The Theology of Paul

What you usually hear about Jesus today in churches and on TV is an interpretation that comes from the writings of a man named Paul who called himself an “apostle” (messenger) but was not among Jesus’ “twelve” disciples who are also called “apostles.”

Paul’s ideas about Jesus are found in letters which he wrote to churches and which were later included in the book called the “New Testament.”

Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, lived during and after the time of Jesus but Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in some kind of mystical “vision” after the time of Jesus. From his “vision” of Jesus, Paul became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish “messiah” (“christos” in Greek) whom Paul believed would become the ruler (“lord”) of all humanity, not just the “kingdom of Israel.”

Paul referred to Jesus by the title of “christos.” The English word “Christ” in the New Testament is a transliteration of the Greek word “christos” (a verbal adjective meaning “anointed”) which, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew word “mashiach” (a participle which also means “anointed”). “Mashiach” (“anointed” one) refers to someone who is chosen for a special purpose, such as a king. Mashiach is sometimes expressed in Greek as “messias” or in English as “messiah.”

Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the term “christos” is used as a title for Jesus. Jesus (the) Christ simply means Jesus “the anointed one.” Eventually the followers of Jesus became known as “Christians.”

What did Paul believe about Jesus, and how did Paul’s ideas become dominant in Christian churches?

Although Paul considered Jesus to be God’s Son, “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to God “the Father.” Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one lord (ruler), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Corinthians 8:6). “When all things are subjected to him (Jesus), then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him (God) who put all things under him (Jesus), that God may be everything to everyone” (I Corinthians 15:28).

Paul believed that Jesus was the means by which God “the Father” created “all things” and humankind. Paul’s belief reflects the influence of Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that a “logos” (a creative intelligence, or “mind”) created the order of the world. (The unknown writer of the book of John claimed that Jesus was this “logos” in John 1:1-14.) Paul was from the city of Tarsus where Greek ideas were well known.

Paul began preaching that Jesus was the “messiah” (Christos) whom the Jews were expecting but he immediately ran into a problem. The Jews were not expecting their messiah to be crucified. According to the book of Acts, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the (Hebrew) scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3).

Paul’s theory about why Jesus had to die is explained in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Paul used the story of “Adam and Eve” in the Hebrew book of Genesis to explain the origin of sin and death. “Therefore sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Then Paul wrote that people are saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross (his crucifixion). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ (Jesus) died for us. Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). Paul’s explanation of the death of Jesus was in terms of a blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

In the days in which Jesus lived and Paul wrote, the Jews had a complicated sacrificial system in their religion. The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible describes the kinds of sacrifices that were offered in the temple at Jerusalem to “atone” for sins, committed knowingly and unknowingly.

For sins committed knowingly against one’s neighbor, restitution was required and a “ram (male sheep) without blemish” was sacrificed in the temple as a guilt offering “to make atonement for him (the sinner) before the Lord, and he (the sinner) shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7).

The offering of a sacrifice was considered an act of obedience to God. Paul used this “sacrifice” analogy to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of obedience to God to atone for the the sins of humankind. Paul wrote, “For as by one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s (Jesus’) obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

According to Paul, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (sought after), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name (authority or status) which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord (ruler), to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:5-11).

Paul concluded that salvation from sin and death comes to individuals who accept Jesus as “lord” and believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote, “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The idea that Jesus was “sinless” came from Paul. Paul wrote, “For our sake He (God) made him (Jesus) to be (a sacrifice for) sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). A later writer in the book of First Peter (in the New Testament) referred to Jesus as “a lamb without blemish or spot.” “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (First Peter 1:18-19). This is clearly a reference to the sacrifice of a “ram without blemish” described in the book of Leviticus.

Paul called his message the “gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). Paul summarized his “gospel” in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethen at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

Paul’s “gospel” can be summarized as follows:

(1) “Christ died for our sins” — The penalty for sin is death but Jesus is God’s divine and sinless Son who died on the cross to pay the death penalty on behalf of humankind.

(2) “He (Jesus) was raised on the third day” — God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and gave him authority as “lord” (ruler) over all humankind, and whoever “confesses that Jesus is lord” and “believes that God raised him from the dead” will be saved from sin and death.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? It should because Paul’s theology became dominant in the Christian movement. Paul preached for about 30 years after the time of Jesus. He spread his views through his missionary journeys in many countries and he wrote letters to the young churches that he established or visited. His letters were kept and circulated among the early Christians.

