Can I be a Christian if I don't believe in Christ?
December 25, 2008 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Can I be a member of a Christian church when I don't believe the Christ story?

My wife is member of an awesome Baptist church - great bunch of people, very positive, very progressive (female pastor, intellectual youth ministry, very forward-thinking). I go to the occasional event with her, and I love the people and the attitude of the place.

But I simply don't believe the Christ story. I'm on the same page with her/them on everything else - there is a loving God/Tao/universal spirit/whatever-you-call-it, he is involved in our lives, we can talk to him, etc. - but I've done enough reading and study to firmly believe that the resurrection is just a story, and it didn't really happen, just like a virgin didn't really get pregnant and the sun didn't really stop in the sky for a day or any of those other things in the Bible that just don't jive with reality. I also cannot accept the fact that humanity was doomed until 2000 years ago.

So, is there any honest way I could become a member of this church - where everyone else surely believes in the literal explanation/value of the resurrection? Are there Christians out there who don't believe in Christ, who have some way of approaching that belief with something other than a cop-out or an overly convoluted rationalization? For instance, what do you do with "no one comes to the father except through me"? Anon because I work with some hardcore Christians and don't want to be outed as a nonbeliever.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (67 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I may be somewhat biased as a willful (tax-paying/tithing!) member of the Danish state church (den Danske Folkekirke) who holds more or less the same beliefs as you, but...

Yes. Yes you can.
posted by Dysk at 2:57 PM on December 25, 2008

I would keep my non-belief to myself, but I don't see why you couldn't join this church otherwise.

But to be fair, this would not be an "honest" way to be a member. It's a fundamental (well, really it's the central) principle of the Baptist faith one has to believe in "the Christ story," as you put it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:03 PM on December 25, 2008

I think so. I take the many doors to one path approach. That is, as you say "God/Tao/unviversal spirit" understands that different types of folks need different spiritual needs and therefore have been provided different spirtual doors, but they all lead to the same destination.

I am of the same general beleif as you: I couldn't really imagine an all loving God who would sentence a person to some every burning punishment because they did not profess a specific docterine regarding Jesus. As far as "no one comes to the Father..." bit, who knows what that really could mean. It could mean the strict you must profess a faith that JC was God's son and a commitment to him is the only way, or just a he died for us understanding, or just that he is God and therefore we go through him by default, or whatever.

The issue I think would be what kind of profession of faith do you have to make to be a member and how much latitude you have in either changing this or how willing you are to lie in front of the congregation. You can always attend and participate and such and not formally become a member.
posted by stormygrey at 3:06 PM on December 25, 2008

The need for little deviant acts. - Sometimes to act against one's better judgement when it comes to questions of custom; to give way in practice while keeping one's reservations to oneself; to do as everyone does and thus to show them consideration as it were in compensation for our deviant opinions: - many tolerably free-minded people regard this, not merely as unobjectionable, but as 'honest', 'humane', 'tolerant', 'not being pedantic', and whatever else those pretty words may be with which the intellectual conscience is lulled to sleep: and thus this person takes his child for Christian baptism though he is an atheist; and that person serves in the army as all the world does, however much he may execrate hatred between nations; and a third marries his wife in church because her relatives are pious and is not ashamed to repeat vows before a priest. 'It doesn't really matter if people like us also do what everyone does and always has done' - this is the thoughtless prejudice! The thoughtless error! For nothing matters more than that an already mighty, anciently established and irrationally recognised custom should be once more confirmed by a person recognised as rational: it thereby acquires in the eyes of all who come to hear of it the sanction of rationality itself! All respect to your opinions! By little deviant acts are worth more!

-Nietzsche, Daybreak, III.149
posted by koeselitz at 3:08 PM on December 25, 2008 [23 favorites]

Maybe you could ask the pastor about it and have a serious heart-to-heart. I've known and known of members of mainline Protestant (e.g. Episcopal) denominations who did not believe in the literal Resurrection or other key parts of the Christian story. I wonder if in a Baptist church you would always have to keep this belief/unbelief to yourself, and if it would cause tension or hardship, or if you would be required to pretend to believe. I don't know how to answer those concerns, but I think you can find out.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:12 PM on December 25, 2008

I think you should speak to the pastor. I'm sure you're not the first person to come to him/her with such issues.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:12 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

where everyone else surely believes in the literal explanation/value of the resurrection

How do you know? Really, how do you know this? I went to church for years because I needed and wanted the community that comes from working and living with a connected, conscious group of people. Some were Bible-thumping literalists, some grew up with the Church back home in the Philippines or Italy or somewhere else, and some were the partners and spouses of church members. It was non-commercial, diverse, and focused on social justice - amazing for where I grew up, where very little in life was like this, and I wasn't the only person who was there for this reason (among others).

For instance, what do you do with "no one comes to the father except through me"

If by "me" you mean Jesus the person, well, you may be stuck. But if by "me" you mean Jesus' message and behavior - the last shall be first, love one another as you love yourself - I think you're fine.

There are people in your church who probably agree with you - that like the age of Methuselah or the 40-year length of the Jews' journey from Egypt to Canaan, much of the Bible is metaphor. You are not alone. The characters in the stories are less important than the message, and I think that as long as you're on board with the message, you can be at ease about it.

(And for an amazing look at where Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths came from, read this book.)
posted by mdonley at 3:13 PM on December 25, 2008

...I should perhaps also point out that my father (a village vicar) and most of the colleagues with which he fraternises do not believe in a literal immaculate conception, for example, or a literal seven-day (or six-day for you pedants) creation and so on. One of the vicars in the Danish state church (who was, it must be said, removed from his position) widely professed not to believe in God.

