Who do you follow on social media? We can choose between lots of people and causes to follow. And everyone follows something: friends, popular culture, family, selfish desires, or God. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord. But You’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Christians follow Jesus Christ.
Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It is the predominant religion in Europe, Russia, North America, South America, the Philippines, East Timor, Southern Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Oceania. It is declining in developed countries and growing in under-developed countries.
This post is one in a series on major religions. It shows that Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible.
The largest branches of Christianity are the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, and the Protestant churches.
Roman Catholic churches believe that scripture must be interpreted within the tradition of the church. Their Bible includes an extra 7 deuterocanonical books. And Mary the mother of Jesus is considered an object of devotion and veneration. And the Pope may pronounce dogma (doctrine required to be obeyed by all members) infallibly. Seven sacraments are believed to convey saving grace. And baptism and communion are believed to be necessary to gain eternal life.
Orthodox churches believe that scripture must be interpreted by sacred tradition. Their Bible includes an extra 10 deuterocanonical books. Icons (images of Christ, Mary, or the saints) are objects of veneration through which God is to be worshipped.
Protestant churches believe in scripture alone (and not tradition), justification by faith alone (and not works) and the universal priesthood of believers (because Christ mediates like a high priest).
The “Old Covenant” is God’s agreement or treaty made with the nation of Israel about 3,500 years ago.
Christianity is named after Jesus Christ. It began in Jerusalem (on the Day of Pentecost) after Christ’s death. The first Christians were mainly Jews. It developed under the leadership of the apostles. Christianity is based on the teaching of Christ and the apostles, which is recorded in the Bible. As a result of persecution, Christians moved away from the Middle East across the Roman Empire.
The early followers of Jesus were called “disciples” and followers of “the Way” and “Christians” (Acts 9:2; 11:26; 19:9, 23; 22:4, 14; 1 Pt. 4:16). His followers are now known as Christians.
Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity in AD 301. And in AD 380, Christianity was made the religion of the Roman Empire. Since this time, Christianity has played a prominent role in the shaping of Western civilization.
In the 11th century AD, there was a division between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox church in the east. In the 16th century the Protestant churches separated from the Roman Catholic church.
Here are some of the major Christian beliefs according to the Bible. They are core beliefs of Christianity.
Seven major beliefs
We learn about Jesus in the Bible, which is God’s special revelation to humanity. The Old Testament describes history up to the time of Christ and the New Testament describes the time of Christ (in the Gospels) and then the early church. In fact, Jesus is the key person in the Bible.
Creation shows that God is intelligent, powerful and supernatural. But the clearest way that God has revealed Himself to us is in the Bible. It’s God’s record of history because He miraculously guided the authors of Scripture to correctly record His message to humanity (2 Pt. 1:21). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17NIV). Because the Bible is “God-breathed”, it’s completely reliable.
Paul said, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Christian faith is based on the message about Jesus Christ which is recorded in the Bible. It gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Pt. 1:3).
When many followers were deserting Jesus, He asked His disciples “Are you also going to leave?”. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life” (Jn. 6:67-68NLT). The Bible contains words that give eternal life. That’s what makes it different to other books and other messages.
Hebrews says, “The word of God is active and alive … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible judges us. We need to respond faithfully to its message, because the Bible exposes unbelief.
So, the Bible is our authority for belief (faith) and practice. And it’s the best source of our knowledge about God. That’s why we are looking at Christianity according to the Bible and not according to a particular church. All the beliefs and practices described below come from the Bible.
Overall history is visualized in this schematic diagram. In the beginning God created a perfect world where there was no sin. But this world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. From that time there is sin, suffering and death. But God promised deliverance and salvation from this. When this is finalized in the future, God’s perfect world will be restored. We now live under the curse of sin between the Fall and the restoration.
History is linear. It’s sequential from a beginning to an end. The end is the new creation where Jesus rules in the kingdom of God. Here’s the events in the previous diagram rearranged in a line.
