One of the most annoying things I hear in ecumenical dialogue goes something like this: “Oh, I don’t belong to any religious tradition or denomination, I just follow Jesus.” Worse still is when the person declares with self-assured satisfaction: “I’m not a Protestant, I’m a Christian.” These are Protestants who can’t seem to comprehend that they are actually Protestants.
I’ll admit that the desire to eschew denominational or sectarian titles reflects one praiseworthy attribute. It recognizes that the differences and divisions among various groups of Christians are not a good thing. The Catholic Church affirms this position, mourning “the ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 817). Yet apart from that admission, there’s not much to praise about the “I’m just a Christian” slogan.
First, it’s ignorant. Every Christian, no matter how well-intentioned about “mere Christianity” makes theological judgments that place him in certain denominational camps. For example, everyone has to answer the question of how one becomes a Christian. Is praying the “sinner’s prayer” enough? What about baptism? Are certain baptisms legitimate and others illegitimate? Does a person have to join a community of other Christians? If so, what characteristics does that community need to have for it be “truly Christian”? Once you are Christian, is it possible to lose that status, say, through unbelief or immoral behavior?
Answers to these questions place a Christian in some camp: paedobaptist or credobaptist, “once saved, always saved” or no, etc. Various ecclesial traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist – provide disparate, and often contradictory answers to these questions, which is why these organizations exist and are populated with people who, presumably, agree with their church’s doctrines.
You are never simply “just a Christian.” You have to decide about these questions, and others, or even calling yourself a Christian collapses upon itself.
It’s also prideful. To say you are “just Christian” is to act as if there are no theological traditions, no ecclesial communities outside yourself that have any authority. The “just a Christian” Christian is the epitome of the modern autonomous, atomized individual who needs no one but himself.
One wonders why those “just Christians” even bother to read the Bible, since adherence to such a text makes them reliant on its writers, such as St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Luke. The “just Christian” Christian thinks he has everything figured out, and all those silly people debating theology and doctrine just don’t get it. Jesus is simple and straightforward, the “just Christian” Christian asserts, and we’ve complicated his life and teachings with all this intellectual stuff.
Finally, it reflects gross historical amnesia. Those professing the theology of “just Christian” don’t recognize how their own beliefs and practices are informed by 2000 years of Church teaching and tradition. Although many “just Christians” believe in the Trinity, they usually don’t know that the fourth-century Council of Nicaea that actually defined and promulgated that doctrine. Nor do they recognize that their beliefs about salvation are often Lutheran or Calvinist.
Though most “just Christians” read their Bibles faithfully, they have little idea of how that book came into its present form, or that it is a collection of different texts, written by different people, in different languages, imperfectly translated into the vernacular by scholars. Nor do they realize that even the collection of books in their Bible, called the canon, is a hotly-contested subject that required three local Church councils in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (Hippo, Carthage, Rome), and another ecumenical council in the sixteenth century (Trent) to determine authoritatively.
Moreover, “just Christians,” who are by-and-large Protestants, have a version of the Bible that lacks several books, called the Deuterocanon, affirmed by all those councils.
When I was a freshman at the University of Virginia, I took a Christian history course taught by the prolific scholar (and Catholic convert from Lutheranism) Robert Louis Wilken. The first time I visited his office hours, I told him I was a Christian. He, with interest, asked what denomination I worshipped under. I, with a self-satisfied air, told him I was non-denominational. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a look I will never forget. It communicated, in a gracious yet stern manner, that I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
I soon started to realize what was wrong with my eager profession that day, so much so that I began a long study of theology and Christian history in order to determine my own religious beliefs. By the time I graduated and entered a Reformed (a.k.a Calvinist) seminary, I was declaring to all evangelicals who would listen that they needed to have a damn good reason why they weren’t Catholic. Although I wasn’t Catholic yet, I understood what was at stake: all Protestants were the inheritors of a religious system that had broken with the Catholic Church.
I was once a “just-Christian” Christian. And I was an idiot. There simply is no such thing. This is why, whenever I engage in ecumenical dialogue with Protestants. I’m always grateful for those who actually understand that they are Protestants. They, at least, understand that their religious faith did not develop in a vacuum, but was handed on to them by their spiritual ancestors.
Indeed, this is exactly what the word tradition (in the Latin, traditio) means. Conversations with Protestants who understand who they are, and where they come from, are typically far more fruitful and interesting than those with self-assured “just Christians” who think themselves clever and “above it all,” as I once did.
And for those of you readers who define yourselves as “just Christians,” please forgive me if I roll my eyes and shake my head when you declare your religious faith transcends denominations, theology, and history. To borrow – and slightly modify – a quotation from the late Thomas Merton, pride makes our Christian faith artificial; humility makes it real.
*Image: The Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati da Iesi, 1588 [Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere]. This fresco by Cati, a student of Michelangelo, shows the Council fathers in session (background) and figures of the Virtues (foreground) surrounding Holy Mother Church in the papal tiara.