- A Brief History
- Basic Beliefs
- Practices, Diet and Attire
- Calendar & Holidays
- Major Life Events
- Major Denominations
I don’t get it. My manager brought me into his office today and told me that I’ve been offending people because I say “have a blessed day” and “praise the Lord” as I greet people. In my faith, I was taught that this is the way to greet people you respect and want to wish the best. It’s so ingrained in me that I don’t even know I’m doing it half the time. I know there are people of other religions here, but they believe in a god, don’t they? Why should a blessing bother them?
I’ve felt strange around people in the office since the week after I started. I finally put out the items I had selected for my desk, which include a few framed Bible verses and a small crucifix. Fewer people seemed to come to talk to me at my desk after that, and that seemed to prevent me from connecting with people and joining the “in group” where the new and exciting projects are going on.
I dealt with that in stride, but now they’re asking me to change what I say, and next who knows what they’ll do? Our company claims to recognize and respect diversity in our workplace, so why do I feel like Christianity is excluded from that policy?
A BRIEF HISTORY
Christianity emerged during the first century CE in what is present-day Israel, and is based on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (the “anointed one”) awaited by the Jewish people as their redeemer. Born in Bethlehem, Jesus was a Jew, whose teachings attracted many Jewish followers during his lifetime. After his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire in approximately 30 C.E., his followers, convinced of his divinity, formed communities. Originally sects of Judaism, these communities sought and accepted large numbers of believers and developed into a separate religion over several centuries, now recognized as Christianity.
The Bible is the holy book of Christianity and includes the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains all the books included in the Hebrew Bible, although arranged in a different order. The New Testament is a body of writings that chronicle the origins and core teachings of Jesus, and reveal how the next generations of Christians interpreted those teachings.
Catholic and Orthodox traditions accept as Scripture seven additional books which were included in a Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek in the second century before Christ, and call these books “deuterocanonical,” while the Protestant tradition holds to the 24 books of the current Hebrew text, calling the additional seven books “apocrypha.”
The New Testament, written in Greek, consists of three types of writings. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four individual accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. The Epistles are letters, most of which were written by Paul and his disciples, on topics such as theology, faith, creed, morality, and politics. They provide insight into the dynamics of the early church. The Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John, is a vision of the last judgment and the second coming of the Messiah.
Most Christians believe that the Bible was written by human authors who were divinely inspired to record God’s revelations. Some Christians believe that it is the literal, inerrant word of God.
Christianity is the predominant religion in Europe, throughout the Americas and Australia, and is widespread in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of the East. Christianity is the majority religion in the United States. Approximately 76% of the population considers itself Christian, and adherents are dispersed geographically. The highest concentration of Christians can be found in the South, but substantial populations are found nationwide.
Christians understand themselves to be, like the Jews, “People of God,” brought into a fruitful relationship with God and all of humanity through Jesus Christ. Many understand Christ as a personal savior, while most believe his life, death and resurrection have brought redemption (or salvation) to all people and to all creation.
The many denominations of Christianity (see following) have varying interpretations of the Gospels and Apostolic doctrine, yet they share a common core:
- Christians are monotheists and believe in the One God of biblical Israel.
- God is manifest in three Persons, which together form the Holy Trinity: the Father (Creator), the Son (Redeemer), and the Holy Spirit (Sustainer).
- Jesus (the Christ, the Messiah) is the incarnation of the second manifestation of the Trinity and is the source of salvation and guidance for living the moral life.
- God desires the flourishing of all creation and that all might experience the fullness of life that Christians call “salvation.” They believe that Jesus Christ mediates salvation – that to follow the Way of Jesus is to experience salvation, not simply after death but in everyday life.
- There will be a second coming of Christ at the end of time, when evil will come to an end, and the Kingdom of God initiated by Jesus and striven for by the church will be made fully real.
- To live as a Christian means that one must exercise moral discernment. Christians draw their morality from the example of Jesus, and from Scripture, especially the New Testament and the Ten Commandments.
- The Roman Catholic Church has developed, in addition to Scriptural norms for moral conduct, a system of Canon law, which sets out rulings for the church designed to help Christians.
- Denominations each have their own rules governing the ordering of the church and to some extent mandating various practices, such as marriages and prayer.
