Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion and belongs to the family of religions often referred to as the Abrahamic, or those deriving from the near Middle Eastern countries of Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. It differs from both Judaism and Islam in the manner in which the nature of God has been revealed to humankind. Judaism believes that it is through the Torah, as revealed through Moses and the prophets, that the nature of God and human responsibility is shown. Islam accepts Allah’s revelation to Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qur’an. The mediator of revelation in Christianity however, is Jesus Christ who, as Son of God, is one with God the Father and reveals the truth God accordingly. In the Indian traditions, although Hinduism appears polytheistic in practice, it is essentially a belief in one god manifested through many attributes. The Hindu belief in the avatar, or Godhead becoming human, enables direct mediation of revelation to happen. Sikhism again strongly adheres to belief in a personal God.
The Bible is the single most important source of authority in the Christian tradition. Accepted by most Christian scholars to reflect ‘Heilsgeschichte’ or ‘salvation history’ the Bible is an account of the history of Israel and the early church in its exploration of their relationship with God. Through defining acts in the history of Israel and through events and people in this history, the nature of God and the manner in which God interacts with the people of faith is explored through revealed writing.
The Bible tells a story for Christians that discloses the true nature of God and accordingly Jesus Christ, alongside the way in which God’s creation should behave in the world. Beginning with a creation story in the Book of Genesis that reflects the inception of a relationship between humans and God, yet culminating in the heavenly vision of the Revelation of St John in the New Testament, that is available for those who have gained reward through participation in the values of the Kingdom. For Christians, the revelations given through Jesus Christ as God incarnate, means that his teachings are the absolute authority. It is considered by many that the limitations inherent in Jesus’ human nature must be taken into account, but these teachings have special authority. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has passed on these teachings through tradition, and interpreted them accordingly so that authority also lies in this tradition. For Roman Catholics, such authority of the Church lies with the Pope. For Protestants, preferable authority lies with the Bible guided by individual conscience, directed through the offices of church leaders such as bishops, priests and ministers.
The central beliefs of Christianity are summed up in the Nicene Creed which is recited each Sunday by Christians of most denominations in their act of worship, usually the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Nicene Creed was drawn up in 325CE by the Council of Nicaea in order to defend the orthodox faith from various heresies that had arisen. This Creed is the belief that God is Three-in-One or the Trinity. The core of the Nicene Creed states the acceptance of God as Creator and Father, belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and faith in the Holy Spirit that permeates and reinforces the work of the Church. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. (2 Corinthians 13:14).
The Trinitarian formula is not explicitly stated in the New Testament. However, belief in God as creator and Father runs as a theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. The relationship of Jesus to God, and the definition of Jesus’ nature, is further refined from implicit and explicit statements in scripture. Jesus also promised to send his disciples the Holy Spirit to aid them in their work as a church, and as the invisible working hand of God in the present. As a creed, this system of belief has been used in common worship for over one and a half thousand years, and although philosophically and theologically complex, in the sense of belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is distilled.
Most denominations of the Christian religion adhere to belief in the Trinity. Accordingly, places of worship are communal and congregational in nature so that the act of worship which Jesus demonstrated at his Last Supper, can be practiced and the words of the Nicene Creed can be recited. As a corollary of this, Christians are expected to follow a spiritual and ethical lifestyle based the life of Jesus, and explained in the scriptural readings given during worship.
The Nicene Creed was developed as a formula to provide a bench-mark of orthodoxy. It is likely that to be classified as a Christian denomination a congregation would need to demonstrate belief in the Trinity. The main Trinitarian denominations are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and United Reform Churches. Other denominations of Christianity have arisen but they do not necessarily adhere to a Trinitarian creed.
St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-8) is one of the earliest examples of the impact of the resurrected Jesus on an individual. As Christians believe in God as a personal being, so many believe that God acts within their lives through the mediation of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the congregations of churches of many millions of Christians throughout history and throughout the world, have sought inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and have believed that such inspiration comes from God to help them.
Leaders in the church are those who have been chosen either by their congregation or selection committee according to certain criteria which demonstrates the persons ‘calling’. In the Bible there are many examples of God searching and ‘calling’ various people for specific jobs, (for example, 1 Samuel 3). These religious roles have served the needs of the religious community and provided a pattern for the Christian Church sine New Testament times. All churches select according to the manner in which a person identifies their calling. Priests, Ministers, Bishops, Archbishops and Popes are all selected through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is often known as ‘identifying a vocation’.