God’s plan of salvation has two parts, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant and introduced the New Covenant. That’s why His name appears between them in the diagram. He marks the center and turning point in history. The purpose of the Old Covenant was to accomplish a rescue plan for the world: God becoming a Jewish man and dying for humanity’s crimes against God. The Old Covenant no longer applies because its purpose was achieved. It has been replaced by the New Covenant. Christians are those who have trusted in God’s rescue plan and they live under the New Covenant. They are part of His coming new creation.
So we live in a world where there is tension between sin and salvation, between the past fall and the future restoration, and between following Satan and following Jesus.
The triune God
The Bible teaches that there is only one God, yet it calls three Persons “God” – the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” explains the eternal relationship between them. This form of monotheism is indicated in the diagram by the green circle.
Other beliefs (or worldviews), such as those indicated in the diagram by a blue circle, differ from the Bible. These are:
– There is no God (atheism). There is no spiritual world – it’s only physical. Like humanism and naturalism.
– There is one God (monotheism), but no trinity.
Jesus was a great teacher, but he wasn’t divine. Like lslam.
– There are many gods (polytheism). Like Hinduism, and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
– Everything is god (pantheism). Like New Age spirituality, and animism.
These are different worldviews. Christianity is the Biblical worldview. It teaches that God is a spiritual being without a physical body who is eternal (has no beginning or end). God is great – He created the universe out of nothing. And God is good – although we rebelled against Him, He offered salvation to humanity. He is personal and involved with people.
How do we get to know God? Only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that involves believing and following Him.
Are people basically good or evil? Adam and Eve were created good in the beginning, and in the image of God, but they disobeyed God. Because of this, humanity and the rest of creation were cursed with sin, suffering and death (Rom. 5:12-15). The Bible says we are all sinners who are spiritually dead and separated from God (Isa. 59:2; Rom. 3:23, 5:12). And Satan is a spiritual being who tempts us to sin. Humanity now has a fatal flaw. We need help. Unless we do something about it we face eternal punishment in hell (Mt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 19:20). It’s more important than global warming or poverty or inequality or terrorism or the Middle East conflict or anything else you can think of. So, we have a big problem. And only God can fix it. We need outside help. That’s where Jesus comes into history.
Jesus is fully God and fully human (1 Jn. 4:1-3). As God, He always existed and was never created. And He created the universe (Col. 1:16). His conception was unique. He lived a sinless life. He was executed on a cross, was buried, but He rose back to life and is spiritually and physically immortal. When He ascended to heaven, He promised to return to earth again.
Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of humanity as described in the New Testament, whose coming as the Messiah (the Christ) was prophesized in the Old Testament.
Jesus was sent to earth to solve the big problem of our hopeless situation of sinfulness and separation from God
God had a plan to forgive sinful people like us. Because God is loving and just, His plan was loving and just. The idea was that Jesus would be our substitute. He would take our punishment (that’s justice), and we would be offered forgiveness (that’s loving). So, Jesus died as the sacrifice and payment for our sins.
God’s plan of salvation was offered to people as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9) that could be accepted by acknowledging our sin and the fact that it separates us from God, and believing that Jesus died for our sins and physically rose again. We just need to trust in Jesus alone as the way of salvation because He has done all the work for us. There’s two aspects:
– Admit you are a sinner – that’s the problem (Rom. 3:23; 1 Jn. 1:9)
– Believe that Jesus died for you – that’s the solution (Acts 16:31).
Jesus is like the bridge to eternal life in this diagram. Unbelievers are separated from God and on the road to hell. If they trust in what Jesus has done for them, they cross over the bridge to the road to heaven. That’s the only solution. The only rescue plan.
That’s how God made a way for people to have a relationship with Him. Paul said, “Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us, so that in Him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20). What a great exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness!
Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts. 4:12). That’s why Christians follow and worship Jesus and not someone else who is a sinner like us.