I recommend the course of action suggested by Robert Angelo very strongly. It just seems sensible, and will clarify one way or another, while hopefully ingratiating you somewhat with the community regardless (through the "I like your lot" angle).
posted by Dysk at 3:20 PM on December 25, 2008

I had exactly that dilemma a couple of years ago. While discussing it with a friend, she described the concept of an "atheist observant jew", and it resonated with me. I currently consider myself an atheist observant Lutheran. I believe I draw real benefit from the congregation I attend. I volunteer for things like the Angel Foods Ministry, which provides groceries at greatly reduced costs to needy families. There is no preaching involved, just doing good works for the community. I have discussed this with my pastor, and he was very open and accepting of my position. He certainly has not kicked me out of the church or taken any other negative action towards me, nor has he made any noticeable effort to convince me otherwise. Of course, that's just my church. Your mileage may very in a different congregation and/or denomination.
posted by Lokheed at 3:20 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a big believer in religious openness, in studying other religions, talking about faith, finding your own faith, and all of that. But joining a religion while willfully disbelieving in its central tenant? That goes a bit far, don't you think?

Now, you don't have to think everyone prior to Jesus's birth was doomed, I know Christians who don't. But you're a Christian because you believe in Christ, not just in His teachings but in Who He Was--the Son of God. When you say "join the church," do you mean attend services and Sunday school, or do you mean baptism? Because it is one thing to do the former, and quite another to do the latter. It's a serious religious rite and it would be a slap in the face of believers for you to be taking part in it as an adult when you knew it didn't mean anything to you.
posted by schroedinger at 3:21 PM on December 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

Baptists require that you profess your belief in Jesus as your personal savior and yadda yadda before being baptized. This "credobaptism" (as opposed to "pedobaptism", baptism of children who don't understand what they're professing or even who are too young to profess anything at all) is essentially what makes Baptists Baptists.

So, if you are honestly being honest about asking whether there's an honest way, the answer is no, of course not. You would have to lie.

Disclaimer: Baptists hold a wide variety of beliefs, and maybe your wife's church has some different take on things. But what I described is most definitely one of the prime defining characteristics of what it generally means to be "Baptist".

In any case, the honest thing to do would be to candidly ask the pastor of the church in question.
posted by Flunkie at 3:23 PM on December 25, 2008

You might also consider the Unitarians.
posted by gudrun at 3:30 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

schroedinger, I'm really sorry and all, but who are you to tell me what makes me who I am, what terms and conditions are acceptable to my defining myself as an adherent of the faith of my choice? I define myself quite strongly as a Christian because of my beliefs (and even then only to a certain extent) in the teachings of the bible, not the high-falutin professions of some bloke who may or may not have existed in historical fact at some point, in some guise, in some vague relation to the myths and rumours that have built up around him, and I know several vicars (and these are vicars with serious fucking theological educations, not yer three-months-at-bible-school lot that many churches around the world are happy to entrust to positions of authority) that share my position to varying degrees. What gives you the authority to deny me (or anyone else) that?
posted by Dysk at 3:32 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

@schroedinger: I don't think "You're Christian because you believe in Christ, not just in His teachings but in Who He Was--the Son of God" accurately addresses the issue. One can accept the Christian morality without accepting the idea that Christ was the literal son of a loving God/Tao/Whatnot. It seems to me that what defines an individual as Christian is his following of Christ's teachings, just as being a Buddhist requires following the teachings of the Buddha, even if one believes he was just a normal individual.

In reality it comes down to a disagreement about the central tenet of Christianity - you assert that it's Christ's special status, whereas I would argue that it's Christ's moral theory.

On Preview: Along the lines of what Brother Dysk said, although perhaps more analytically.
posted by Picklegnome at 3:37 PM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Any particular church is going to have requirements for membership, and it's pretty typical to assume that you'd be expected to agree with that church on at least the most basic elements of doctrine. Here is a pretty basic Baptist example (maybe a little more conservative) that I pulled more-or-less at random. And for comparison, here is a Unitarian example.

everyone else surely believes in the literal explanation/value of the resurrection

My assumption is that either that church or the larger body the church belongs to has the basic stuff you're supposed to agree with in writing somewhere. That's specifically what you'd be required to affirm. Dig that up, see if it matches what you think.

If it doesn't, then the answer to your question is a pretty clear no.

However, it sounds like it shouldn't be a problem with this church for you to hang out, volunteer, attend services, etc. Not being a 'member' might mean that you wouldn't get to vote on financing a new construction project, for example. Again, that can vary a lot from church to church.
posted by gimonca at 3:38 PM on December 25, 2008

As most have said- the honest way is to simply be honest about your beliefs. Talking with the pastor or even a church elder etc.. is a great place to start.

On the question of membership, It is probably unlikely that you would be able to join as a member of the church without being baptized, as that is the norm for most denominations- not least of all the Baptist churches.

However, in terms of participation, that is another story. You should be welcome to participate and serve with just about any church without being a member. In my opinion welcoming in those who disagree with us is something a Church should be able to do without feeling threatened. Some churches are better about this than others, and you could end up becoming a pet "project" for some one or a group of people who feel they must convert you at any cost. (Of course a Christian Church is going to want you to come to faith in Christ, but hounding someone is not always a beneficial way to do this :-p)
posted by rheimbro at 3:40 PM on December 25, 2008

Picklegnome may be putting it better than I can at present - it's Christmas day, and I may have had "some" drink. I do apologise in advance if I come across as needlessly brash - that is an unfortunate habit of mine...
posted by Dysk at 3:41 PM on December 25, 2008

I think it mostly depends on what you'd feel comfortable with yourself. You will certainly be deceiving your fellow congregants, who will all assume (at least through your omissions) that you believe "the Jesus story".

