The last time I went to visit my mom in Kansas during the holiday season was six years ago (she is now in a retirement home in Ohio; 93 and still walkin’ around!). I talked about it on the blog soon thereafter. I was not a church going person then (still not) but I did the sonly thing and took her to her church. This was a conservative evangelical Free Methodist Church – one that my mom has attended for many years. It was not really my style – I rather prefer centuries-honored liturgy to electric guitars and drums, myself – but I wasn’t there to satisfy my own aesthetic preferences. (She doesn’t like the guitars and drums either, but we missed the earlier service with the choir).
The sermon in that kind of church is very different from what one hears in an Episcopal church and is also very different from the kind of sermon I learned to preach when I was in my Masters of Divinity program at the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary. This sermon at my mom’s church was really more of a reflective point-by-point verse-by-verse discussion of a text of Scripture. A fairly long text (20 verses?). And a fairly long sermon (40 minutes?).
In the church bulletin there was a kind of hand-out that had the key points of the sermon given in outline form with blanks that the parishioner was supposed to fill in as the pastor got to that part. “Mary responded _____________ when she heard the angel’s voice.” You’re left guessing how to fill in the blank – is it “fearfully?” “hopefully?” “joyfully?” – until the pastor tells you the right answer. When the sermon is over, you have all the blanks filled in, and since you’ve been actively participating in the sermon by writing down the key words, presumably the message will stick with you longer.
Most of the sermon, then, involved the pastor reading the passage bit by bit and then telling the congregation what it meant – a kind of exegetical sermon. Fair enough. It wasn’t bad, if you appreciate that kind of thing.
The text was from Luke 1, the long chapter that is the lead-up to the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. Luke’s first chapter includes the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth who had been barren, the “Annunciation” of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she too would conceive, even though she was a virgin, and the songs of joy sung on each occasion by the father of John, Zechariah, and the mother of Jesus, Mary. It’s a historically really important chapter, of course, and nothing makes it more important than the fact that it is one of the two passages of the entire New Testament that mentions Jesus’ virgin birth.
I was struck by one of the things that the pastor said in his exposition of the text, that belief in the Virgin Birth “is not optional” for Christians. In his forcefully stated view, if you are a Christian, “you have to believe in the Virgin Birth.”
It makes sense that conservative evangelical Bible-believing Christians insist that you have to believe in certain things or you can’t be a Christian. In my part of the world (and in my mom’s church, I’m sure), you “have to” believe in the Bible or you can’t be a Christian. That particular view has long thrown me for a loop, since in none of the historical creeds of Christianity – the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, for example – is there one word about having to believe in the Bible. Christianity is belief in Christ; it’s not Biblianitry – belief in the Bible.
But conservatives stress that, for good reason, if you take the Bible away from them they won’t have “objective” authority for telling you what else you have to believe and how else you have to live your lives. Without the Bible they wouldn’t have written grounds for arguing their favorite doctrinal positions (Trinity), moral positions (anti-abortion), social positions (it *used* to be used to argue for slavery), etc.
There are certain fundamentals of the faith that very conservative Christians insist you have to believe in. That’s why, originally, that kind of Christian proudly took on the name “fundamentalist.” This wasn’t a negative term used by outsiders, but a positive one that insiders used to describe their commitment to the fundamental aspects of the faith: the complete inspiration of Scripture; the physical reality of hell; the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and the …. virgin birth. These things needed to be believed literally, otherwise, well, otherwise you weren’t a Christian. And if you weren’t a Christian — that’s where the physical reality of hell came into play.
The older I get the more I’m a “Live and Let Live” kind of guy. But I do wonder about those who insist that you “have to” believe something. Take the Virgin Birth. Is it actually a biblical teaching that you have to believe in it? The reality is that the virgin birth is mentioned by only two authors of the New Testament, Matthew and Luke. And only in their opening narratives. Matthew says that Jesus was born of a virgin to fulfill a prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). He also says that he was born in Bethlehem to fulfill a prophecy (Micah 5:2). And that Herod killed all the boys of Bethlehem to fulfill a prophecy (why God had to make that part of his plan he doesn’t say; think about all those bereft families.). But he nowhere says that you “have to” believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that Herod slaughtered the innocents or you can’t be a Christian. He doesn’t say that about the virgin birth either. And neither does Luke.
If the Virgin Birth was so important – vital! – to these authors, why don’t they make a bigger deal of it? Why, for example, don’t they ever (not once!) refer to it again later in their Gospels? And if it’s an “essential” part of the faith, why doesn’t Paul show the slightest knowledge of it? Or John? Or James? Or Peter? Or anyone else? If someone were to ask Paul “Do I have to believe in the Virgin Birth to be saved?”, what do you imagine he’s say? I myself imagine he’d say “believe in the … what??”
In no passage of the NT does it say that anyone “has” to believe in the Virgin Birth. I can see why some modern Christians (and a lot of ancient ones – starting about a century after the Gospels) think so: without the Virgin Birth, isn’t Jesus just a human, like the rest of us? Well, that’s an interesting question, since John, who does not even hint at the virgin birth, thinks that Jesus is not at all human like the rest of us.
But to claim you “have” to believe in a literal virgin birth to be a Christian, I would argue, is empirically wrong. Most of my friends who are Christian do not believe in a literal virgin birth. You could say they aren’t “really” Christian, but they could respond that *you* aren’t “really” Christian. And at that point, we’re at a standoff. No one has been given the authority to make that kind of pronouncement….