The Bible is pivotal to the Christian faith. It therefore takes a central position in the church which recognizes this authority. Normally it is placed on a lectern at the east end or front of the church. In all church services readings are taken from it, and sermons are prepared from these readings. Many Christians will have a Bible in their home and will read a daily lesson from it.
Priests in the Church of England and Catholic traditions wear distinctive clothing which shows they are in the service of God. The clerical collar, or ‘dog collar’ is a visible symbol of their authority given by God and demonstrates the special place they have within their community. Their clothing in worship also signifies this authority, and they are often referred to by special titles such as ‘Father’, vicar or the Reverend.
Various traditions have practices in worship that denote authority – some Christians genuflect to show obeisance, most kneel for prayer and some kiss icons, as in the Orthodox tradition.
In the UK, the authority of the Church of England is recognized through the legislative power it has. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and thus hold a key to enormous influence. Prayers are said each day in Parliament in the House of Commons and there is a Parliamentary Chaplain. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence is opposite the Houses of Parliament and demonstrates the traditional balance of power and authority between church and state. By recognizing the authority of the Church, the state also has church dignitaries present on all state occasions. Even within the media, which is becoming increasingly secularized in the UK, popular television programmes such as Songs of Praise on Sunday, and the daily act of worship or Thought for the Day on national radio, are still popular with both those involved in church worship and those less committed.
The influence of the words of the Pope, and to a lesser extent the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders of Christian denominations, is still considerable, and many world leaders look to their church leaders for guidance on ethical, moral and spiritual and sometimes political matters. Many priests and ministers in are often the focus for change within their community. Their high education, experience of public speaking and willingness to express opinions on subjects with authority means many church leaders become the centre of their communities. A number of church leaders are school governors, town councillors, and spokespersons for various local and national charities.
On a political level, politicians know the power, influence and authority Christian pressure groups can exert. In the USA the ‘Bible belt’ of the southern states of America can and often does, influence the election of the President of the USA. In the UK, politicians are always extremely sensitive to religious issues with political leaders encouraging balanced media coverage of their religious affiliations.
The life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth have all provided Christians with the template upon which they may base their own lives. In many respects, throughout the last 2000 years, Christians have justified their actions by suggesting that some experience of ‘the risen Christ’ has awoken in them a desire to follow Jesus’ example and attempt to make the world more like the Kingdom of God. On a local level there are always Christians – clergy, church wardens and devoted practitioners of the faith, who follow this principle. However, there are other Christians who have made a significant impact in modern times by their unswerving allegiance to their beliefs and are regarded as ‘saintly’ in some way. Martin Luther King Jr., Fr. Kolbe, Rosa Parks, Blessed Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are all examples, having overcome the worst tendencies in human nature. The embracement of the poor, rejection of inequality and acceptance of the value of overcoming hatred, are examples of qualities found in these ‘modern saints’.
Stories associated with great Christian leaders inevitably reflect the self-sacrifice that these Christians are willing to endure. Whether it is working in the shadow of fear and continual threat of death as with Martin Luther King Jr., or placing the sick and lonely at the centre of her life, as with Blessed Mother Teresa, it is the commitment to the Christian ideal of love that is the motivating principle for these Christians.
For Christians, Jesus’ teaching provided the ideal example for living. Jesus taught by the Golden Rule, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12a). Simply, this places each person in the world on the same level, and the great Christian saints have sought to use this ethical principle for themselves and applied it accordingly.
Equality of people of all races, creeds and kinds, loving kindness in difficult situations, compassion in the face of anger, patience and a belief in a loving God who cares for his world, are all values which reflect the morality many Christians feel they should apply to the world today. It is from individual Christians who uphold these values that Christians take their lead.
Many Christians aspire to the commitment the great Christian leaders have shown. Christians acknowledge that the world is imperfect and that contemporary society is a reflection of this imperfection. William Wilberforce’s work for the abolition of the slave trade is a good example of a Christian recognising that slavery should have no place in the Kingdom. Similarly, today’s economic and social migrants along with political refugees need to be recipients of Christian concern. Reflecting on the lives of those Christians in past times helps Christians in today’s world enrich the work with which they are concerned. By so doing, Christians believe that society can become a more just and equable place in which to live
The motivation for great Christian leaders however, is not merely a sense of the lack of right and wrong, it is a firm conviction that this is what God wants. It is so deeply held within them, that they are willing themselves to be poor, to be threatened with death, and even suffer death because of what they believe. In the same way that Jesus taught, lived, died and was resurrected, so Christians believe that through this example they will also find ‘salvation’.
Christians believe that God wants change for the better for all people, and where there is evil and wrong, it is the light of the message of the gospel that will enable change to happen.
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