There is a creed to the Baptist church--"Jesus Christ is the Son of God and my personal Lord and Savior"--just as there is one to Islam--"Allah is the one god, and Mohammad is his prophet". If you said, "I'm a Baptist, but I don't believe in Jesus", I believe that most people would think you pretty odd. I know that many individual churches would not accept you as a new member if you were unwilling to make such a profession, or if you indicated that you were making the profession in bad faith (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if you feel okay never mentioning your heretical beliefs to anyone, and feel okay positively affirming "the Jesus story" prior to your baptism, you'll be fine. It's not as if the thought police will be scanning your skull.
posted by Netzapper at 4:01 PM on December 25, 2008

I think it mostly depends on what you'd feel comfortable with yourself.
No it doesn't, because...
You will certainly be deceiving your fellow congregants
... the question was asking if there was an honest way.
posted by Flunkie at 4:03 PM on December 25, 2008

On the other hand...

This is certainly the case with Christianity, where one of the most important openings can be found in the traditional understanding of the Person of Christ. Christians who believe that their religion is either uniquely or decisively true often support their position by quoting Christ’s words, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). According to perennialist theologians, however, an exclusivist, or even inclusivist, interpretation of this and other such passages is by no means necessary and may in fact betray a heretical Christology. For in the developed doctrine of the ecumenical councils, the true person of Christ, that is, the subject who thinks his thoughts, speaks his words, and is the agent of all his actions, is the eternal Word or Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. Jesus Christ is not a man who was adopted by God, nor a man in whom God was the indwelling presence, nor an intermediate being created by God as the highest of creatures, nor again a composite being who
was partly divine and partly human. Who Jesus is, is the divine Son, ‘of one essence with the Father’, ‘by whom all things were made’ (Nicene Creed).

Of all the gospels, John is the most emphatic in this regard, for the same Person who says
of himself that he is the only way to the Father also says that ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58), a passage whose very tenses undercut the identification of Christ with a strictly temporal set of saving facts. Christian perennialists conclude that it is a mistake to confuse the uniqueness of the only-begotten and eternal Son of God with the alleged singularity of his historical manifestation in first-century Palestine. Without denying that there is only one Son of God, or that he alone is the author of salvation, or that Jesus Christ is that Son, they contend that there are no Biblical or dogmatic grounds for supposing that this one Son has limited his saving work to his incarnate presence as Jesus. On the contrary, as St Athanasius and other early fathers insisted, though the Word was in Christ’s body he was not confined by that body even during his earthly ministry.

- James Cutsinger, Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy
posted by koeselitz at 4:07 PM on December 25, 2008

Are you suggesting that Baptists are Perennialists?

I'm done in this thread. To repeat in summary, for the original questioner:

(1) The honest thing to do is to candidly ask your wife's pastor.

(2) The honest answer is almost certainly a resounding "no".
posted by Flunkie at 4:16 PM on December 25, 2008

You could look into the works of Lloyd Geering, who appears to me to be on the same page you are.
posted by rodgerd at 4:52 PM on December 25, 2008

If I were you I would not go to the pastor. You may be pressured severely into "making the choice for Christ" and forced to lie even more if you choose not to make that choice.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:55 PM on December 25, 2008

I'd got to the pastor, and if what IndigoRain suggests even vaguely happens, get the fuck out. It won't be worth it.
posted by Dysk at 5:06 PM on December 25, 2008

Personally, I don't think people always go to church because they have their views and beliefs drawn out in concrete terms. A lot of people church-shop...attend services & volunteer as you have done, while sorting out their beliefs. You currently don't believe in every single thing the Baptist church preaches...I think that's okay. Isn't that why they're there, to preach their view?

As long as you're not participating in anything that requires baptism, etc (such as partaking in Communion in the Catholic church), I think it's fine that you're attending services. Maybe they'll change your mind, maybe they won't but you're really just giving them a chance to share their beliefs while you provide volunteer services. Win-win, if you ask me.
posted by kattyann at 5:20 PM on December 25, 2008

Brother Dysk, I was raised Christian by fairly liberal Presbyterians. I was raised believing the Bible was definitely not literalist, that Paul was a bit of a kook, the Old Testament was written for a different time, and it was Jesus's teachings that really formed the basis of the Christian faith. So I'm not coming from a crazy-fundamentalist place. But yeah, I was also raised that it is one thing to admire Jesus the man, and Jesus the philosopher, and think the teachings of the New Testament are fucking awesome, and quite another to be a Christian and believe Jesus is Christ the Son of God. I think all of the former. But because it was because I could not truly say I believed in the latter that I left the church--I admired Jesus, but I didn't believe in Him the way a Christian believed in Him.

The very use of the term "Christ" in "Christian" is indicative of His holy status, you know? I just don't understand why you would want to call yourself Christian if you don't believe in that essential part of it. As another poster said, at best people would think you odd, at worst they'll be seriously offended.

And yeah, I do think your vicars are a bit odd. Theological powerhouses or no, the difference between religion and philosophy is faith.
posted by schroedinger at 5:34 PM on December 25, 2008

schroedinger, as far as I can tell, you're still passing off quite a bit of personal interpretation and belief as fact, and I disagree. The Christ in Christian for me (and many, many others) does not contradict the idea of symbolism and metaphor rather than gospel fact.
posted by Dysk at 5:43 PM on December 25, 2008

I can't imagine the Pastor telling you that you can't join just because you don't believe everything that she believes. If nothing else, keeping you around improves the odds that you may eventually come around to their way of thinking. You certainly should not accept baptism without believing, but as far as attending and participating, I'm 100% certain you'll be welcome.
posted by COD at 5:57 PM on December 25, 2008

I hope this doesn't sound like nitpicking, but I find it curious that you ask can you do this, and not should you do this.

It's fairly obvious that you can do it, people have been doing it since the beginning of organized religion.

As to whether or not you should, well, only you can answer that. Personally, I would not be able to pull it off for long. And from the way you ask "Is there any honest way I could become a member of this church", I suspect that you also feel in your gut that it would be wrong (and really, we don't need to assign the action a moral judgement of wrong -- it would be enough that it made you feel weird and uncomfortable). It's like you're asking -- " I know there's something not quite right about this, but maybe there's a loophole I hadn't thought of?"