Those who follow Jesus are promised a wonderful future. At death their invisible soul is separated from the body. That’s when believers go to be with Jesus. Later at the rapture their bodies are resurrected and reunited with their souls. So believers will live with Jesus for eternity (Jn. 11:25, 26; 2 Cor. 5:6). They will also reign with Jesus in His coming kingdom.
If you want to drive a car in Australia you need to pass a knowledge test to get a learner licence. Then you need to pass a driving test for a provisional licence. You can’t get a learner licence without passing the knowledge test. And you can’t get a provisional licence without passing a driving test. There’s information to know and things you need to be able to do. Likewise to follow Jesus, there are both beliefs to know and practices to do.
Now we have looked at the major beliefs of those who follow Jesus, here are some of their major practices. All these practices can be applied in a Christian’s individual life, in their family life, and in their corporate life (as in the church). And they were practiced by the early church (Acts 2:42; 4:33).
Five major practices
It’s important to connect with the Bible every day as it is God’s main message to us. Christians read it to understand the message and to apply it to their daily lives.
Regularly reading the Bible is one of the most important things they can do. It can influence their lives and help them develop godly attitudes and behavior. And they can learn more about God and draw nearer to God. Victory over sin comes from the Bible (Mt. 4:4). As physical food gives us energy, the words of scripture give us spiritual energy and power. Devotions like “Our Daily Bread” and Bible Apps can help.
Christians should study the Bible because there is so much false teaching around. Test any teaching against what the Bible says (Acts 17:11). Be careful to correctly interpret scripture (2 Tim. 2:15). There are many poor interpretations on the internet. Some things that can help to keep you on the right track are – Study Bibles and the “Believer’s Bible commentary” by William MacDonald.
Christians are commanded to pray regularly and when facing trouble (Col. 4:2; 1 Th. 5:17; Heb. 5:13). It’s important to connect with God every day. Jesus prayed regularly and not just on special occasions (Mt. 14:23; Mk. 1:35; Lk. 11:1). He “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16).
Many of Paul’s prayers are recorded in the New Testament. He prayed for things like godly living, his ministry, strengthening, increased knowledge, more love, grace and peace, Israel’s salvation, Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith, more hope and for the fullness of God. A Christian’s prayers are offered to the Father through Jesus because Jesus is the only mediator between people and God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5).
James said, “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:8). If Christians come to God in prayer with humility, He will answer their prayers. God is accessible to those in fellowship with Him. They can stay right with God by confessing our sins (1 Jn. 1:9).
People are encouraged by knowing that others are praying for them. Peace is another benefit of prayer, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
Praise and worship
God alone is worthy of our devotion, praise and worship. He is our Creator and our Savior. Praise is linked with thanksgiving, while worship is linked to surrender.
Christians should praise God for His goodness even when life is difficult. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess His name” (Heb. 13:15). The joy of salvation can be expressed in songs of praise (Acts 16:25; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:13). Their praise is offered to the Father through Jesus.
Jesus said that His followers should “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24). Worship is different under the New Covenant. The location isn’t important anymore. But who and how Christians worship is important. They worship the Father for sending the Son and Jesus for carrying out God’s plan of salvation. Its God centered. One’s attitude needs to be right (in spirit; engaging our hearts). And it needs to be consistent with Scripture and the kind of God we worship (in truth; engaging our minds).
Serving God is a form of individual worship (Rom. 12:1). It’s a response to all that God has done for them. And the Lord’s Supper is an expression of corporate worship.
Sharing the good news about Jesus
Before Jesus ascended back to heaven He told the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). He also told them, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In the book of Acts there are many accounts of people sharing the good news of God’s plan of salvation though Jesus. This began in Jerusalem and extended to elsewhere in the Middle East and across the Roman Empire to Rome. Paul and Silas were so passionate about telling people about Jesus that they continued sharing even when they were imprisoned.