Paul had very little success in convincing the Jews of Asia Minor and Greece that Jesus was the Jewish messiah so Paul turned his attention to Gentiles (non-Jews) who were attracted to Paul’s idea of “eternal life” through accepting Jesus as “lord.” Paul believed that Gentiles could become Christians without converting to Judaism with its requirements of circumcision and dietary laws.

In 66 AD, the Jews revolted against the Romans in an effort to liberate the kingdom of Israel. The Christians in Jerusalem saw what was happening and fled east across the Jordan river to Pella and other places. In 70 AD, the Romans crushed the revolution by destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Throughout the years, Jerusalem had been the headquarters for the Christians who were closest to Jesus, such as Peter, James, and others. Christians in Jerusalem considered themselves within Judaism. They had serious doubts about Paul and sometimes opposed him.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the influence of Jewish Christians began to decline. The churches in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and other places where Paul had spread his version of the “gospel” took over the leadership of the Christian movement. These churches were mostly in “Hellenized” areas where Greek culture and ideas had flourished since the days of Alexander the Great. The Christian movement began to establish its identity as a religion separate from its Jewish roots. But the movement carried with it the terminology which Paul used in his interpretation of the significance of Jesus.

Between 70 AD and 100 AD, four unknown writers collected whatever could be found or remembered about the life and teachings of Jesus. These writings became the books known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. It is in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that we come closest to the teachings of Jesus in his parables and discover the “gospel of Jesus” which is very different from the “gospel of Paul.”

The book of John, which was written about 100 C.E., reflects Paul’s view that Jesus was God’s divine “Son” who lived with God in heaven before coming to the Earth.

Deism and Cultural Religions

“Deism” is a name given to the only religion that is known to all human beings regardless of time and place. Deism is called “natural” religion because its principles are known from nature and human reasoning.

In contrast to Deism (which is a universal religion), there are many “cultural” religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Trinitarian Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and others, which were developed in particular societies by individuals and groups living in certain geographical areas.

A cultural religion is taught to persons born in or living in an area where the cultural religion is dominant. For example, if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would probably be a Muslim (Islamic religion); if you were born in China, you would probably be a Buddhist; if you were born in Spain, you would probably be a Catholic (Trinitarian); if you were born in Salt Lake City, you would probably be a Mormon, etc.

Of course, some individuals leave the cultural religions that they learned as children, but most persons never leave their cultural religions because such religions are interwoven into the cultural fabric of their particular society. Membership in the cultural religion is expected if a person wants to be “in good standing” in a particular community or society.

Unfortunately, most cultural religions are “exclusive” religions; that is, each cultural religion claims to possess “truths” that have been revealed only to the founder or leaders of that cultural religion. Often the claim is made that God revealed these “truths” through “supernatural means” such as “angels, mystical visions, and tablets of stone or gold.” The alleged benefits of a cultural religion are available only to those persons who know of and “believe in” that cultural religion. All other persons are viewed as “unbelievers” and “infidels” who, allegedly, will be punished by God for their “unbelief.”

The so-called “supernatural truths” in a cultural religion are written into a book, such as “The Holy Bible,” “The Holy Qur’an (aka Koran),” “The Book of Mormon,” etc., which must be revered and obeyed by “believers” who expect a reward for their obedience. These “believers” often shun and sometimes persecute the “unbelievers” or “infidels.”

The history of the world has repeatedly shown what happens when two “cultural” religions clash in a particular geographical area. Often, political leaders use their cultural religion as an excuse for expanding political control over other countries in order to seize the natural resources of those other countries.

For example, when the Jews invaded Canaan and eventually took political control of the land, the Jews claimed that God had given Canaan to the Jews so they could establish the Kingdom of Israel and replace the Canaanite religion with the Jewish “true” religion. When the Arab Muslims invaded the same land about 1,800 years later, the Muslims claimed that they had been commanded by God to conquer the land and establish the Islamic “true” religion there. It is clear that the Jewish and Arab political leaders used their cultural religions to fan the flames of religious zeal to motivate their people to conquer other lands and take control of the natural resources.

Today, the Israeli Jews and the Arab Muslims battle for control of the same land, and their political leaders use religious leaders to enflame their people in the conflict. In their blind religious zeal, both sides commit inhumane acts in the name of their God: Jehovah or Allah. In following the dictates of their own “cultural” religions, many of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims are violating God’s natural law that requires love, or compassion, for all “neighbors,” (including those “neighbors” who are viewed as “enemies”), as taught by the deist Jesus (Luke 10:30-37; Luke 6:27; Matthew 5:44).