I say listen to your instincts.
posted by the bricabrac man at 5:59 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Upon some reflection, I'd like to add:

This does not at all mean that you shouldn't seek out chances to interact with these people. In the long run, this may be a good thing -- wouldn't it be nice if you wound up teaching someone (through actions, not words) that even though you don't buy into christian mythology, you still cherish dearly many of the ideas of social justice and compassion that make up the best of christianity?
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:14 PM on December 25, 2008

Going to church is about community. If you like the community and they accept you, then go for it.

I'm pretty sure the fundamentals of the baptist wing of christianity are that one must honestly and of pure intentions accept christ to be saved. A church elder who gets this and truly believes it about their own faith would never want someone to fake it just to fit in. Plenty of people go to church not just to prove their faith, but to work on it and pray on it so that someday they might be able to accept christ in this manner.

So surely they would not reject someone who isn't there yet. If they are generally good people and the church hasn't turned into a cult of some kind.

(I went to a Catholic high school. There were a number of religious people there who were deadly serious about their mission to be good people, do good works and educating us youths. But they had very little to do with the public displays of prayer and so forth. Granted, the catholic faith is less about strength of belief and more about living a christ-like life, so maybe they fit in better there. But the point I'm weaving around is that there is more than one way to skin the religious cat. If they are truly christians, they will welcome your efforts to enrich their community.)
posted by gjc at 6:27 PM on December 25, 2008

The church will have guidelines for membership. You should find out what they are.

If the guidelines include something to the effect that you must profess your faith in Christ's divinity and saving power, then you cannot honestly join the church. Even if the pastor would make an exception for you, the fact of your membership would signal to the church community that you agree with and stand for the content of the church membership guidelines. Unless you wore a sticker to every church event that says "Hi, I don't believe in Jesus" (which would be, you know, awkward at Sunday services) you would be deceiving your community.

Maybe the guidelines are looser. If so, awesome. I'm not sure, though, why you want formal membership. Do you currently feel excluded (or less included) on the basis of your non-membership? If so, I think you should talk to the pastor, explain the situation, and see what she thinks the best solution is. Even if the guidelines are firm on Christ's divinity/resurrection, I'm sure the pastor wants her whole congregation to feel welcome to be part of the community.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:40 PM on December 25, 2008

The answer is "No," at least not in good conscience. You may call yourself whatever you like, go right ahead. But if you want to join a church you need to believe what they believe. Most churches have a list of things that you really do have to believe and a list of things that they believe but you don't have to. But that short list of mandatories really is mandatory.

In response to some of the other answers here, there's a difference between choosing a descriptor for yourself and choosing to align yourself with a tradition, even one as local as a Baptist church. You can't claim to be part of a tradition which you did not create unless you are willing to to submit to it. Traditions are bigger than you. You don't get to define them. So you can say "I am a Christian," if you like, as long as the term has become one which people invest with meaning for themselves. I'm not saying this is a good thing, I'm just saying that it's true. Hell, you can call yourself whatever you want; no one can stop you. But traditions are the only ones capable of saying whether or not you belong to them, as traditions are just as capable of self-definition as you are. So you can call yourself a "Christian" if you want, but you can't call yourself a Roman Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or even a Baptist, unless you actually belong to one of those institutions, and those institutions have procedures and mechanisms for policing their own membership. Claiming membership in a church is claiming to submit to the leadership of that church.

I think you're finding that what you want is impossible. You can't take the Bible seriously and not believe in Jesus. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

If you want to talk about some of the issues which are bothering you, feel free to message me, but the short answer to your question is, again, "No."
posted by valkyryn at 6:43 PM on December 25, 2008

Disclosure: I'm a Christian, and I was an atheist until three years ago.

I have walked a path very similar to the one that you describe, and I sympathize with your situation. I was not a member of the church I now attend when I first started going. The circumstances that led to my attendance are not completely dissimilar from your own (and I will be happy to talk about it in greater detail privately; no need to muss up the thread here with my personal testimony).

The Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. If I don't accept those tenets, then it would be intellectually dishonest for me to call myself a Christian. There -are- aspects of Christian theology about which reasonable Christians can disagree (e.g. six days of creation), and where being "wrong" doesn't mean that you're not a Christian. The question of the Resurrection, however, is not one of those issues.

Many Christian churches, as part of their process for joining the church, include some "profession of faith" where you are asked to affirm your belief in certain aspects of Christianity. Most of these professions include an affirmation of the Resurrection. If you wish to join a church such as this, you may find yourself in a position where you're going to have to lie about your belief in the Resurrection. This is lose-lose, because once you start this lie it is a lie that you've got to perpetuate. I can't think of a more effective way to create resentment towards your situation.

If you want to attend the church and go to the events and enjoy all of those things without becoming a member - don't become a member. There's nothing wrong with this path; you can continue to get the things that you want out of the experience without having to profess something that you do not believe. This was the path that I took when I started attending, and it worked out very well for my family and I. You may occasionally be asked about why you don't join the church. "I'm not ready to do that yet," is a perfectly acceptable response about which no decent person will give you static.

Please feel free to drop me a line in private if you'd like to talk with someone who's tread a similar path. Good luck in your decision.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:44 PM on December 25, 2008

Even though I am a Christian, I am not the one who can answer this question for you. But I will say this threw up warning flags for me:

"...there is a loving God/Tao/universal spirit/whatever-you-call-it..."
posted by joshrholloway at 7:04 PM on December 25, 2008

Full disclosure: I'm a staunch atheist

One of the most pervasive -- and maddening -- characteristics of a congregation is an "us vs. them" outlook. Let's boil this down: you want to stay one of "them" (from the Baptist perspective), but get all the benefits (community and whatnot) of being "us". My response: have some intellectual integrity. If you don't believe, don't believe -- don't pretend so you can cozy up to people who otherwise would think you are literally damned.