PRACTICES, DIET AND ATTIRE
Most Christians consider prayer to be a cornerstone of their faith. Additionally, some denominations may choose to pray to Saints. Saints are not believed to be gods themselves, but rather are guardians over different areas of life, and function as prayer intermediaries.
Prayer may be done in private or communally, depending on the individual, the denomination or the culture. Reading the bible or spiritual books in the home is common among many Christians, as are adult religion classes and a wide variety of joint activities, some social, some involving works of charity or social action.
Public prayer most often occurs on the Sabbath, usually a Sunday, when most Christian traditions hold worship services (the Seventh-day Adventist community observes the Sabbath on Saturdays, while Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe a Sabbath at all). Sunday worship services vary according to denomination, but may include singing, a message delivered by clergy (called a sermon or homily), readings from the Bible, communal prayer (either from the Bible or from church-developed prayers and liturgy), confession of sins, an offering, and Communion (also called the Eucharist).
Communion is a ritual re-creating Jesus’ final meal with his followers. During that meal, called the Last Supper, Jesus offered his closest disciples bread and wine to symbolize his body and blood. The communion ritual commemorates this meal. Some denominations believe that after the wine and bread are blessed, they are transfigured into Jesus Christ’s actual body and blood. Others believe the bread and wine are symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Communion is considered a sacrament by many denominations. Sacraments are ritual acts through which Christians receive divine grace. The number and type of sacraments differ according to denomination.
Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic services often involve participatory ritual movements by the congregation as well as the minister or priest, such as kneeling, standing or sitting at various parts of the liturgy, bowing the head, and making the sign of the cross.
Sacraments are at the center of Christian practice and worship and have real theological significance for Christians of most denominations. Sacraments are outward ritual acts that convey and effect inward spiritual grace. They are also personal—they are the vehicles through which every Christian receives divine grace. The number of rituals considered full “sacraments” differs among denominations. Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions have seven sacraments. Protestants consider only Baptism and Eucharist to be sacraments, though they do have religious wedding ceremonies and a sense of “ordaining” pastoral ministers. For Catholics, only a priest can preside at the Eucharist (“offer the Sacrifice of the Mass”) or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Priests are the normal ministers of baptism, matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick, while only bishops can ordain priests and perform confirmations.
The sacraments (sometimes called ordinances) are:
- Baptism: This event is an initiation into the church community, through which the Christian receives full forgiveness of all sin.
- Confirmation: Sometimes administered immediately after Baptism and sometimes not until adolescence (or even adulthood), the person becomes a full member and representative of the people of God.
- Communion: Communion is known as Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or the Last Supper, depending on which Christian denomination an individual belongs to. This sacrament is the remembrance Christ. In this sacrament, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are represented or made present through the taking of bread and wine, which are sometimes viewed literally, sometimes symbolically, as his body and blood.
- Repentance: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other Christians are asked to confess their sins regularly in private to a priest and receive absolution, or forgiveness. Forgiveness may be possible only with acts of penance requested by the priest, depending on the seriousness of the sin confessed.
- Marriage: In Christianity, marriage between two people is often understood as symbolizing God’s love for humankind.
- Holy Orders: The church calls persons into pastoral leadership for the sake of ordering the community. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox ordain only men (and the former only celibate men), whereas most Protestants ordain women. Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans call the ordained “priests” or “presbyters,” Protestants call them “ministers” or “pastors.”
- Anointing of the Sick: Formerly known as the Last Rites or Extreme Unction, this sacrament involves prayer, the laying of the hands and anointing with holy oil for one who’s either extremely ill or nearing death. In Orthodox and Catholic traditions, this is performed by a priest, who also hears the last Confession.
Many Christians, particularly in Protestant denominations, also view “witnessing,” or speaking about their faith to others, as an important part of their religious practice. This belief stems from Jesus’ command to his followers to go out into the world and spread his teachings. This can cause tension in the workplace. Some employees, either Christian or non-Christian, may be upset by unwelcome religious advances, while others may be uncomfortable with unsolicited religious discussion in general. Managers need to be careful in these situations. Christian employees who are directly told to “stop all conversation of a religious nature; this is work, after all” may feel that their religious beliefs are not being respected. Perhaps compromise can be found that satisfies all parties.
Many different food restrictions are found within the Christian traditions, depending on the individual denomination. Some are constant, some are holiday-based, and some are a means to ask for forgiveness. How they are practiced will depend on how the particular individual and/or his religious community interprets them.
