differences. For instance, I have low church family who as a matter of pride and principle will not dress formally for church, not even for funerals. Now, that's not in itself a core aspect of Christianity either way, but maybe it points to a different working through of thinking about Christianity. It's the same when it comes to architecture and music. Perhaps those seeking transcendent experience are oriented to truth/beauty/goodness and so react with disappointment to an aggressive ugliness in church architecture, as something that is set against the religious instinct.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments - it helps me to think through the issues, which is all I'm really doing right now.

    3. Low Church means not having elaborate church rituals but it does not mean dressing informally. There are many low churches where people dress very formally and bar entrance to those wearing jeans and short skirts. Formal dress is a mark of respect. Casual and informal dress is an indicator of disrespect and one must question the sincerity of the faith of those who dress casually for church and even more so for funerals.

  11. It's always both/and, in its true sense.

    Even in Orthodoxy, where there is an emphasis on the transcendent, there is a huge emphasis on sin, brokenness, the need for redemption, the unworthiness of one for the same and so on -- the prayer book is instructive in this.

    The best approach, in Eastern and Western Christianity, is to reflect both of these -- solidarity with the broken in admission of our own brokenness, but emphasizing the Christian hope which is founded on the transcendent reality of the Church, the sacraments and grace.

    Pope Francis is a concern at the moment. I am reserving judgment, because he is still new, and I am also Orthodox. But ... he is a concern.