The man known as Jesus of Nazareth was as Jew. His cultural religion was an ancient form of Judaism which led the Jews to conquer the land of Caanan by military force and rule it politically. In Jesus’ day, the Jews had lost political control of the land and were ruled by the Roman Empire.

Jesus joined a religious/political revolutionary movement which was led by John the Baptizer. The purpose of the revolutionary movement was to free the Jews from the Romans and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, which the Jews called the “kingdom of heaven” (aka “kingdom of God”), and in which the Jews expected to enjoy peace and prosperity. Like John the Baptizer, Jesus initially viewed the “Kingdom of God” as exclusively for the Jews. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the countryside to announce the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus instructed his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans (people of mixed race and religion), but go rather to the house of Israel (the Jews). And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.” (Matthew 10:5-7)

As Jesus preached his message about the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” he encountered Gentiles, Samaritans, and Romans who had the same human needs and hopes that the Jews had (Matthew 15:22-28; Matthew 8:5-13; John 4:46-53: Luke 7:1-9). Jesus revised his view of the “Kingdom of God” to include everyone who was willing to love God and “neighbor” (Mark 12:28-34) and Jesus gave up the idea that the “rule of God” would come on earth through military force (Matthew 26:52). Jesus preached “repentance” (turning away from lovelessness) and “forgiveness” of others as the way to establish the “Kingdom of God” on earth.

Jesus tried to reform his “cultural” religion. Jesus said that “love your neighbor” meant more than just loving your “Jewish” neighbor. It meant having compassion on anyone who is suffering, even those who are considered “enemies” (Matthew 5:43-47; Luke 10:29-37). Jesus taught that evil behavior begins with evil thoughts (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). He taught that good deeds can be done any time, even on the Sabbath that ordinarily is a day of rest (Matthew 12:9-14). He opposed the commercializing of religion by the money-changers who earned their living off of pilgrims who came from distant places to worship in the temple at Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12-13). He opposed the blood sacrifices that were part of the temple rituals which were intended as atonements for sin (Mark 12:32-33; Matthew 12:7). He urged people to pray in private, and not make a public display of prayer or giving of alms to the poor (Matthew 6:1-6).

It is no wonder that the religious leaders of the Jewish “cultural” religion viewed Jesus as a dangerous heretic and a revolutionary who might also offend the Roman rulers and cause them to take revenge on the Jews by destroying the Jewish temple and the Jewish capital city, Jerusalem (John 11:48).

Jesus’ determination to preach his vision of the “Kingdom of God on earth” eventually led to his crucifixion. After surviving his brief crucifixion, the wounded Jesus met briefly with his disciples to charge them with the mission of preaching “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations (Luke 24:47). Some days later, Jesus departed from his disciples. Various and conflicting stories are told about Jesus’ departure. Some of his disciples believed that Jesus had temporarily “ascended to God in heaven” and would return to the earth during the disciples’ lifetimes. But Jesus was never seen again by his disciples.

During the next four hundred years, a “cultural” religion was created around Jesus. This religion was based on the teachings of a man named Paul from the city of Tarsus. Paul claimed that Jesus was the divine Son of God who was sent by God the Father to die as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humankind (Philippians 2:6). Paul was a Jew who compared Jesus’ crucifixion to the Jewish practice of blood sacrifice in the temple as an atonement for sins (Romans 5:8-9).

Church leaders took Paul’s view that Jesus was the only divine “Son of God” and added that Jesus, together with “God the Father” and the “Holy Spirit,” was to be worshipped as one God, officially stating this doctrine of the “trinity of God” at the Council at Constantinople in the year 381 (of the Christian Era) and reaffirming this doctrine at the Council at Chalcedon in 451 CE. Church leaders, such as Athanasius, also adopted Paul’s theory that Jesus’ crucifixion was a “blood sacrifice” to atone for the sins of humankind. This theology became known as “trinitarianism,” and this is the cultural religion taught in Trinitarian Christian churches today.

