This is the first in a series of articles that I will be writing about various religions in our world.
The purpose of these articles is not to convert a person or convince them to follow the religious path. Instead, I want to provide a basic introduction to the beliefs and behaviors so they can be better understood by those who do not know or choose to follow that path.
Before going any further, it should be noted that ALL religious paths have extremist and bad people in them. Likewise, they all have very good people in them too. Thus, it’s hard to judge a person solely based on religious identity.
I will also not be bashing any religious beliefs in these articles. It will be straightforward “this is what is believed,” with little to no extra commentary or my own personal thoughts or feelings.
I am starting with Christianity because it is, at the time of writing, the largest religion in the world and the religion I grew up in and spent most of my life involved with. I also went to a Catholic seminary school for a bit and later in life spent several years studying at an Evangelical seminary.
In the future, other religions will be picked randomly.
Three Basic Branches of Christianity
Christianity is a vast religion. There are three main branches or denominations of Christianity, but each breaks down into additional branches and/or sub-paths. In some cases, there are sub-divisions of the sub-divisions! I will not be covering the history of Christianity nor all the breaks that have occurred. Generally speaking, Christianity can be divided into Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches. There are thousands of different denominations (including many non-denominational churches) within the broad category of Christianity.
There are also conservative and liberal Christians within each denomination. Some denominations can be classified as more fundamentalist/conservative-leaning and some liberal-leaning.
General Basics of Christianity
All Christian denominations trace their origins to Jesus of Nazareth. The belief is that Jesus is/was the Messiah promised by God to save the world. All Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God who was sent by God to earth to save humanity from the consequences of their sins.
A sin is anything a person says, does, or believes which goes against what God wants or teaches. It means “to miss the mark,” implying that when one sins, they are missing the mark of what God has intended and wanted.
Christians believe Jesus died, freely gave up his life by crucifixion so that he could rise from the dead three days later. Even though he was betrayed by one of his disciples, it is believed that he could have stopped the crucifixion if He wanted. He chose not to so that mankind could be saved.
This event, where Jesus rises from the dead, is known as the Resurrection and is celebrated at Easter. Easter is a holy day that is the cumulating of Holy Week (which occurs during Lent), which tells the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death.
The other significant holy day is Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus to his mother Mary and his earthly father, Joseph.
Other holy days are celebrated and emphasized, but this depends more on the denomination.
View of God
Christians believe there is only one God. They also think that this one God comprises three separate divisions. Thus, God is sometimes called God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They do not believe these are three different Gods. Instead, they are all like roles played by one God.
God is worshiped at a church where services are led by a priest or minister, depending on the Christian denomination.
It is believed that God inspired men to write His holy book, the Bible. Some denominations believe the Bible to be taken literally, some symbolically, and others somewhere in-between. In Christianity, the Bible is divided into two major sections of the Old Testament and New Testament.
The Old Testament focuses on creating the world and man and the struggles between God and man. It also contains God’s promises and serves as a set of historical books. The New Testament focuses on the birth and teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Most of these teaching centers on the Good News of the Gospel, which is that Jesus’ coming and death are a sacrifice so that mankind can enter Heaven and live eternally. All one needs to do is believe in and have faith in Jesus.
God is seen as very parental, rewarding those He favors and punishing those who do wrong. Thus, God is both loving and just.
God is also seen as unlimited in power. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and always present.
Views of Nature
Most Christians endorse the Biblical principle of stewardship, which states that mankind was created to help care for the world, including the world’s animals. Man is responsible for nature and all it is comprised of. Thus, blatantly not caring for the world and taking care of it is a sin. While some Christians are environmentalists, not all are. Many fundamentalists, for example, deny global warming and climate change and feel no actions are needed to correct for them as “it’s in God’s hands.”
Views of Women
Most fundamentalist Christians follow the Biblical mandate that man is the head of the family and woman is subservient to him. God created a woman to be a helper to man, and thus her first obligation is to God and her second is to her spouse. This plays typically out in obedience to the husband unless he is asking her to sin somehow, in which case she should follow what God wants.
Some Christian denominations promote equality between the genders, but certainly not all.
Women are not allowed to be ministers or priests in many Christian denominations. They may serve in other ways. In some denominations, this is not true, and women are warmly welcomed in these leadership roles. Still, they tend to be in the most liberal denominations.
There is no goddess in Christianity, but there are accepted female role models in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the ultimate role model is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Different Christian denominations place various levels of emphasis on Mary and her role. Some elevate her to almost goddess-like status, and others barely acknowledge her at all. Most are somewhere between the two extremes.
Belief of Evil
Christians believe in Satan or the Devil. A somewhat opposing force to God that tempts mankind to do bad things. He is sometimes called Lucifer, and some believe he was originally an angel who became too prideful, wanting to be above God. Thus he and the angels that followed him were banished to Hell.
Hell is a place of eternal punishment. For most Christians, it is seen as either a place of torment or fire where bad people burn continuously or suffer for all eternity. Some view Hell as only separation from God and Heaven – claiming that this separation is punishment in and of itself.