- Many Christians also fast during the 40 days of Lent.
- Some Christians may abstain from eating meat on Fridays, others may wish to fast before receiving Communion as well as on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday.
- Strict Orthodox Christians observe a number of fasting times throughout the year, including fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and abstaining from meat and dairy products.
- Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists often abstain from anything containing alcohol or caffeine.
- Many Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are vegetarians.
Important to note, however, is that fasting means different things to different Christians. For the Eastern Orthodox, fasting means abstaining from eggs, dairy, meat, olive oil, and sometimes fish. It may also include abstaining from sexual activity. Fasting, for others, may mean drinking only water, it may mean eating lightly, or it may mean simply not eating meat. There are no strict guidelines.
If providing a meal for a Christian of any denomination, it’s important to be sensitive to whether or not they are practicing a diet-related discipline, particularly in regard to alcohol or meat.
Outside of Christian clergy members, there are traditions but certainly no strict rules for attire. At Orthodox and many Catholic worship services, it’s traditional for women to dress conservatively, that is, to wear a skirt with the hem below the knee and to keep the arms covered, with modest jewelry. Women may also cover their heads in certain denominations during worship as a sign of modesty.
It’s quite common for Christians to wear jewelry with a religious theme, such as a necklace with a cross or fish symbol (used by early persecuted Christians to mark their secret meeting places). In recent years, Jesus-related clothing and bracelets have become popular, sometimes clashing with established corporate dress codes.
CALENDAR & HOLIDAYS
The Christian calendar, broadly speaking, is a mixture of “fixed” and “moveable” festivals, echoing its origins in the lunar calendar of Judaism. The dates are determined differently by the Western (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern Orthodox branches.
The Western dating system largely follows the solar-based Gregorian calendar. Most holidays therefore have fixed Gregorian dates, such as Christmas on December 25. However, some are based on the movements of the moon and their dates change on the Gregorian calendar yearly (i.e. Easter always falls on the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox of March 21).
The Eastern Orthodox tradition uses the Julian calendar, a solar calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, later replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the West.
The dates here are only a partial list of Christian holidays. They focus on the major festivals that form the core of the liturgical calendar. (Liturgical calendars prescribe readings and prayers for public worship on certain days throughout the year.) It’s important to keep in mind that fixed holidays for the Eastern Orthodox will fall thirteen days later than those in the Gregorian calendar.
- Winter: Advent The four-week period before Christmas. It’s a time of preparation and anticipation for the birth of Jesus Christ.
- Winter: Christmas One of the most joyous days of the Christian year, this day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a worldwide celebration with many different customs around the world.
- Winter/Spring: Lent Lent is a 40-day period of penitence, self-examination and preparation for Easter. It’s also a remembrance of biblical fasts, especially that of Jesus Christ before he began his ministry. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the West and is named from the tradition of burning crosses made of palm leaves; in some churches, the ashes are used to mark crosses on the foreheads of penitents, and employees may show up for work wearing this mark.
- Spring: Good Friday The culmination of the Lenten season for Christians; commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
- Spring: Easter The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. Christian doctrine is based on the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and through his life, death, and resurrection, has overcome sin and death, making life abundant available to all.
- Spring: Ascension Day The celebration of Jesus’ ascent into heaven.
- Spring: Pentecost Commemorates the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus’ followers and celebrates the continuing presence of the Spirit. This day is known in Germany as Pinkster Day and in many other countries as Whitsunday. It sometimes falls in the summer for the Eastern Orthodox.
Christianity actually has some tenets, rituals and practices with corollaries in Judaism. The celebration of the Jewish Passover, for example, is historically understood as commemorating the Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt, while the important Christian holiday Easter is seen as commemorating Christians’ spiritual freedom from sin through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and resurrection.
Though the Christian calendar is deeply woven into the traditionally secular workplace and rarely causes scheduling problems for employees, it’s important to remember that there are differences in observance between different Christian denominations. A well-intentioned manager might wish an Orthodox Christian or Jehovah’s Witness employee a “Merry Christmas” on December 24 only to find out that the former celebrates the holiday two weeks later and the latter not at all!
MAJOR LIFE EVENTS
Birth: Baptism is generally performed after the birth, though different denominations (sometimes even different congregations) baptize at different times. The Eastern Orthodox baptizes infants 40 days old and the majority of Christian denominations, such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican, also practice infant baptism. Others such as the Brethren, Baptist, and Assembly of God only baptize adults who are old enough to personally confess their faith and go through a conversion experience.
