Who Gets to Decide Who Is a Christian?

What is your working definition of a Christian? And who gets to decide whether or not a person is a Christian? In certain quarters those are topics of great importance in our culture. During the last presidential election cycle there were frequent articles about whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a Christian. Again, what is the definition of a Christian and who gets to decide whether or not one does or does not meet that definition? The same issue is at the heart of the argument over whether or not the United States was at its founding and/or should be now a “Christian nation.” What is the definition of “Christian” and who gets to decide whether or not our nation meets that definition? Of course, Christians are not the only religious tribe who face this issue. In every religious tribe there will be several expressions of what it means to be a member of that particular tribe. Some are the true believers. They are committed to the tribe’s religious tradition, but even more are committed to the faith and spiritual understandings that underlie that tradition. Of course, this group could be further divided — into liberals and conservatives, orthodox and progressive, as well as several other permutations. There are also the secularists within the tribe. Their connection to the tribe is primarily a cultural one. They may or may not celebrate the rituals of the tribe, or share the stated theological beliefs of the tribe, or even identify with the world view of the tribe. But their identity is firmly connected to the tribe. The tribe is their culture. It is them. While this is true of every religious tribe, I’m concerned primarily about how that plays out in my own tribe.

The evidence seems to me clear that certain groups of Christians think they have the right — or even the duty — to decide who is and who is not a legitimate member of the Christian tribe. The most common way that I experience people making that decision is by comparing others to their own understanding and expression of Christianity. That is, one is a Christian if he or she believes, talks, acts, like me. That makes “me” the standard for what a Christian is. Each of these people, of course, will also claim that they use the Bible as the standard for deciding. What they really mean, but seldom say, is that they use the Bible as they themselves understand and interpret it. As do we all. They tend to be quite selective which parts of the Scripture they use. Others make their decisions by “formula.” By that I mean they have a kind of checklist to decide whether or not someone is a Christian. Have you been “born again”? Or do you believe in the Apostles’ Creed? Or the Baptist Faith and Message? Which version – 1963, 2000? As Jesus said, however, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (or ‘I’ve been born again’ or ‘I believe’) will enter the Kingdom. In some places, you are a Christian if you have been baptized or even if you have been born a citizen of a “Christian” nation. So we’ve come back to the original question. Who gets to decide who is and who is not a member of the Christian tribe? Or is it up to each of us to make that declaration for oneself regardless of what others might say about it. Can you be a member of the tribe if the tribe, or large segments of it, don’t want to include you?

I think all of that misses the point. The entirety of Jesus’ statement above is, Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom, but he or she who does the will of the Father.” I believe that being a member of the Christian family is not defined by one’s own declaration of belonging, or by affirming a human created formula. Inclusion is defined rather by relationship. Relationship with God (loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength). Relationship with other people (loving one’s neighbor as one’s self). In that sense, we each do get to define whether or not we are Christians, but not simply by making such a claim. We define ourselves as Christian by how closely our lives (our actions) resemble the life and actions of Jesus. Saying you are a Christian no more makes you one than saying you are bird enables you to fly. A person is Christian to the extent his or her life looks like Jesus’ life, reflects Jesus’ values, and echoes Jesus’ actions. Part of that, by the way, means you don’t get to judge whether others are Christian or not. You get to love them anyway, just like you find them. Just like Jesus did, which then quite clearly identifies you as a member of the Jesus tribe. As Jeff Foxworthy might say, “You just might be a Christian if” …. you look like Jesus. Some will be bothered by that because it doesn’t require adherence to certain believes and/or assertions that they hold sacred and essential. That’s one of many things about Jesus that bothered the Temple Priests and Elders. In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus told a parable about about a father who had two sons. No, not that one in Luke 15. The one in Matthew 21:28-32. This father asked both of his sons to go work in the family vineyard that day. One said said he would not, but later changed his mind and did indeed work in the vineyard. The other son told the father with respoect that he was on his way, but he never showed up. Which of the two, Jesus asked, did the will of the father? Doing the will of the father, Jesus’ standard for entering the Kingdom. For being a member of the family of God. For being in the tribe of Jesus. For being a Christian.

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  1. It would appear to me that stating that “Doing the will of the father, Jesus’ standard for entering the Kingdom” doesn’t really cover it all. I specifically wonder how is this resolved against the criminal’s confession on the cross next to Jesus in Luke 23?

    Luke 23:40-43 (NIV):
    But the other criminal rebuked him [the other criminal]. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
    Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
    Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

    This criminal clearly states that he is getting what his deeds deserve — death. We don’t know who this man was, but I don’t think there is any argument here that this criminals life, or actions, looks like Jesus’ life, reflects Jesus’ values, or echoes Jesus’ actions. The criminal doesn’t even try to argue that. But in just a very brief encounter with Jesus, at the 12th hour, this man repented of his actions and confessed Jesus as Lord. To me, that is as Christian as Christian gets. And it seemed to be good enough for Jesus too as he answers with “… today you will be with me in paradise.”

    Many will argue that the criminal on the cross would have gone on to be baptized, to be discipled, to live a life that looks like Jesus’ life, but it certainly was a requirement for Jesus to declare him a member of the kingdom, or tribe as you describe it.

    So, just maybe, a better statement of who’s a Christian is a belief that may result in actions which look like Jesus Christ’s. As John 3:16 says: “… whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

    • Re-reading my post, I meant to say in the next to the last paragraph, “… but it certainly was[n’t] a requirement….” Sorry about the confusion that may cause.


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