First, I want to start with a made-up story I’m making sound real – but it’s made up. I made it up all by myself (!) so here goes: I had these two friends in high school, they were brothers. One was adopted. They fought all the time. What made them unique, I thought, is that they were the same age – in the same grade. They were like twins but weren’t even biological. And when they’d fight – oh wow, they would fight like two dogs going after the same hambone. But here’s what I remember so well (but since this story is made up, I’m making up my memory) – is that so often the brother who was a biological son of the family would say to the adopted son, “You aren’t even my real brother.” When he’d say this there was always a collective sigh from us. Ouch. This, it seemed, was so wrong.
But this isn’t a problem just for the brothers in my fictional story. This is a problem right now in the very real world in the very real church because there sure are a lot of “this” group of Christians telling “other” Christians that they, well, aren’t part of the family – that they “aren’t even a real Christian.” It’s one thing to say that we disagree with someone else’s theological position. In fact, in some religious cultures and practices it is an honor to be invited to argue with the spiritual leaders over theology, because iron sharpens iron. No one has it all figured out perfectly, and discourse is an honored spiritual tradition which fosters clarity, growth, and closeness to the truth. We should all learn how to “argue” about our faith more productively.
But it is a wholly different thing to tell people they are not a Christian. As if we have any say in the matter.
Let’s do a quick case study on, I don’t know, ME for example. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I grew up in the church. I was never really a great fit (surprise), but I was always around. I was baptized at Temple Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC when I was 6. I went to youth group at First United Methodist Church in Pearisburg, VA where I even got to preach on “Youth Sunday” when I was 15. I was super involved in Young Life in High School and had a profoundly intense “call experience” when I was 16.
I’ve dedicated myself to ministry since I was a teen. Through college I served on mission and service teams, I’ve served as a missionary, taught in seminaries, been a youth pastor, planted two churches, started multiple faith-based non-profits. Next month I’ll even graduate with a Doctor of Ministry degree. I even tithe! Like, who does that? All that to say: I’m fully in this, if that wasn’t already pretty obvious. But in the past few years since I’ve been more vocal about my support of the LGBTQ+ community, I’ve had many comments of this sort directed my way:
There are so many more…Now, this doesn’t bother me. I’m quite secure in my faith and my relationship with Christ. I have to be. Why would I have devoted pretty much my whole life to ministry and the church if I didn’t really believe this? But to many others, this may feel like a rejection from the first place they ever felt that they were loved without qualification: God’s family.
So, what criteria are we using here to define “who is a Christian?” anyway? For 2000 years the criteria for being considered a Christian is this: Confess Jesus is Lord, be baptized, be part of a church. The Bible tells us that, “whoever calls on the name of Jesus will be saved.” (Romans 10:13) That seems pretty straightforward.
I get a lot, and I mean A WHOLE LOT, of scripture quoted *at* me like a nerf gun, and while it’s usually the same several passages in Leviticus (sigh…), this one from Romans never has. It’s almost like people are not focused on the fact that God’s arms are open really, really wide. Like they almost want Christianity to be an exclusive club with membership fees and a snazzy dress code.
Are we making Christianity into a set of rules and requirements and not a relationship with Jesus? Growing up, people used to tell me that “Christianity is not a religion but rather a relationship.” So…um…which is it? And it’s pretty difficult to tell someone they don’t have a relationships with someone else. Like:
Me: “Me and Bob are pretty good friends.”
Them: “No you aren’t – you can’t be, that’s impossible.”
Me: “No really, we had lunch yesterday.”
Them: “You don’t really know Bob…”
Me: *shrugs* “You know that sounds crazy, right?”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Jesus wears the mantle of the judge. We don’t get to decide someone’s spiritual worth or status – because we are not God. Only the head of the family gets to decide who is part of the family – and well, last time I checked, Jesus was on the throne of the cosmos – not me or you. I have a few Southern Baptist pastor friends and I can honestly say that we may not agree on ANYTHING except the Apostle’s Creed. Beyond that – yeah, probably nothing. But I would never dare say that they “aren’t a Christian.” Of course they are, and even if they’re not, I don’t make that call. The Romans thought the Jews were lesser people because of their ethnicity and thought that it was probably impossible for Jews to be Christians. And Paul tells them that there is “there is no difference between Jew and Greek and gives richly to all who call on the Lord.” (Romans 10:12)
When we say that someone else is “not a Christian” or “deceived” we are taking it upon ourselves to be the judge of that person’s faith. We are telling them that their faith, and ultimately their soul, only has value if they agree with our position. We are, in effect, deifying ourselves by becoming the self-appointed arbiters of faith. Isn’t this sort of blasphemy? Is this not taking God’s name and authority in vain? To tell someone that their identity in Christ, the family they were adopted into, no longer has a place for them. And maybe never really did.
But, being a child of God is gift given that is no one’s to rescind.
So, News Flash: Despite the rumors, I must report to some of y’all that I am still indeed… a Christian. (audience gasps in surprise) I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and have surrendered my life to His will. I am a full and active participant in the life of the church’s mission and service to the world. My whole life is, in fact, centered around Jesus’ life and teachings.
Sidenote: How can someone support Donald Trump’s faith on Facebook and then turn around and try to discredit mine and those in the LGBTQ community?
So, let’s just cut through the bull: we know that the person we disagree with really is still a Christian – we just don’t like the idea that there’s room enough for both of us in the tent of God. It’s really special, and we know it’s really special, and we sometimes start thinking that we earned our place here. We think about all of our good works and beliefs and we pat ourselves on the back, but then other people are in the tent and their good works and beliefs look really different and we think hey wait a minute, how did you get in here?? But we didn’t do a damn thing to get ourselves into this tent, and that is a hard pill to swallow for some people. There is no scarcity model in Christianity- there is enough for every single person, it’s free…and none of that affects its value. You are loved because you are.
SO, if someone ever tells you you’re not really a Christian: they’re really saying “I don’t agree with your position, it threatens my particular Christian worldview, I can’t incorporate it into my faith experience, so the only thing I know to do is discredit you.” But your faith journey is yours, and someone’s questioning of it is meaningless. You are part of God’s family regardless of what Joe from the Internet thinks.
And if you have ever told someone else they “aren’t a Christian,” you gotta stop. Please. Just because someone doesn’t think about God exactly like you do, or agree with your set of theological principles, or interpret the Bible just like you – does not make them deceived or “not a Christian.”
Regardless of what side of the tent you are in, there is good news: you aren’t the judge, Jesus took that burden from you! It’s a huge job and you don’t even need to go near it. You get to sprinkle everyone you meet with love, without reservation. You get to be a blessing to all people, without stipulations.
We may not all be biological brothers and sisters – but we’ve all been adopted into the same family and the only person who gets to define our family is Jesus. What good is the love of God if we can’t love and embrace our complicated, diverse, eccentric, beautifully odd family?