Death: Many Christian individuals and denominations view death, and the passage of the soul or spirit beyond this life, as one of the most important events of religious significance. Each denomination places a different emphasis on illness. In many Christian denominations, a church official performs a ritual before, during, and after the immediate death of an adherent. The Anointing of the Sick sacrament described previously is an example of this.
Funeral Rites and Post Death Practices: Christians place particular emphasis on the hope of resurrection and eternal life, and this shapes the fundamental Christian perspective on death. At funerals, themes of sorrow and rejoicing often stand side by side. Traditionally, Christians bury their dead as a sign of returning back to the earth after death and in hope of a final resurrection. Eastern Orthodoxy requires burial. It is common among many Christians to bury their dead in consecrated soil, often next to generations of their family. Some denominations may allow cremation if this was the wish of the deceased.
Funeral rites vary among Christian denominations. The main rites of the funeral for most Protestant denominations may be observed in a church, in a funeral home, during a graveside service, in the home of the deceased, or in a large auditorium if for a public figure. The body may or may not be present, and generally a minister performs the service with music, readings from the Bible, prayer, and remarks.
The funeral rites for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are more elaborate. For these denominations, the standard liturgy for burial or funeral mass is held at church, and then a ceremony is conducted at the graveside or in an internment chapel. Between death and the funeral, a watching, or “wake,” of the dead may be standard practice. The wake may include a “viewing,” in which the body of the deceased may be seen publicly. The corpse is generally preserved and formally dressed and is viewed in an open casket surrounded by flowers so family and friends can say goodbye. A viewing for those who are not immediate family members is optional. (Many Baptists, Methodists and others, especially in the southern part of the U.S., also have wakes and viewings.)
Following, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox generally have a brief prayer ceremony at the graveside, followed by the officiating priest or bishop putting soil on top of the casket in the shape of the cross. Each person, if he or she chooses to do so, then places a flower or spreads soil on top of the casket. It’s also appropriate to visit the bereaved the same day as the funeral. Memorial services are often held after the funeral and on annual anniversaries of the death.
Upon hearing of the death of a Christian associate, it’s appropriate to contact the family either before or after the funeral. If you wish to send a gift, it’s traditional to send flowers to the funeral home before the funeral or to bring food to the home after. Though Christians of many denominations allow the opportunity for guests to view the body of the deceased before the funeral, no offense will be taken if you choose not to participate. The immediate family typically takes off work for one week and avoids social gatherings for an indeterminate amount of time. In the case of a child or spouse, the bereaved may need more time to return to a normal schedule.
Marriage: Marriage, for the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths, is a sacrament. The sacrament of marriage requires the free consent of both parties. The elements involved in a Christian wedding are similar for most denominations, though each may have its place of emphasis. Generally, in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, an ordained priest must perform the wedding. In most Protestant churches, the wedding is conducted by a minister, although lay professionals may also perform this ritual. Civil marriages are recognized as spiritually as well as legally binding.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, marriage is separated into two parts that are now celebrated in immediate succession: betrothal and the office of crowning. At the betrothal, there’s a blessing and exchange of rings. The crowning is the visible sign of the sacrament and signifies the grace the couple receives from the Holy Spirit for their future home and shared life together. The crowning may literally look like a coronation: the priest places crowns that may be made from flowers or precious metal on the heads of the bride and bridegroom, symbolizing the joy of the occasion but also the selflessness that marriage often entails.
Christian couples commonly have “banns,” marriage announcements, published in a local newspaper or magazine. Certain denominations may also require premarital counseling on spiritual, financial, psychological, and sexual issues. Weddings are generally not held during Lent, especially the last week before Easter, as this is a time for serious introspection and somber prayer.
Divorce/Other Marriage-Related Issues: Christians regard marriage, in principle, as lifelong and indissoluble and generally don’t favor divorce. In practice, however, the complexities of human relationships have made universal observance of this norm difficult. Since divorce is a civil matter, the churches permit it. They differ about whether divorced persons may remarry with the church’s sanction. In general, Protestants allow a person to remarry in the church, and Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism do not, although the particulars of various situations give rise to many exceptions.