Godly attitudes and behavior
Children grow up to be like their parents in many ways. Christians are called “children of God” (Jn. 1:12)
The Bible says, “His (God’s) divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:3-4).
The power of God gives Christians new life (Col. 2:12-13; Ti. 3:4-5) and the power of God gives them the ability to live godly lives (Phil. 2:12-13; 4:13). The better they know God’s Word the better they can apply God’s principles in their lives. The Christian lives by the promises of God in Christ.
Christians have two natures. A selfish sinful nature like unbelievers and a new divine nature, which transforms them to become more like Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). This process isn’t complete until they get to heaven when they “see Him (Jesus) as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The divine nature is God’s provision to counteract the sinful nature.
Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:31 – 11:1). He put the welfare of others first. God should be glorified in all that Christians do. He didn’t want to stumble anyone so that unbelievers may be saved.
Following Jesus is a transformation from within. Paul changed from being self-centered to being Christ-centered (Phil. 3:4-16). His mind was set on heavenly things, not earthly things (Phil. 3:17-20).
The godly attitudes and behavior mentioned in the New Testament include:
Opposed to sin
What a wonderful list of attributes! Wouldn’t it be great to be more like this?
The Bible encourages Christians to meet together regularly for mutual encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25). Collective worship and service is one of the characteristics of Christianity. This is difficult in countries where Christians are persecuted. Groups of people that meet together are referred to as a local church and the building they meet in can also be called a “church”. Since the middle ages some grand churches have been constructed, particularly in Europe. These were significant landmarks because of their great size and splendor. Cathedrals are impressive church buildings that symbolize the glory of God. In an age when the vast majority of the people were illiterate, the images on the stained-glass windows were like an illustrated Bible.
Christianity had a significant impact on education, science and medicine. And it has also had an impact on art, music and literature. The contents of the Bible influenced artists such as Michelanglo and Leonardo da Vinci, composers such as Bach and Handel, and writers such as Shakespeare and CS Lewis.
Christians usually celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas and Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter. These are cultural and traditional events as neither of them is mentioned in the Bible.
Comparison with Judaism
Jesus, the apostles and the majority of the early church were Jewish. As Judaism is based on the Old Covenant (Old Testament), it’s a precursor of Christianity. Because Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Old Testament about 2000 years ago, Christianity is the successor of Judaism.
The Jewish faith is monotheistic, but not trinitarian – they don’t accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah awaited by the Jews, while the Jews believe that the Messiah will come in the future. The Jewish Messiah is a person (who isn’t divine) who will restore the physical kingdom of Israel, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and bring earthly peace.
Both Judaism and Christianity teach that God has a special plan for the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. But Christianity does not accept that Mosaic Law has any authority over Christians, while Judaism does not accept that the New Testament has any religious authority over Jews. Besides the Old Testament, Judaism also considers the Oral Torah (written in the Mishnah and the Talmuds) to be a sacred text. Christians generally worship collectively of Sunday while Saturday is the day of worship in Judaism.
Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible. This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Christian faith. These beliefs, practices and culture impact everyday life for about 2 billion people across the world.
Written, January 2017
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles
Why is the Bible, a book written thousands of years ago, still relevant today? Because it contains universal principles that apply to everyone regardless of circumstances. God actually caused the writers of the Bible to address all the essential issues needed by us to live on this planet.
So how do we apply the principles in the Bible, originally expressed in a society foreign to ours, to our circumstances today? Fortunately, God has not left us alone. The Holy Spirit has been with believers since our Lord’s ascension (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:8), and provides all the guidance we need through the Word (Jn. 16:13). As a result, we have God’s wisdom, “the mind of Christ,” revealed to us by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16 NIV). This is just as true for today’s situations as it was for events that occurred thousands of years ago.
