Hugh Fulford: What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?

According to a recent story in The (Nashville) Tennessean, the “Reverend” Martin Thielen’s atheist friend asked the preacher, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”

Currently serving as minister of the First United Methodist Church in nearby Lebanon, Tenn., Mr. Thielen soon will become the pastor of the Brentwood United Methodist Church in an affluent suburb of Nashville. Brentwood United Methodist, with 7,600 members, is the largest Methodist congregation in Tennessee and the fourteenth largest in the United States.

Challenged by his atheist friend’s question, in January of this year Thielen published a book by the title of his friend’s question. The 10,000 first-print run has been a big hit, with a second printing on the way. According to the news story, Thielen used the book to outline the message he has used to double the size of his present congregation and the message he will take to a much larger audience. During the past decade, First United Methodist in Lebanon has added about 800 members and attendance has grown from 300 to 640.

Thielen says that most of the newcomers to his church have dropped out of more conservative churches. (Thielen himself left the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990s). However, he disavows that his church is a “left-wing liberal church.” He says, “We say the Apostles’ Creed, and we don’t wink.”

Thielen’s atheist friend is reported to have liked Jesus, but didn’t like many of His followers. To a certain degree I can understand that. Some of the professed followers of Christ are not very good representatives of Him and His message. Further, the atheist did not like the “all or nothing” way he felt Christianity was packaged. Hence, his question: “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”

In our postmodern religious world where doctrine and distinctive beliefs are downplayed, it is increasingly popular for people to want to pick and choose which aspects of Christianity they will accept — sort of like walking by a salad bar and creating a salad to one’s own liking.

Christ spoke plainly about what is involved in following Him. He said: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, NKJV).

He further said: “So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33).

Following His resurrection and shortly before His ascension, Christ appeared to His apostles and said to them: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Being a Christian involves a commitment to be and do all that Christ has commanded — not to trying to figure out what is the least one can believe and still call himself a Christian. In short, being a Christian is not for sissies.

Hugh Fulford
April 19, 2011
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