Christianity has no single norm on intermarriage. Typically, the churches encourage Christians to marry other Christians so that they may raise their children in a faith-filled home. Nonetheless, many Christians marry outside the boundaries of their own denomination as well as beyond the borders of Christianity.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself to be the historical, unbroken continuation of the original Christian community established by Jesus Christ. It teaches that the purpose of the Christian life is to attain a mystical union with God (theosis) and believes in eternal life through faith and works, the revered Mary as the mother of God, the intercession of saints, and the sanctity of all human life. There are 14 branches of the Church each of which is independent and self-governing; they include the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian, and Cypriot Orthodox churches, all headed by their own leaders; most recognize the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as the most senior leader. The Eastern Orthodox Church is highly ritualized. The services are composed nearly entirely of chanting, with incense and icons playing an important role. Observant Orthodox Christians may spend one-half of the year fasting at various levels of strictness, while the seven sacraments form the basis of the practicing of the faith. There are over 250-300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world today.
- Although the Catholic Church is usually called the “Roman Catholic Church,” there are in fact six main religious traditions that represent a rainbow of cultures, including Roman, Antiochene, Syrian, Armenian, Alexandrian and Byzantine, of which Roman Catholicism is the largest. The Roman Catholic Church, which officially separated from the Orthodox Church in 1054, also considers itself to be the historical, unbroken continuation of the original Christian community established by Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church is divided into territories (called dioceses), each headed by a bishop. At the top of this hierarchy sits the Bishop of Rome, commonly known as the Pope, who is the highest human authority on faith, morals, and church governance. In addition to the moral guidelines provided in the Bible, Catholics have developed a system of Canon law that outlines the church’s teachings on theology. Catholics also honor the Virgin Mother, believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and uphold papal infallibility, the supremacy of Rome, and a celibate clergy. As in the Eastern Orthodox Church, sacraments play an important role in the lives of adherents. Catholicism has over 1 billion followers today.
- Protestantism emerged in the 16th century and was initially a movement against the institution and hierarchy of the Catholic church; they were those who “protested” against Catholicism, most notably Martin Luther and John Calvin. Protestantism stood for a move back to the Christian scriptures as the appropriate source of authority rather than the institutional Catholic Church.
The Protestant tradition embraces a wide variety of denominations, including: Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Society of Friends (Quakers), and United Church of Christ. Protestant churches are generally less hierarchical than their Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic counterparts. Most Protestants observe only two sacraments: baptism and communion. Often, Protestant churches emphasize the importance of reading the Bible both individually and communally and stress direct communication with God.
Some Protestants self-identify as evangelical. Broadly speaking, the beliefs of evangelicals include a responsibility to preach and to teach the good news found in the scriptures in such a way as to encourage conversion to the faith. Some do this by living their lives in accordance with their beliefs, while others seek to engage people on the issue more directly.
In addition, there are several branches of Christianity in the United States that have substantive theological differences with Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations.
They include the following:
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints emerged in the United States in the early 19th century with Joseph Smith, who wrote the Book of Mormon after receiving divine revelation. Mormons have a strong missionary ministry and are thus found worldwide. However, their center is in Salt Lake City, Utah. Most Mormons attend church regularly (and, following their participation in prescribed rituals, attend the Temple on special occasions) and follow a strict set of moral guidelines and practices. Because of their distinct scripture and beliefs, some Christians do not recognize the Latter Day Saints as a Christian denomination, which creates tensions.
- Christian Science is a religious teaching that emerged with Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875. Christian Scientists believe in the efficacy of the fundamental healing power of God for the faithful and often refuse medical interventions.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of a religion that believes itself to be a restored form of first-century Christianity. They believe that contemporary Christianity is corrupted, and dispute the doctrines of the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps best known for their conviction in the importance of spreading their beliefs to others, primarily through house visits.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally established in 1863, in the United States. Though many of its theological tenets are the same as mainline Protestant churches, Adventists believe that the soul sleeps unconsciously between the death of the body and its resurrection when the Apocalypse arrives. The Church also teaches that judgment of Christian believers has been in progress since 1844. Adventists observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and most consider themselves to be evangelical. The Church emphasizes diet and health and promotes a socially conservative lifestyle.
Even if you don’t know which denomination your Christian employees belong to, knowledge of the range of possibilities makes it possible to develop ways of successfully recognizing the range of practices. It also reinforces the prudence of developing religion-related workplace accommodations.