How do we decide who is, and is not, a Christian?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:13 pm

“That’s not very Christian!” is something we tend to hear when someone does something unkind or unloving. There’s an enormous range of shapes that Christianity takes in the world now, and the question in the title is a perplexing one for me. (I could replace that final word with Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon, Mason, Metalhead… but except on the last, I simply don’t know enough to speak, so I’ll stick with considering Christians.)

On the one hand, I tend to find ‘Is it _____ ?’ discussions tedious, where the gap is filled by ‘science’ or ‘art’ or ‘black metal’ or whatever. They turn on people’s individual definitions of those things, which can be quite divergent, so the debates tend to go around and around without reaching any worthwhile conclusions.

On the other hand, how we respond to people who claim to be Christians is coloured by our view of what it means to be Christian, and whose version of that we consider to be definitive – or, at least, most influential.

A complexifying factor is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Very briefly, it stems from a story in which a newspaper report says that a Scotsman did something very bad, and a reader says ‘No true Scotsman’ would do such a thing. If a Christian does something evil, it’s much too convenient to simply define that person out: no ‘true Christian’ would do such a thing. The history of child sexual abuse by clergy uncovered in the recent Australian Royal Commission is just one example of bad things done by Christians, including pastors and priests.

If Christianity can never be represented by its worst adherents, but only by its charitable works and the best examples, it’s impossible to have a fair accounting of its net impact in the world.

At the other end of the spectrum, opponents of Christianity like Richard Dawkins might exclude or ignore all positive influences and impacts, and characterise Christianity only by its worst features and examples. Dawkins pays some lip service to more sophisticated theologies early in his book, but then defaults to treating all of Christianity as though it represented by its most literal and fundamentalist fringes.

There is a huge range of political views and beliefs in the church, from Christians like Jarrod McKenna, who builds homes for the homeless and refugees, and Father Rod Bowers who advocates for more humane policies, to the Michelle Bachmans of the world, who say that Donald Trump is the most godly president of our generation. Indeed, American evangelicalism has entirely embraced capitalism and wealth.

For most of these kinds of ‘club membership’ discussions I would be happy to accept people’s own self-identification as ‘in or out’. If someone decides they are a Christian, then they are, and I don’t have the right to gainsay them.

In this case, though, I’m going to suggest an alternative definition. It’s linked to something I think I’ve talked about in the past, either here on the blog or on Facebook, and certainly in conversations. While I think ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ (as represented on bracelets in the 90s) is dangerous because it is far too prone to projection, so that it becomes ‘What would I do?’ or ‘What would my pastor and the members of my church do?’, I think ‘What Did Jesus Do?’ is a pretty decent guide for living.

After all, Jesus is described as the ‘Christ’, and ‘Christian’ literally just means ‘follower of the Christ’. So, if someone claims to be a Christian, the test is simply ‘Do they do what Jesus did?’ And, I guess, do they refrain from doing what He did not?

Now, some of my atheist friends – and some of my theologian friends too, for that matter – might interject that the Gospels may have been subject to later tampering and interpolations, and were certainly a selection from among a range of documents at the time. They were also written some time after Jesus’ death, largely based on other accounts, both written and verbal. I acknowledge this, and yet… if we simply take what we have, and take it as a wisdom literature that informs our moral reasoning, not a creed that dictates it, the Jesus described in the four Gospels offers a way of life.

There are controversial sections where He says that he comes to bring division, and other difficult passages, but this is the story of a man who owned nothing more than the clothes he stood up in, and went around ministering to the poor and vulnerable and excluded in society. He reserved anger for the powerful, the wealthy and oppressors, and comforted those who were rejected by others in their society.

Read the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5, and the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In fact, read all the Gospels… it doesn’t take all that long.

Then, if someone claims to be a Christian – and particularly if they want to make you do something or stop you from doing something because they are a Christian – just run the ‘What did Jesus do?’ ruler over them.