Personally, I think you're a little daft for believing in "loving God/Tao/universal spirit/whatever-you-call-it" -- but you're on the right track rejecting the divinity of Christ.

You don't want to be outed to nonbelievers? And no one has called you on this? Please. What would the MeFi response be if you said "I'm gay, but I want to join the Boy Scouts and pretend I'm straight". Would it be this supportive. No. Have some sack and stand up for what you think is right -- otherwise, you're taking the path of least resistance.

OK, I await flames now....
posted by quarantine at 7:27 PM on December 25, 2008

Eurgh. The arguing in this thread frustrates me because it's the kind of bickering that strikes me as ... well, un-Christian, though I wouldn't generally use that word.

There are a lot of different kinds of Christians. I was raised by an Orthodox Presbyterian minister (and we were Baptists until I was about eleven, when we switched denominations). As an adult I spent a lot of time reporting on religion -- interviewing clergy of all faiths both about their practices and their beliefs. Not all Christians, not even all Christian clergy, believe in the literal story of Christ.

Baptist churches are by definition independent entities, although Southern Baptists are generally more universal in their set of beliefs and practices. However, the Baptists as a whole reject the concept of a governing structure that tells them how to run each individual church. For that reason, it's plausible that you could be attending a very liberal church with a very liberal interpretation of what it means to be Christian.

None of us here can know what the church you attend is like in its beliefs. I would suggest talking with your minister, who will keep your conversation private. And I would ignore suggestions that your minister can talk you into or push you into professing to believe something you don't. From your brief description of your church, it doesn't sound like she's the pushy evangelical type. But if you're afraid to bring the subject up, you may also consider listening to the sermons carefully -- if she preaches the story of Jesus as a literal one, she won't consider you a Christian.

But, on the other hand, if she and the members of the church have views more like yours, it would not in any way be sacrilegious for you to be baptized and to become a member. You would be observing rites that held metaphorical significance you and your community.

Above all, please don't let other people define Christianity -- or religion -- for you. That's what gets people into these sorts of denominational messes in the first place.
posted by brina at 7:38 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking that the honest thing for you to do is attend but not become a formal member. Being a member would imply that you actually believe what the other members believe. As to being a Christian without believing in Christ, I am afraid that is an oxymoron (except, I think, for Unitarians.)

But I agree with those upthread who suggest you talk to the minister.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:47 PM on December 25, 2008

I would imagine the minister will find a way for you to be welocme in the community.

In reference to no one comes to the father except through me, here is my thought. I think those words were spoken as the God/Man interface. This is what Christ is in my mind. The vertical represents the connection to God and the horizontal the connection to the mundane world. If you step away from the literal interpretation of these stories there is some room to breath and insights to be gained.
posted by pointilist at 8:35 PM on December 25, 2008

posted by pointilist at 8:56 PM on December 25, 2008

I think staying in the church and affiliating yourself with that body of people is totally cool. At that level, who cares about labels and there's room to question and feel free to disagree and let's focus on the incredibly important things we have in common and all that. However, membership is a different thing. When you become a member, imho, it's completely different. Membership says that you agree with (a) the basic tenets of the religion as expressed in that denomination, and (b) the way that the church carries them out. It's a serious statement of agreement and a commitment to grow with the other members from a place of mutual understanding. Becoming a member but not going along with some of the basic beliefs seems to me to be disrespectful to the other members, your community. If it were just a thing between you and God that would be different (and that is more fundamental and it rocks that you take it seriously), but membership of a church isn't a spiritual thing, but rather a commitment to other people. Who you would have to lie to or have awkwardness with, and that would suck.

Some churches make exceptions for other issues, i.e. if you speak to the pastor of a church that practices closed communion about why you don't agree with every item on their "Can I Take Communion Here?" list s/he might give you the green light to take communion with them; so I guess it's possible that different churches could have different qualifications for membership.

I personally don't think you can get away from the strangeness and exclusion of "No one comes to the Father except through me."
posted by ramenopres at 9:46 PM on December 25, 2008

Are you willing to put up with people trying to convert you? If they are of a proselytizing faith and you are saying you don't believe, then you're going to be in the crosshairs of someone bent on having you convert to that way of thinking.

Why can't you continue to attend the church as you do now? What benefit do you gain in joining a church when you don't share its beliefs? It sounds as though you like it as a social club as opposed to a religious congregation. If that's so, then why not continue to attend as a guest of your wife?
posted by 26.2 at 9:53 PM on December 25, 2008

Datum: the church I go to has some nonmembers who have attended regularly for years or decades.

Go to their Sunday School (which is sometimes on Wednesdays, with supper). Ask lots of questions. After a year you'll know whether the church will welcome you, warts and all.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:44 PM on December 25, 2008

valkyryn, that's all well and good, but I was under the impression that religion was more to do with beliefs than tradition?

As has been mentioned, it may be wise to go and talk to the pastor openly about this, and see what this particular church has to say on the issue - that opinion will be worth that of a million MeFites in this instance.
posted by Dysk at 10:58 PM on December 25, 2008

'Now, you don't have to think everyone prior to Jesus's birth was doomed, I know Christians who don't. "

Uh you know Christians who do? That is certainly not the historic orthodoxy of Christianity, which holds that the righteous Jews, etc. were also redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ. Catholics consider many of the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs to be saints.

"Are there Christians out there who don't believe in Christ, who have some way of approaching that belief with something other than a cop-out or an overly convoluted rationalization? For instance, what do you do with 'no one comes to the father except through me'?"