Actually, Jesus’ own religious beliefs have nothing to do with the theology which is taught in Trinitarian Christian churches. Jesus was a “deist” because he taught the truth which he discovered in himself. Jesus described himself as only “a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) but he made no exclusive claim to knowing God’s truth (or God’s will). Jesus said that everyone is taught directly by God (John 6:45), and those who seek to follow God’s truth, or God’s will, are able to recognize that Jesus taught this same truth, and are attracted to Jesus (John 6:45; John 7:17).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, some Deists in England began a reform movement to return Christianity to the natural religion, or deism, of Jesus. These Deists became known as “Christian Deists.” Christian Deists recognized that natural religion can be summarized as “love for God, and love for neighbor (everyone)” as Jesus taught. The practice of love for God and neighbor is necessarily accompanied by the practice of repentance and forgiveness.

We should repent of (turn away from) any failure to love, and seek forgiveness from God. When possible, we should also seek forgiveness from any person whom we have failed to love. We receive forgiveness from God if we are willing to forgive other persons who repent of their failures to love us (Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:14-15). Christian Deists believe that by love, repentance, and forgiveness, we are doing God’s will that brings us a sense of inner peace and joy, and helps to create the “kingdom of God” on earth where people can live together in unity and peace.

Christmas and Easter

This essay is written in response to email from readers who asked, “Do Christian deists celebrate Christmas and Easter?” This question has arisen because some readers, who have recently discovered that they are Christian deists, feel uncomfortable with the trinitarian interpretation of Christmas and Easter.

My answer to the question, “Do Christian deists celebrate Christmas and Easter?” is “yes.” But to explain this answer, I would like to provide some information about the meaning of these two holidays.

Many people do not know that the “Christmas” and “Easter” holidays are based on religious traditions that are centuries older than Christianity. As the Christian movement ventured beyond Judea and into the Gentile world, the movement encountered other religious traditions which were assimilated by Christians and redefined in Christian terminology.

From human history, we know that there are two particular times of the year celebrated by human beings in countries north of the equator. One is in the Winter, in December, and the other is in the Spring, around March or April.

From their observation of nature in the Northern Hemisphere, human beings have recognized that the longest night of the year occurs in December. After that night, the daylight increases and time of darkness decreases. This natural phenomenon has come to symbolize the “coming of light” in various religious traditions.

Some celebrate this change from darkness to light as the Winter solstice (on December 21 or 22). In Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, the mythological god called “Mithra” was the “god of light” whose “birthday” was celebrated on December 25.

In Judaism, the holiday called “Hanukkah,” or the “Feast of Lights,” is observed in December for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the Jews’ victory in gaining freedom from Syria in 168 BCE and the rededicating of their temple. It is celebrated by lighting candles in the Hanukkah menorah.

In Christianity, the holiday is called “Christmas” and celebrates the “birthday” of Jesus who is called the “light of the world.” The December 25th date for the “birthday” of Jesus was apparently borrowed from the “birthday” of Mithra, the “god of light” in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

From all of the above, it is apparent that the “coming of light” has made December a special time for celebration. The increasing “light” of day that overcomes the “dark” of night is seen as a time for rejoicing and hope.

In trinitarian theology, Christmas is seen as the event in which God became “incarnated” as a human being, named Jesus, through a miraculous birth to a virgin mother. In trinitarian theology, this “virgin birth” is considered necessary so that Jesus could be born “without sin” (unlike other human beings who inherit “original sin” from “Adam”) and therefore able to be an unblemished “sacrifice” to atone for the sins of humankind.

Many of the Christmas hymns reflect this trinitarian theology which Christian deists do not accept. In the hymn “Silent Night,” the trinitarian theology is seen in the wording “all is calm, all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child.” In “The First Noel the Angel Did Say” the fourth verse states, “Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord who made heaven and earth of naught and with His Blood mankind has bought.” This wording claims that Jesus is God who created the world and who died as a blood sacrifice to pay for the sins of humankind.

Since Christian deists do not accept this trinitarian theology found in many Christmas hymns, the questions arise, “Can Christian deists celebrate Christmas?” and “What does Christmas mean to Christian deists?”

Let me approach these questions in this way. Christian deists see Jesus as a human being who discovered within himself the truth that God intends for human beings to live by love for God and love for each other. Jesus taught that this truth is known by all persons because God’s “word” is sown in every human heart. The “good news” or gospel, according to Jesus, is that the “kingdom of God” becomes a reality on earth as we choose to live by love. As deists, we know this from our own experience and observation. To Christian deists, Jesus was a man who taught this truth so we honor Jesus as a teacher of the truth.

Jesus referred to himself as the “light of the world” and he said, “he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). But Jesus also told his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and its gives its light to all the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christian deists believe that Jesus taught the truth because it is confirmed by our own experience. This truth provides a light to guide us in living every day. As we live by this truth, we are a “light of the world,” as Jesus was. Christian deists honor Jesus by celebrating his birthday because he was a man whose life exemplified the “light” that comes from God.