Regardless, Christians tend to believe that God does no evil. All acts of evil come either from the temptations of Satan or the freely chosen rebelliousness of man against God’s rules and laws.
Within Christianity, various theologies are believed or practiced depending on the denomination. One such theology that I will highlight here is called salvation theology.
Salvation theology claims that only those who give up a sinful life and have faith that Jesus is the son of God and died for our sins will be allowed into God’s presence in Heaven.
In most protestant religions, this starts by saying what is commonly referred to as the sinner’s prayer. It is considered the first step towards “being saved.”
Perhaps the most straightforward version goes like this:
Lord, I admit I am a sinner. I need and want Your forgiveness. I accept Your death as the penalty for my sin and recognize that Your mercy and grace is a gift You offer to me because of Your great love, not based on anything I have done. Cleanse me and make me Your child. By faith, I receive You into my heart as the Son of God and as Savior and Lord of my life. From now on, help me live for You, with You in control. In Your precious name, Amen.
After being saved, one chooses to live a different life – to be born again. This new life involves trying everything in one’s power to not sin anymore and doing one’s best to focus on living life the way God wants us to live.
Part of starting this new life is to choose to be baptized. The focus on freely choosing baptism is significant in some denominations. Others prefer a Christian parent to get their babies Baptized, thus removing the choice from them.
Finally, part of salvation theology also stipulates that Christians must do their best to disciple/mentor/convert other non-Christians to Christianity. This is so that they too may experience the salvation of Jesus Christ. Obviously, this is most important for family members you love who are not saved but that you desire to live in Heaven with after this life. The number of people you “save” also factors heavily into your afterlife in some denominations.
It’s important to understand that most mainstream protestant denominations believe that “faith alone” is all that is required to be saved and get into Heaven. Because of faith, one chooses to live a different non-sinful life and disciple others.
Some denominations also require “good works” to “get into Heaven.” I.E., faith isn’t enough. You also have to demonstrate you are a good person by living a good life.<
Connecting with God
The most common way Christians connect with God is through prayer and worship.
Prayer is talking to God. In some denominations, this means reciting words already written for you. In many others, it involves simply having a verbal or inner dialogue with God.
Worship is the act of adoring, praising, thanking, and/or singing to God.
Both prayer and worship are supposed to occur independently and as a community (in Church and within the family). To not go to Church without a valid reason, in most denominations, is considered sinful.
In addition to prayer and worship, Bible study is critical in most Christian denominations. Sometimes this takes on the form of memorization of verses. Sometimes, it’s the act of better understanding what God intends through His sacred writings.
Most Churches present a Bible lesson at some point during their services. These lessons may range from a quick five to 20-minute summarization or topical sermon to an hour or more of an in-depth examination of what the text is saying and conveying.
Some denominations give room for personal revelation – that is, the belief that you have had an experience with God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus who speaks directly to you. However, this isn’t common among most of the denominations. As a rule of thumb, in most denominations, personal revelation is to be considered suspect until it has been discussed with other Christians and studied in the context of the Bible.
Hierarchy within Christianity can quickly become confusing and depends mainly on the denomination.
For the sake of making a point, let’s consider two types of hierarchy. The first is mankind to God, and the second is within the Church itself.
Christians typically have a hierarchy within their worldview used to make ethical decisions and determine who should defer to whom.
Christian of all denominations believes that God is at the top of the order – this includes both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Thus, man’s first responsibility is always to God and what God desires.
From there, we see some deviation depending on the denomination. In certain fundamentalist denominations, the hierarchy looks like this:
- The individual to God
- The individual to their spouse.
- Parents (individual and spouse) to children.
- Parents and children to extended family.
- The family to the Church.
- The family to all other Christians.
- The family to friends.
- The family to the world.
In the case of children, it would be:
- Child to God
- Child to Parents
- Child to Extended Family
- Child to Church
- Child to Other Christians
- Child to Friends
- Child to the Rest of the World
In other denominations, the hierarchy would be more akin to:
- Individual to God
- Individual to the Church
- Individual to Parents
- Individual to Spouse
- Parents to children
- Family to extended family
- Family to other Christians
- Family to the rest of the world
The structure of the Hierarchy of the Church also depends on the denomination.
In Catholicism, the Pope is the highest-ranking official. This is followed by the Cardinals, then the Archbishops, the Bishops, the Priests, and finally the Deacons. The Laity, or people, is last.
In many Protestant hierarchies, but not all, it goes Senior Pastor, Other Pastors, Elders, Deacons, the rest of the congregation.
Some denominations recognize the Pope as a Bishop, but not the head of the Church.
We have just touched the proverbial iceberg tip in this article. There are many other “minor” differences between the denominations. It would take a significant amount of time to sort them all out here. For example, some denominations believe in the concept of transubstantiation – that when the bread and wine (Eucharist) is blessed and served, it becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus. Others believe this is simply a symbolic representation that the church members share. Regardless, most Christians agree on Jesus being the Son of God and the importance of His life and teachings. This agreement ultimately connects all Christians.