See this as a statement of the breadth of Christ's redemption of mankind, not a limitation. His redemption is broad enough all those who are saved are saved through Christ. The ordinary means of salvation is through his visible Church, but it's possible that there are some outside of his visible Church who are united with Christ (and therefore with his Church) by extraordinary means. This, by the way is an orthodox view in Roman Catholicism. Your protestant mileage may vary. It's also difficult to answer without knowing what precisely you see as a cop out or as a rationalization

Without you telling us what the name of your church is, it's hard for us to tell whether you could join that particular church, because as others have pointed out, Baptists polity is congregationalist. We don't know what ceremonies you might be required to undergo, professions of faith to make, etc. I'd encourage you to investigate historic Christianity more. There's a well developed and subtle system which may surprise you with its intellectual depth. Many smart people have been considering these questions for almost 2 thousand years.
posted by Jahaza at 11:09 PM on December 25, 2008

You don't believe in God and then perform the rituals. You perform the rituals and, through them, believe in God. /paraphrased
posted by one_bean at 12:06 AM on December 26, 2008

I may have missed someone's reply... but haven't seen anyone mention your wife. I think she is your entree to this community. My father is an atheist and has a howdy-doody happy-clappy God botherer and goes to church with her vaguely regularly in order to keep her company, see their friends who go to the church (and so my step-mother can show the world what a martyr's life she has caring for my impossible and disabled father).

Nobody questions my father, they're happy to have another person along and it's not like he's proselytising for the ungodly or the other side.

Frankly... I believe that good relationships share some activities and if you and your wife want to spend time together, and it's in a church related activity.... I don't think you ever need to visit the belief issue.

I bet they'd be happy to have you, in the hope that one day you'd lose your mind/senses and start believing. That's always been my experience with churches. Even Catholics. They hope that some godliness will rub off on you and will happily have you till it does.

But I'm in Australia, and our gods appear to be less virulent than american gods. That's if you're American. I assume you are because I can't imagine one of us, or a Pom asking this question. As far as I remember, one of the more recent Archbishops of Canterbury didn't believe in god... and that wasn't seen as an impediment....

Anyhoo.... I would have no hesitation going along with my wife, and joining in everything and being respectful and not talking about my lack of faith. If you were wanting to be baptised.... well, that wouldn't be very nice manners... kind of like accepting an invitation to a party you know you'll never attend.... but other than that... go for it possum. They're lucky to have such a thoughtful member of their community.
posted by taff at 12:27 AM on December 26, 2008

Ooops... third sentence neglects to insert the word "wife". Subconsiously even can't stand my step -mother!
posted by taff at 12:29 AM on December 26, 2008

Going to church is about community. If you like the community and they accept you, then go for it.

This, mainly. I started out a cultural Catholic, going to the schools, but home was atheist/agnostic/antagonistic to the church (I know, I know)

Later on I followed a friend first to a Nazarene church, then to a Methodist church. I was already questioning the need to absolutely believe the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic church. I rejected most of the tenets outright. After going through a class on Methodism, I was comfortable joining because it didn't think Christianity had sprung forth from John Wesley's head - it acknowledged the Catholic history, including the fuckups.

Later on I evolved in different directions, eventually coming close to the Renewal Judeaism view of God - a force that enables us to do good (paraphrasing heavily). I'm also now a United Life Church minister. But I still am a full member of my original Methodist congregation.

I don't consider myself a hypocrite for this. This is where I've landed. My friends are here, good memories are here, and now my kids are making friends and memories here. If they decide to be baptized and join, great. If they don't, great. It helps that the pastors and people here have been open minded and embracing.

Now on membership and "joining". It's my understanding that the reason one becomes a member is to vote or serve on committees or boards. Is this something you want to do? Or do you just want to participate in more activities, or even worship? There are things you can do without ever being a "member", and people shouldn't hassle you about it.

On non-belief. You don't sound like a non believer, you sound like a questioner. I know from hard experience that the hardcore faithful consider those one and the same. They're not. You just don't believe in that god. You're still working out what you do believe and church is the place to do it, imho. If you feel comfortable with that, go for it.

On "no one comes to the father except through me". Just about every sect I've studied has some way around this. Catholics have baptism by faith, fire, and blood. Methodists have prevenient grace. I forget what the Nazarenes had. The Jews have Noah's covenant.

Others have suggested talking to the pastor, and I agree. What does your wife have to say about it?
posted by lysdexic at 12:50 AM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have known Christians for whom Christianity is all about Incarnation, Resurrection, and Salvation.

I have also known Christians for whom Christianity is all about following the teachings of Jesus--giving to the poor, visiting the prisoner, holding the broken, loving your neighbor.

The latter are generally much more pleasant to be around, and I have come to try to be one of them.

As others have said, don't let anybody else, certainly nobody on the internet, try to narrowly define Christianity for you.

If you find that your current church (and it sounds like it is already yours, although you are not yet a member) is a place you can be the kind of Christian you want to be, that is a wonderful thing.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:55 AM on December 26, 2008

Brother Dysk, hydropsyche and everyone else, the OP is not asking whether it is possible to consider one's self a Christian while not believing things which are essential to orthodox, historical Christianity. He is asking whether he can, in good conscience, become a member of a particular faith-tradition. The question is not one of evaluating personal beliefs. The question is one of joining a particular community of faith. So insisting that it's all about personal beliefs and not about tradition completely misses the point. If you want to consider yourself a Christian, hey, go for broke. But if you want to be considered a member of a community by the members of that community, you have to play by the rules.

For example, to be a member of my denomination, one must answer in the affirmative to the following:
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

If you don't agree with those things, hey, whatever, that's your choice. We recognize members of every gospel-believing church to be Christians, so you are free to join whatever tradition your conscience and circumstances dictate. You're even free to not believe any of it: God takes care of that, we don't. But you can't be a member of our community unless you assent to these things.