Christian deists should celebrate Christmas as human beings have long celebrated this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere of the earth–as a time of human joy and hope symbolized by the “coming of the light.”

The many ways that Christians celebrate Christmas, with Christmas trees, Yule logs, candles, lights, and giving of gifts, come from many different traditions. And the story of the birth of Jesus adds a tradition of love and care in the midst of human struggle, as Mary and Joseph overcame obstacles to provide for the baby Jesus. All of these beautiful symbols help us to express joy at Christmas time.

Now, let us think about Easter. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. Easter Sunday comes in March or April. The name of the holiday, “Easter,” apparently comes from “Eostre” which was the name of the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Eostre was a Goddess of fertility. The name of the Goddess, Eostre, comes from an ancient word “eastre” for “Spring.”

Spring, of course, is a time of new life. It is a time when new plants begin to grow and new leaves appear on trees. The “dead of Winter” ends with the rebirth of vegetation in the cycle of life. Also, it is a time when many animals give birth to their young.

In human history, the celebration of “new life” in the Spring appeared many centuries before Christianity. The cycle of life that is so evident in the Spring has inspired human beings to have hope for life beyond death.

In trinitarian Christianity, the Easter holiday was adopted as the day to commemorate the “resurrection” of Jesus. Jesus was crucified by the Romans on Friday of Passover week in the Jewish tradition. He was laid in a rock tomb on Friday before sundown and the tomb was found to be empty on the following Sunday morning. Then Jesus, who was physically wounded but alive, met secretly with his disciples for some days before Jesus disappeared.

Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus had died and was brought back to life by God. The apostle Paul claimed that belief in Jesus’ “resurrection” was one of the two requirements for obtaining salvation from sin and death. Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Trinitarian Christians believe that the “resurrection” of Jesus is evidence of life after death, and Easter Sunday is used to celebrate this hope. Christian Deists believe that God’s power to give life is demonstrated in the fact that we have life now. Obviously, what God has already done, God can do again. As human beings have recognized for centuries before the time of Jesus, there is a cycle of life of which we are a part. Each Spring, Christian deists celebrate “new life” and the hope it brings for the future. Christians have borrowed the name “Easter” from a tradition older than Christianity but the basic meaning of the celebration is known naturally: God has the power to give life.

One Easter weekend, my wife and I decided to celebrate Easter Sunday at a beautiful State park that is known for its waterfalls and wild flowers. We took our little camper to the park and set our alarm clock for before dawn on Easter Sunday. That morning, in the darkness, we hiked to one of the waterfalls and waited for the sun to rise. On that fresh Sunday morning, as the dawn came, we could understand how human beings have always experienced reverence and awe in observing a beautiful sunrise and the majesty of new life in the flowers and trees. The experience of “Easter” that morning transcended any one religious tradition. “Easter” is a universal experience available to anyone who chooses to observe it.

The two “holy seasons” of the year belong to everyone. Celebrate the joy that comes from the “coming of the light” at Christmas, and celebrate the hope that comes from the “new life” we see evidenced at Easter. Different religious traditions may describe these holy days in different terms but the basic meanings are shared by all who choose to celebrate.

May you find joy and hope in the celebration of these universal holy days which we as Christians call “Christmas” and “Easter.”

The Christian Deists: Christians Without Churches

People often ask, “Why don’t Christian deists have churches?”

The word “church” usually refers to religious organizations that have professional ministers, and buildings for public worship. Christian deists do not have these.

Why don’t Christian deists have churches?

Primarily, the answer is, “Christian deism is a personal religion. Churches are not necessary in the practice of Christian deism.” But there are other reasons why Christian deists do not have “churches,” in the usual sense of this word.

As a Jew, Jesus attended the synagogue in Nazareth and, on special holy days, he went to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus was well aware of the problems that can accompany religious organizations.

In Jesus’ day, the Jerusalem temple had become a place of business where animals were sold for sacrifices and money-changers made profits from Jewish pilgrims exchanging their foreign currency (Mark 11:15). Jesus tried to remedy the commercializing of religion by driving the merchants and money-changers from the temple. The commercializing of Christianity is an enormous problem today, as blatantly evidenced by the numerous TV and radio “evangelists” seeking money donations in exchange for audio tapes, books, and other “gifts.”

