Swedenborg was a Christian     Dave Rogalsky

Scriptures:  Acts 11:19-26; Acts 26; 1 Peter 4:8-16

Theme: What does the New Testament included in “being a Christian? Does this match Swedenborg?


When I told folks that I was coming here to Church of the Good Shepherd as the Intentional Interim Pastor I had all kinds of responses: Isn’t that a cult? They aren’t Trinitarian, are they? Are they Christians? There were a few other unkind things said too. Most folk though just wondered, what do they believe? They were thinking, “In the larger Christian family, what is the Swedenborgian flavour?” I mean, Church of the Good Shepherd – doesn’t that refer to Jesus? Doesn’t that make them Christian?

But here’s the thing, Emanuel Swedenborg, the man whose philosophy, theology, writings and spiritual experience was the foundation of the Swedenborgian church, was taken to task in the late 1770s by Christians for not being Christian, or not Christian enough. He died before this was entirely resolved and so it was not completed by the Lutheran leadership in Sweden.1 But there were questions about the Trinity, and there continue to be questions about a love based theology - questions which sometimes lead folk to reject Swedenborg, and, sometimes, make him, his theology, and this congregation, very interesting.

This Sunday we’re going to look at the three times the word Christian appears in the New Testament to find out what the Bible says is Christian. And then we’ll think about what we believe here at Church of the Good Shepherd.

1 https://books.google.ca/books?id=HjFBHaV-dksC&pg=PA219&lpg=PA219&dq=Swedenborg+persecuted&source=bl&ots=H7BHW6LyIp&sig=FWsVur1HDSqyVe4RIkH1vSBJjZ0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi2q-S_j6vXAhUJ24MKHXwZA-gQ6AEIOzAF#v=onepage&q=Swedenborg%20persecuted&f=false



The passage we read in the service comes from the only book of the history of the early church in the Bible, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke, a Gentile who became a Christian wrote the story, some of it in the first person as he travelled around with the apostle Paul. He also wrote the Gospel of Luke. In the passage we read he told the story of what happened when the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem decided to try to put an end to the Christian Jewish groups which had sprung up in many cities. They actually killed some folk, including the man named Stephen mentioned in the passage (see Acts 7:54-60). This drove fear into the hearts of the Christians and many of them scattered to other cities. Some of them went to the city of Antioch in Syria. Where-ever they went these Jewish Christians would go to the local synagogue and begin to teach about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. But in Antioch they didn’t limit themselves to Jews. They also taught about Jesus to non-Jews, to Gentiles of many cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. Some of these non-Jews became followers of Jesus the Messiah. Now, the word Messiah is Hebrew for Anointed. Jesus was God’s anointed. The Greek word for anointed is Christ. As these people followed Jesus Christ, they became known as Christians.

What did they believe?

  • They spoke “the word”. This was early Christian shorthand for the story of Jesus. They would have taught:

    • Jesus was God among human beings

    • Jesus taught a way of life which connected folk with God

    • Jesus was killed, but was resurrected from the dead

    • That belief in Jesus was belief in the One true God

  • And through their behaviour they taught that others besides Jews could be followers of God because of Jesus.

Luke used the word Christian a second time in his history of the early church. In chapter 26 of the Acts of the Apostles we find Paul defending himself before King Herod Agrippa, and the Roman procurator, Porcius Festus. Paul had come back to Jerusalem after travelling throughout Asia Minor, now Turkey, and through Macedonia and Greece. While he was in Jerusalem some Jews stirred up a riot against Paul, spreading rumours that he had brought non-Jews into the temple, and that he had taught against Jewish beliefs and laws. In the riot both the rioters and Paul were arrested (See Acts 21). Eventually Paul had a chance to defend himself before the authorities. As he defended himself by telling the story of his turn from strict Judaism to Christian Judaism he became excited to the extent that the procurator called him insane. Paul turned to King Herod Agrippa and appealed to his memories of the events around Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and to the Jewish prophets whom the King as a Jew claimed to believe. The king said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" Acts 26:28 (NRSV)

So what did Paul believe that made him a Christian?

  • Jesus was God among human beings

  • Jesus taught a way of life which connected folk with God

  • Jesus was killed, but was resurrected from the dead

  • That belief in Jesus was belief in the One true God

  • We also know that Paul believed that anyone could become a follower of Jesus, not just Jews.

The last place that the word Christian appears in the Bible is in the first letter of Peter. In this letter the writer was communicating with a group of followers of Jesus the Christ who were undergoing persecution for their beliefs. These Christians lived in Asia Minor, now Turkey. The writer is comforting the believers that it is better to suffer as Christians, than it would be to suffer for being criminals.

What did the writer believe?

  • Jesus was God among human beings

  • Jesus taught a way of life which connected folk with God

  • Jesus was killed, but was resurrected from the dead

  • That belief in Jesus was belief in the One true God

  • He also seemed to believe that others besides Jews could become followers of God (See 1 Peter 1:20-21, 2:10).

This basic teaching in the New Testament is sometimes called the Kerygma – the content of the early Church’s preaching and teaching. As we compare the teaching, preaching and writings in the New Testament we keep on coming up with the same things. As time went along the church added other theology to the list of the teachings. By the time that the Bible was considered finished there were several creeds which laid out the essentials to the church’s beliefs. The earliest, probably from the 100’s is the Apostles’ Creed. It goes like this:


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.