I say again: unless you are willing to assent to the membership requirements of a particular tradition, you cannot be a member of that tradition. This is not an issue of evaluating your personal beliefs. This is an issue of whether or not you are willing to be part of the community on its terms. You can call yourself whatever you like. But that doesn't mean anyone else has to call you that.
posted by valkyryn at 5:30 AM on December 26, 2008

Um, that's exactly what I meant by "If you find your current a place you can be the kind of Christian you want to be, that is a wonderful thing."

Traditionally, Baptist churches have had very little in the way of required doctrine. The Southern Baptists have, of course, abandoned this, but it doesn't sound like the church being described in this questions is Southern Baptist.

Also, in my denomination (PCUSA), there is a lot of room for "scruples"--reasonably explaining why one doesn't accept one piece of doctrine or another.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:50 AM on December 26, 2008

one must answer in the affirmative to the following

because failing to do so will cause tension, discord, upset and perhaps exclusion. So if you're interested in joining this community because you enjoy and respect the people in it, and you want to make a positive and harmonious contribution to that community, you will answer in the affirmative to whatever harmless nonsense the rest of them will expect you to believe. It's the kind thing to do. Be pleasant to the deluded, for they are as little children.
posted by flabdablet at 6:05 AM on December 26, 2008

Also, in my denomination (PCUSA), there is a lot of room for "scruples"--reasonably explaining why one doesn't accept one piece of doctrine or another.

posted by schroedinger at 6:11 AM on December 26, 2008

Traditionally, Baptist churches have had very little in the way of required doctrine. The Southern Baptists have, of course, abandoned this, but it doesn't sound like the church being described in this questions is Southern Baptist.

Also, in my denomination (PCUSA), there is a lot of room for "scruples"--reasonably explaining why one doesn't accept one piece of doctrine or another.

Sure, although most Baptist churches will have less scruple-room than a PCUSA congregation. But all but the most extreme Christians will agree that there are many, many things that brothers and sisters in Christ can disagree on in good faith. The divinity and resurrection of Christ is highly unlikely to be considered one of those points of doctrine that can be accepted or rejected at will, though.

But, as many in the thread have said already, the only way to find out is to sit down with the pastor and have a chat about it. You're not going to be banned from attending, certainly. The worst case scenario is that he'll be praying for your conversion, which isn't the most terrible thing in the world.
posted by EarBucket at 6:40 AM on December 26, 2008

The question is not one of evaluating personal beliefs.

Parts of it are: "what about 'you can only come to the father through me'?"

The question is one of joining a particular community of faith. So insisting that it's all about personal beliefs and not about tradition completely misses the point....If you want to consider yourself a Christian, hey, go for broke.

one must answer in the affirmative to the following

Sure, I get it. That's why I finally decided not to be an itinerant Methodist minister. I'd have to profess and speak and teach people things I no longer believed. That's a level of involvement I couldn't get to*. On the other hand, I did have a fully connected pastor who didn't care if the "Jesus story" was literally true or if some guy named Josh had rotted away to dust 2100 years ago. He was able in his mind to do all those things, mainly by way of, well, "complicated rationalizations"**. He was more of a theologian, and I'm more of a counselor/listener type. For now I'm content to be a member. I may go into lay ministries later, and am even considering becoming a local pastor - but that's well after the kids are through school.

But if you want to be considered a member of a community by the members of that community, you have to play by the rules.

Now that does get to the heart of the matter. The OP wants to be an authentic member, who can speak to other members about the faith and not be ostracized or make things difficult for his wife. This is where speaking to the pastor is going to be central. OP can decide his level of involvement, and speak with the pastor about questions or concerns about joining, and to what degree(full member? associate member? affiliate member?). The pastor can also steer him to literature, works of philosophy, and other people who can help with all of those things. Busybodies and pushy types who want to define the faith for him or pray for/over him can be mitigated or forestalled or avoided, or ignored/accepted without causing a lot of fuss.

*Plus, my husband was not behind it. Spouses must be comfortable with each others' level of involvement, or it will cause all sorts of trouble.
**It's my personal belief that any system of practices/beliefs that you can't explain to a five year old is simply a series of justifications for doing what you want to do. YMMV.
posted by lysdexic at 7:15 AM on December 26, 2008

Another atheist chiming in on a topic that truly is none of my business, but here goes.

I think one of the reasons that atheists have such a hard time in this country is that deists and agnostics join or stay in Christian churches when they really don't buy "the Christ story". The result is that fundamentalist Christians really believe that everyone who says Merry Christmas to them believes all the hateful things they believe (e.g. rape victims should not have access to morning after pills, gays should be in mental hospitals, science is the enemy, America is fighting a holy war in the middle east, etc.)

The person who openly rejects "the Christ story" does have to work harder to find community, but if everyone who rejects "the Christ story" stays out of Christian churches, perhaps we could create opportunities for community with each other.
posted by hworth at 7:18 AM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

No, not honestly. Should you? I certainly wouldn't. Seems kind of like joining NRA despite the fact that you support a ban on handguns, or like joining the EFF while supporting internet censorship.
posted by beerbajay at 8:13 AM on December 26, 2008

To sum up my above comment:
If you connect to God or whatever you want to call it (I prefer, "the way the world works"), then you are doing that thru the interface that many call "Christ". If you are in some corner of the world doing good works, connecting to the big picture it doesn't matter if you use the words "Jesus" or "Christ" you are still going thru the interface.
posted by pointilist at 8:13 AM on December 26, 2008

valkyryn, that list is all well and good, and would no doubt answer his question definitively, were the OP asking about your church. Since he isn't, and we don't know the specifics of the church in question, I still maintain that the best course of action would be to take his doubts to the minister of the church in question, and see what the policy of this particular church is.