Even in local churches, where many sincere ministers earn their livings, money often becomes a divisive issue among church members as they debate how much to pay the minister, how much to spend on new buildings, and other money-related matters. Often the amount of money spent on their churches far exceeds the amount spent on relieving human suffering.

Jesus’ view about places of worship is seen in his conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4:20-24). The woman said, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain (a temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria); and you (Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father . . . . the hour is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”

According to Jesus, true worship takes place only in “spirit and truth.” The word “spirit” refers to the inner self of a person. It refers to a person’s attitude and thoughts.

The meaning of the word “truth” can be found in Jesus’ statement in John 3:20-21, where the New Testament Greek word for “truth” is translated “true.” Jesus said, “for every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” According to Jesus, “truth” means doing “what is true,” or good deeds.

Christian deists agree with Jesus that buildings for worship are not necessary. As Jesus said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” We worship (honor) God through our good atttitude and thoughts, and by our good deeds.

Christian deists do not believe that Jesus intended to organize an institutional church. Those who claim that Jesus founded the “Christian church” point to Matthew 16:16-19. Here, the disciple Peter proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, and Jesus responded by saying to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This, of course, is the scripture that the Roman Catholic Church uses to claim that the church holds the keys to heaven. It is alleged that Peter became the first “bishop” in the City of Rome, and Peter passed on the “keys” to the bishops (popes) who succeeded Peter.

The Roman Catholic Church has misinterpreted Jesus’ statement, “I will build my church.” At the time of Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation, Jesus and his followers believed that they were participating in a revolutionary movement to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, which the Jews called the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” When Peter proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Jewish messiah who would reestablish the “kingdom,” Jesus said that Peter would have a place of leadership in the movement, as indicated in the statement that Peter would be given the “keys” to the “kingdom of heaven.”

As a leader in the movement, Peter would have authority, as indicated in the statement that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is a phrase that Jesus uses elsewhere (Matthew 18:15-18) to say that someone has authority to make decisions.

In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus told his disciples how to resolve any conflicts between themselves, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.* Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(*Note: “Gentiles” and “tax collectors” for the Romans are examples of persons who were usually excluded from Jewish groups.)

Note that in Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus said to all of his disciples the same thing that Jesus said to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In this instance, the phrase refers to decisions made by the “church” when settling disputes among the disciples of Jesus. The “church” would have final authority to make a decision in the dispute. What did Jesus mean by the word “church?” He certainly was not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, or any other Christian church, since no Christian church existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

The New Testament Greek word which is translated “church” is “ekklesia” which means an “assembly” or group of people. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus was referring to his group of followers, then and there. Jesus was simply saying that his group of followers had authority to make decisions to settle disputes among themselves. It was the practice among some Jewish sects to discipline their members for offenses, and even exclude offenders from the group (as seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls sect of Jews).

It is clear from Matthew 16:16-19 and Matthew 18:15-18, that the phrase about “binding and loosing” simply meant “having authority to make decisions.” It is also clear that the word “church” simply referred to Jesus’ “group” of followers. When Jesus said that he would “build my church” in Matthew 16:16-19, Jesus was saying that personal commitment to the “kingdom of heaven,” as expressed by Peter, would be the foundation (“rock”) on which Jesus would “build” his group or assembly (ekklesia) of followers.

It should be noted that Jesus used a word which is translated as “church” in only two verses in the New Testament (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17). The word used in New Testament Greek manuscripts is “ekklesia” which actually means an assembly, or group, of people, not an organization of any kind. If Jesus had intended to “build” an institutional “church,” like the Roman Catholic Church, certainly Jesus would have said more about it.

Why don’t Christian deists have professional ministers?

Christian deists believe that everyone is responsible for “ministering” to, or serving, others. But Christian deists do not believe that a person should be paid for doing this. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “You have received without pay, give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). On their missionary journeys, the disciples were allowed to accept only room and board from their hosts, and the disciples were prohibited from accepting money payments. This sounds like good advice.

How do Christian deists worship God?

As explained previously, Christian deists believe that we should worship “in spirit and in truth.”

For Christian deists, worship is a personal matter. This follows the example of Jesus. Jesus prayed by himself and with close friends in private homes. He opposed the public display of religious practices.

Jesus said, ” Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:1-8)

In summary, Christian deists believe that religion is a personal and private matter. Christian deists are not opposed to “getting together” for fellowship and religious education, but Christian deists do not believe in public worship “services” because such activity can easily become a hypocritical display of pretended religion.