You might notice that this has things added to it that the three passages didn’t have: there is a form of trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the virgin birth is emphasized; Jesus as judge of the living and dead, which appears in some New Testament preaching is very important; the one and only one universal or catholic church is also included.

Christianity soon also narrowed the true believers to non-Jews - the non-Christian Jews, and the Gentile Christians having mutually kicked each other out. The word Creed comes from the Greek word credo, I believe. Salvation seems to come through belief in the list of true theology. This feels like a kind of shift from a simple relationship to God, who came among us as Jesus. I’m pushing this a bit to make a point. What the Bible taught as Christian in a simple way, had added to them things which some in the early church thought the Bible also taught.

So, was Swedenborg a Christian? If you take the Creed, probably not. But if you take the Kerygma, the early church’s teaching, I think that he was. Those who wanted to take him to task late in his life held to things like the creed, and didn’t have room for much divergence from that. This idea of not having room for much divergence is really important. The church, beginning in the 300’s persecuted those who did not hold to the teaching of the one, true and universal church. Those who did not in Swedenborg’s lifetime believe that Swedenborg was a Christian also believed that divergence from the church’s teaching excluded one from being a Christian. Some then, and some now, continue to think that because Swedenborg did not agree with the Creeds he couldn’t be a Christian. I disagree.

So in the past and among some strict groups now, there are very strict categories of who is in, and who is out. In Christendom, that time when all the people who lived in Europe were Christians, except for a few Jews, people could afford to be strict, to exclude, and to persecute. But as we compare what we believe, not only to the many other Christian groups, but to other religions, then our strict in/out thinking gets less acceptable. Christians generally now believe that anyone who believes the basic Christian teaching is a Christian, and even those who struggle with parts of that teaching.


So why is this important? Church of the Good Shepherd has said that as one of its five basic tenets that it wants to stay Swedenborgian. And Swedenborgian is Christian. We celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and other Christian festivals. We believe that Jesus was God among us and that we draw near to God when we draw near to Jesus. We believe that Jesus’ teaching, as we have it recorded in the Bible, is a good guide for life and relationships. We believe Jesus died and was resurrected from the dead.

Saying we’re Christians is not saying we have it all right, or that we are the only right way. Saying that I love my family, with our history and traditions, is not saying that your family, with your history and traditions, is less. There is room for more than one family. There is room for more than one way for folk to draw near to God.

I believe that every spirituality, every way of drawing near to God, needs a “womb and a nursery.” Spirituality, even an inclusive and universalistic one, needs a fertile place to begin and grow. Spirituality tends to start in one tradition and over much time, learning and growth, expands to include others. I’m going to keep on teaching this over the winter.

James Fowler divided people’s faith into six different types. Because they tend to develop through life he thought of them as stages. This is sometimes problematic as it looks or seems like those who have moved to “higher” stages are somehow more mature or better. Each type is good of itself. Some folk change to other types as they move through life. Basically the six types are:

  • Very young childhood faith – stories are stories, no ability to differentiate between fact and fantasy. Children learn to trust their parents, and so the universe, and so God.

  • Childhood (2-6) faith – Stories are stories with no differentiation between fact and fiction. Not controlled by logical thinking. In this stage we build long lasting images about protective and threatening powers around oneself. “My parents’ faith is right.”

  • Childhood (7-11 and beyond – i.e. some people stay here) – pretty concrete thinking, conformity to the laid down rules is important, especially for others, and independence for self. Testing the rules. The world is seen through one’s needs, interests and wishes. Not thinking abstractly very much. Self-centred by nature. But can begin to enter into other’s perspectives. “The faith I’ve been taught is right.”

  • Adolescent (11-13 and beyond – i.e. some people stay here) Abstract thinking takes hold. The youth tests out a variety of selves and integrates all the parts. Faith is largely unreflective, leading to beliefs and values which have been absorbed. These can be defended stringently. “My faith is right and I can prove it to you.”

  • Young Adult (and beyond) – people start seeing very abstractly. Paradox and polarities are seen and accepted. Reality may not have only one definition. Rules don’t always work. Good people do suffer. But still very idealistic about their own faith. Symbol, story, metaphor and myth from one’s own tradition are appreciated. “My faith helps me, but I don’t have all the answers.”

  • Mid-life (and beyond) faith - acknowledges paradox and transcendence, relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. Becoming more open to paradox and opposing viewpoints. Symbol, story, metaphor and myth from one’s own and other traditions are appreciated. Appreciate own religious practices. “I appreciate my faith, but it isn’t the only way to God.”

  • Universalism (Mid-life and beyond) – Grounded in a oneness with the power of being. Spend the self in love, devoted to overcoming division, oppression and violence. Appreciate own faith, and the faith of others. May not practice any organized religion. “God is love.”

Each of these can be Christian. There is a tendency for those in the third or fourth type to reject those who accept paradox and difference as acceptable. Swedenborg moved beyond that, and this church seems to attract folk who have moved to stages four and five, “I appreciate my faith, but there isn’t only one way to God.” We appreciate our Christian roots, and we make room for others too.