(I do, however, still maintain that I could, if I so desired, call myself a Roman Catholic even if I were utterly rejected by that paticular organisation, had never had first (or any) communion at their services, or even attended the church with any degree of regularity whatsoever, so long as I felt in that I agreed with that set of beliefs in any meaningful way. Were it possible for me to do so, I would officially "join" the church if I so desired, were I in that position, regardless of what others may or may not think of that. But hey, that's just me.)
posted by Dysk at 9:32 AM on December 26, 2008

As an ex-Catholic I actually chose to leave the church because I realized that my belief system was pretty damn close to yours (I also had some huge problems with the Church's attitude to several issues.) Later on, I began to realize that this wasn't the extent of it, and gradually moved from agnosticism to atheism, atheism being the only intellectually honest and non-hypocritical position I can take. My feeling is that there is no honest way that you can join this church, but that really depends on your conscience. Mine wouldn't let me pretend to I believe in something that I didn't.
posted by ob at 1:16 PM on December 26, 2008

I think it depends on a few things. If you do not have a pre-existing membership in a Christian church (and possibly even if you do) becoming a member of this church may involve a ritual involving your asserting various tenets of the Christian orthodoxy, including generally the stuff you have expressed disbelief in. If this is the case in your church and you can't conscience standing up in front of the congregation and saying you believe stuff you don't really believe in, then you are at an impasse.

I think the chances are pretty good that in a majority of Christian churches, if you were to straightforwardly describe your position as you did in this question, you would be told that you could not be a member of the church without professing a sincere belief in the orthodox tenets. You never know. If you get below the superficial level you find a surprising diversity of nuance in Christian belief, even among the clergy. I can certainly think of (mainstream, Protestant) pastors I've known who would listen to your story and let you join the church. Some people are going to argue that these are bad pastors who are doing it wrong, but there you go.

Can you be a member of a Christian church without holding a belief in the orthodox line as something literally and historically true? Sure, depending on the particular church and your own tolerance for either A) a lot of people probably assuming a lot of the time that you believe things you don't or B) having a lot of, possibly sometimes acrimonious, discussions of why you believe what you do and why you're there if that's the case.

I am a Christian with very unorthodox beliefs. In some contexts I would certainly be considered a heretic or apostate. I think some would consider the state of my relationship with Christian doctrine to be a "cop-out" or an "overly convoluted rationalization." Some might just say that I am relating to the traditions and doctrines I was raised with and have had profound inner experiences with while being a critical, rational individual who is committed to intellectual honesty. There are plenty of hard-core rationalists/atheists/whatever who would consider your adherence to the concept of a "loving God/Tao/universal spirit/whatever-you-call-it" to be just as ridiculous in the context of your otherwise naturalist view of the world, you know, nobody can agree on anything down here. For myself, the degree to which I get into my views with my co-religionists depends a lot on the context and whether I think it would be necessary or useful. I don't lie and it honestly doesn't come up much. I don't have any inner conflict about being in a different state of belief than probably most of the people I am in fellowship with as a member of a mainstream Protestant church. But then I think we generally attribute too much important to states of belief. To me being a member of a community is about a great deal more than everyone supposedly all having the same conceptional, symbolic epistemology rattling around in their noodles. The idea that your are committing some sort of grave injury to a community if you participate in it without necessarily being in the same conceptual space about all the stated principles is to me flatly absurd. But of course someone who disagreed with me could argue that this is a simply self-serving attitude given my own position.
posted by nanojath at 1:16 PM on December 26, 2008

I guess one other thing I'd add is that it has been my experience that there is nothing unusual about a non-believing spouse or partner participating actively in their partner's church without becoming a member precisely because they do not wish to be or present themselves as adherents but they still want to take part in the community, good works that the community undertakes, etc.
posted by nanojath at 2:20 PM on December 26, 2008

I wonder if some of the answerers here have ever been a member of a church willingly. Yes, the Baptists, traditionally, profess a narrower set of belief requirements than some other mainline Protestant denominations. Sure, there are strict churches that would not accept you. But your description of your wife's church doesn't sound like a small, closed community suspicious of secret questioners in their ranks.

Talk to the pastor, talk to the pastor, talk to the pastor. You're not the first person with these concerns. Generally speaking, pastors fervently wish those with doubts would come talk about them. Certainly the pastor will hope that through church membership you will feel a personal connection that may result in a shift in your beliefs, but you may be surprised at a level of acceptance about your current beliefs that would allow you to be part of this church with a clean conscience.

In terms of what to expect, I would not be surprised if you were welcomed to be part of the church, but not be baptized unless you truly felt the call to do so. Whether or not you've been baptized would be widely-known or a subject of discussion will depend largely on the culture of that particular church.
posted by desuetude at 2:57 PM on December 26, 2008

You are well on your way to becoming a biblical scholar/theologian in the tradition of Rudolf Bultmann.

Your questions are ones that modern theologians wrestle with all the time--that is, what does it mean to have faith when we live in a world that is so very different from the pre-critical time in which the biblical narratives were originally written. What the text meant then may be very different from what it means now. (That this is largely late-breaking news to people in the pews who raise these kinds of thoughtful questions is nothing short of theological malpractice.)

See also this essay , "Why I Love the Bible," by the late Krister Stendahl, Bultmannian heir, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Bishop of Stockholm. Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, excerpt here.

The fact that all of these three theologians are Lutherans may give some insight into how one branch of the Christian tradition has some 'room' in how it understands the significance of the biblical texts.

When you say that the teachings of the church are "story," you may be closer to the truth than you think. Might the Christian story have a meaning that beyond that of facts?
posted by apartment dweller at 9:00 PM on December 26, 2008

Might the Christian story have a meaning that beyond that of facts?

Poorly written but fascinating -- I recommend:

Freke, Timothy, and Peter Gandy. 2000. The Jesus mysteries: was the "original Jesus" a pagan god? New York: Harmony Books.
posted by quarantine at 10:37 PM on December 26, 2008

That is, the book is poorly-written! Not anything on this page!
posted by quarantine at 8:15 AM on December 27, 2008

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