Faith And Action
James 2:14-26 shows the relationship between what we believe (our faith) and what we do (our actions). Our faith is shown by what we do, so faith that does not result in appropriate action is dead (Jas. 2:17-18). As scriptural principles are the foundation of our faith, they should be expressed in our actions. Otherwise our faith is not based on the Scriptures and we are acting as if the Bible is no longer relevant today. God is interested in what we do and how we do it. For example, we are urged to “speak … the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Wineskins And Clothes
An incident recorded in the Gospels helps to show the relationship between what we believe (scriptural principles), what we do (practices) and the present circumstances. In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because his disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for this and explained it further with a parable of the wineskins (Lk. 5:36-38).
Jesus said that “no one pours new wine into old wineskins,” but “new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” The wineskins contained the wine and protected it from the environment. Without an effective container, the wine would be spilled out and the wineskin would be useless. The application of this illustration was that the “wine” of the gospel of Jesus Christ could not be contained and expressed by the practices (or “wineskins”) of Judaism. New practices were required in order to preserve the Christian faith: “Put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17).
From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Similarly, our practices are between the principles we follow and the circumstances we face. The practices are a result of the application of divine principles to human circumstances.
In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. We should also address changes that occur in our environment (or circumstances).
It is interesting that Christ used wineskins and clothes in his story. These are items that wear out and eventually must be replaced. Likewise, our practices will need replacing from time to time as no society or culture is stagnant. Of course, for us it is a case of the circumstances changing rather than the principles, or it could be due to a new understanding or application of the principles. This means that our practices must be based on scriptural principles and relate to the present circumstances we face.
Traditions And Circumstances
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences and present circumstances. An example of inappropriate behavior is given in Mark 7:1-9. Here Jesus calls the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on ceremonial washing than on God’s commands. Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (v.9). So their practices were dominated by traditions, which were contrary to scriptural principles. Similarly in Luke 6:1-11, Christ opposed their regulations of what was allowable on the Sabbath day. In both of the above situations the religious leaders were treating a tradition as though it were a scriptural truth.
A good example of how behavior can be influenced by circumstances is Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive he “walked around and looked carefully at” their “objects of worship” (v. 23). This gave him an insight regarding these people which he was able to use when he spoke to them. Paul was like the men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). Note that it was essential to understand the times (or situation) in order to know what should be done.
Likewise, Christ recognized the needs of the people – “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36) – and responded to their needs and was willing to be their Shepherd (Jn. 10:14).
A Framework For Action
Christians are called to be active representatives of Christ today (2 Cor. 5:20). It is helpful to visualize the relationship between what we believe and do, as shown in the diagram. This shows that when scriptural principles are put into practice, the way they are expressed is influenced by both past practices (which are now traditions) and the present circumstances. Circumstances change in families, communities and nations, because life is a dynamic process. Practices which were once appropriate may become obsolete, but if we persist in their use an opportunity is lost to demonstrate the principles in present circumstances.
The principles are important because they provide divine guidance and purpose. We need to distinguish between scriptural principles (which are fixed) and our practices of them which can change according to present, local circumstances.
In order to discern biblical principles and apply them, consideration is required of the culture, way of life and language at the following periods of time: Bible times (to interpret the Bible); previous generations of family, church, community and nation (to understand our traditions); and the present (to understand current circumstances). This will help to distinguish the relevant principles and the most suitable practices to meet the circumstances we face.
Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). After Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” he noted, “and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:16-17). Following the example of Christ, our traditions should always be evaluated by scriptural truths and current circumstances, replacing those traditions that are no longer appropriate with more relevant practices.
Like wineskins and clothes, our Christian practices only exist to serve a purpose. They are human expressions of divine principles within a given historical, social and cultural context. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
So, when evaluating our practices we need to consider each of the following, under the Spirit’s guidance: scriptural principles, present circumstances, and past practices or traditions. In a sense, the Scriptures only live and survive as we believers apply them to all the circumstances of life – otherwise we are living as though the Bible is merely a history book that is not relevant today.Published: June 1999
See application to the local church:
– The local church in a changing world