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.


Violent Night, Holy Night

The year was thankfully drawing to a close. 1968. What a year it had been. It began with the Tet offensive in Viet Nam. That led to Walter Cronkite, America’s “most trusted” journalist, voicing his conclusion that the war could not be won. That led to President Lyndon Johnson concluding that if he had “lost Cronkite, he had lost” either the American people or the war (according to which version you accept). That led to Johnson’s decision not to run for another term. That led to a Democratic Convention in Chicago that resulted in riots. Along the way were the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy. It was year of turmoil. College campuses were erupting in protest over the war and cities erupted in violence over the assassinations. In December of that year, NASA launched the first manned mission to the moon and on December 24, 1968 the crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders in a live videocast from lunar orbit read portions of the creation account from Genesis 1 and then signed off by saying, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the Good Earth.” That referenced the iconic picture taken from lunar orbit of earthrise above the lunar horizon. That awesome “blue marble” streaked with white clouds rising above the desolate lunar landscape and suspended in the blackness of space. Someone would send a telegram to NASA commending them for having “saved 1968.”

Here we are at the end of another year, which has also seen its share of turmoil. Another presidential election year. Another war in a small country thousands of miles away, dividing us and draining our resources. Then came the events of ten days ago in Newtown, CT. Horrible words. Pictures. Memories. We’ve seen it all too often, but even once would be too often. Twenty-seven people shot and killed. Twenty of them just children. The President weeps on national television, and he weeps for all of us. And all of this happening just before Christmas. But Christmas has always had a connection with violence. The angel chorus decreed that it was a night of “peace on earth,” but violence of the human heart has fought that every step of the way. The very birth of he who would be called the “Prince of Peace” was the cause of a king of this world, Herod the Great, to order the slaughter of male children who were of an age to possibly be the One who would challenge him. The violence of 1968 and of 2012, as well as every other year, demonstrates the struggle in which we are engaged.

Some voices in the last ten days have tried to simplify the problem to being one of us having somehow kicked God out of the public square, out of the schools. Why, they ask, should we not expect to experience such violence after we exclude God from our public lives? Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association took it a step further on his radio broadcast when he said even as the events were still unfolding, “I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.” Such a pathetic, puny view of God in which we have power to cast out the Almighty! And such a vindictive view of God. Watching innocent children be slaughtered when he could have intervened to stop it but did not because his pride was hurt or to prove a point. What kind of “gentleman” would stand by and allow such things to happen without doing everything in his power to stop it? Neither you nor I would behave that way. That’s not a gentleman. That’s a demon. And so far from being the Father about whom Jesus spoke and whose very being he enfleshed.

Then where is God when these events occur? That’s really the question that disturbs us, isn’t it? We have invested in the idea of a God who matters, who makes a difference in our lives. Events such as these confront us with the simplicity of our understanding of what that means, or doesn’t mean. God was there in Newtown that day. He’s always there. Everywhere. Every day. He just doesn’t always look like we expect him to look. We expect him to look like Santa Claus, gathering the items on our wish list. Or standing by to deflect bullets in mid-flight. Or suspending the laws of his own creation in order to deliver us. Instead, God often comes in the appearance of a first responder. Or a stranger off the street. Or even an enemy who offers a hand in friendship. Two thousand years ago the people whom God had prepared for this very moment were looking for a king who would be born of royal blood and who would appear at the head of a divine army to deliver God’s people. Instead, God entered his world as a powerless peasant child, and most people missed him.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, as the astronauts were reading the creation account from lunar orbit, I was watching the television coverage of that event from the father’s waiting room in a hospital. Our daughter was born that day, and she became for me the incarnation of the words being read from the moon. Nobody else listening probably had that experience, but I did. And for me, she (not Apollo 8) saved 1968 for me. It’s not too late for 2012 to also be redeemed. Once again we celebrate the coming of the Almighty to his creation in the form of a human baby. This child came to redeem and can also redeem this year. But we’ve got to be looking in the right place and with the right expectations. Emmanuel. God is with us! Again. Still.

Divine Grace

There is a form of human compassion that can evoke wonder, which I believe the Catholics call a “special grace.” This form is recounted by Ray Gaita, the well-known Australian philosopher, in his book, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice.  The wonder of which I speak, Gaita experiences when as a young man he is working as an assistant in a psychiatric hospital.  While at the hospital he witnesses a nun who in her interactions with the hospital’s patients (and these patients are persons who have lost much of what passes for the prima facie dignity of human beings) conducts herself in a manner that evokes in Gaita a special kind of wonder and awe.  The nun, as Gaita describes her, interacts with her patients in the absence of any condescension whatsoever.  Her love is so pure that it compels Gaita to affirm, as he puts it, “its rightness.” Gaita isolates this experience because for him its singularity forces a kind of recognition upon reflection that must acknowledge that in this person, this nun, virtue, in a sense, shows itself as beyond virtue – a goodness that is not merely good, but Goodness itself.  Other expressions for it may be: supererogatory action, infinite goodness, divine goodness, etc.

I would like to say that such experiences or epiphanies are the kind of recognitions that set a limit to our moral reflection.  And when they are so recognized, we are left with the distinct impression that their application is not susceptible to replication.  There is no sense in which I or anyone else can decide to try and improve on our Goodness.  We can try to be more good than bad. We can seek to be good in certain circumstances.  But to achieve moral purity or perfection is a kind of non-sense.  “I think I will be infinitely Good today”.  In fact, that anyone should strive to be good is a sure indication that the Goodness of which I speak is not in him or her.

And yet Jesus says to his followers, “Be ye perfect, as your Father is heaven is perfect.”  Sounds like Jesus has just uttered complete nonsense.  And in one sense he has.  As a prescription for future action, no sense can be given to what the Lord has declared.  (OK, this morning I am going to embody the Truth, exemplify Goodness, and in all things act in perfect Love).  But must all moral interests be considered as prescriptions for “right living”?

What if that to which Jesus has alerted his disciples is not a radical prescription for the sake of serious moral endeavor, but a description of the astonishing contours of divine goodness when reflected in some corner of the created order.  What if our Lord is giving a nod to how Goodness, Truth, Love, Purity, Honesty, Sincerity, etc., might look if recognized in someone who says they belong to God.  It is one thing to avoid killing someone who deserves it.  It is quite another to call someone a “fool” and thereby kill him anyway.   Perhaps, because these astonishing virtues are said to be in Jesus is why we see that awe and wonder are so natural to the believer’s experience.  Perhaps it is part of what believers mean when they speak of Jesus as “God”.  Perhaps, it is part of what we mean by the word “God” — theologically speaking.

by: Dr. Jeffrey G. Willetts

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