My relative and fellow blogger Luke recently floated the idea of an "Abraham line" - anything in Genesis before Abraham could be seen as mythical, anything after essentially historical. Intense discussion followed.
I've been thinking about a different kind of line. In my late teens we had a guest speaker at our youth group on the subject of "cults". By this term, he meant those minority Christian sects who believe things outside Christian orthodoxy - Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists and so on. At one point in the discussion he made a distinction - one of these (I forget which) he regarded as Christian, the others not.
Various books on "cults" were doing the rounds and each of them had a different definition of a cult, and a different list. Some included the Catholic Church, put in the non-Christian pile because it doesn't teach salvation by grace alone, and because it teaches idolatory in various forms.
All these discussions implied, although they weren't always up front about it, the existence of a "Christian line". One one side of the line are groups that are Christian, even if they hold some views you disagree with. On the other side of the line are those who are not Christian. They may use Christ's name, but their teaching is so far from the truth that the label is a misuse of that name.
Why does this matter to so many people? Well, the essence of Protestantism lies in two things - its teaching that we are saved by faith alone, not through our own works, and its insistence on the Bible as the sole authoritative source of Christian teaching. So, if you are saved by faith, what are you saved by faith in? The simple answer is Christ, but delve a little deeper. What precisely about Christ are you putting your faith in? And what sort of faith are we talking about there?
This is where the "Christian line" comes in. Everyone defines it differently, but there are some common elements. The idea is that you need to believe that Jesus is God, and that he died to save us. Hence, versions of Christianity that suggest Jesus is something less than God are not Christian. On the faith side the answer is more complex. Often the answer here is that you need to have a classic "conversion experience" - understand that you're a sinner, that you can't save yourself, go to God and ask his forgiveness on the basis of Jesus' death for you. But there's a lot of variety here - what form of repentence is necessary? Is it OK to skip one of the steps? Then on top of this is all the other stuff. The inerrancy of the Bible. The existence of hell and the devil. Rejection of idolatry. Add or subtract to your taste.
So, my personal view. What we do through all this is invent a new doctrine of salvation by works, except we are substituting intellectual works for moral ones. To be regarded as a "Christian" it is essential that you know and assent to certain things and all of them are highly complex - God becoming a man, that God/man's death bringing us forgiveness, the nature of evil, our own moral responsibility. Each of these concepts are incredibly difficult. The intellectual work required of us, the worldview changes that are asked, are huge.
Of course, we could simply say that God offers his pardon freely to all. But to do that we would have to accept that there is no "outside". We would have to abandon the psychology of belonging, the safety of the in-group. We would have to give up on millennia of using fear to induce faith, and rely on love alone.
It's like the joke about the man or woman who goes to heaven and gets the orientation tour from St Peter. During the tour they come to a huge wall, "so high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it, so wide you can't get round it". Peter explains. "That's for the (insert your denomination here). They like to think they're the only ones here."
Or if you prefer, as Peter Gabriel sings.
How can we be in
When there is no outside?
You may look like we do,
Talk like we do
But you know how it is
You're not one of us!