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what does it mean to be a Christian

Theology

what does it take to be a Christian?

I’m bumping into this question a lot recently.

I’ve started working at a bookstore, and a little while ago a man came in to kill time and chat. Most of our conversation was interesting, and at one point we started talking about faith. He grew up Christian but no longer identifies that way, and was talking about some of the problems he has with the Bible– the same problems any moral person should have, in my opinion, like the fact that it endorses genocide and slavery. My response was largely a shrug, and when he asked how I could be so ambivalent I replied with “I believe that the Bible is a complicated library the reflects a rich and ancient religious tradition. It’s the views of those who spent lifetimes trying to understand God and how they relate to us.”

Ok, so I probably wasn’t quite that eloquent, but I’ve written about this topic often enough that I’m comfortable talking about it with strangers in pick-up theological discussions. He instantly jumped on my answer though, with an actual “aha!”– telling me that attitude disqualified me from being a Christian. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God, he said.

My response was simple, if a little heated: “A Christian is someone who follows the teachings of Christ.”

***

I can’t find the quote now, but a long time ago I read an analogy that I liked. Veganism isn’t about believing that people should follow a plant-based diet. Being vegan means actually eating a plant-based diet. If you say you believe we should only eat plants, but eat bacon every other day, you’re not actually a vegan and insisting that you are because of your “beliefs” is ridiculous. They went on to apply this example to Christianity: you can have any sort of “beliefs” about Jesus and God and the Bible, but if you fail to act like a Christian, then calling yourself a Christian because of your supposed intellectual positions is equally ridiculous.

I thought of that quote the other day when I got this comment, which I’ll quote from in part:

I would have a lot more respect for you if you would just stop applying the Christian label to yourself. In every article you seem to revile the teachings of scripture. You don’t seem to hold a confident belief in any traditional Christian doctrine. I doubt you really believe the resurrection occurred or believe there is a personal God or afterlife. So why do you cling to the title Christian?

He went on to accuse me of “infiltrating” Christianity so I can “destroy it” from the inside– honestly, it’s one of the more hilarious comments I’ve ever gotten, right along with being accused of sorcery. But, I get these sorts of comments and e-mails all the time, and they fit a spectrum of everything from frothing-at-the-mouth to concern trolling. I don’t seem to hold a confident belief in Christian doctrine, and to this sort of person that means I’m most definitely not a Christian.

The fact that I do my best to act¬† like Jesus taught us to doesn’t make a lick of difference.

Of course, I have the freedom to act this way because of an intellectual position: I don’t believe a loving God would subject anyone to eternal conscious torment. My views on the afterlife are continuously evolving, but that growth happens with the basic assumption that the afterlife doesn’t matter as much as the physical present. Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us; he became man and dwelt among us. He thought that our physical existence mattered so much that he took on human form.

His teachings are centered on the actions of loving God and each other with all our hearts, souls, and minds. Blessed are the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the salt of the earth– blessed are they for what they do (Mt. 5). The Kingdom of Heaven will be inherited by those who fed and housed and clothed and healed and visited (Mt. 25). On the road to Damascus, Paul was confronted by a Jesus focused on what he was doing, not what he believed (Acts 9). Later, another follower of Jesus taught that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2), and John the Beloved said “if we say we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness we lie and do not practice the truth, but if we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1).

To my childhood self– and to many others– the above paragraph is heresy. I’d toss it out, and the rest of this blog, wholesale on that paragraph alone. For it is by grace alone that we are saved, not by works. Entrance to heaven isn’t something we could possibly earn. We cannot possibly be “good enough” to deserve salvation, which is why Jesus had to be crucified. To even suggest an alternative method of seeing these passages means that I’m hopelessly lost in darkness, and most likely one of those God has given over to a reprobate mind.

Except I’m working with an entirely different context than I used to. When I was growing up, nothing was as important as where I would spend eternity– nothing. Considering I believed there were only two options– paradise or torment– that’s the only position that makes sense. In that framework, Christianity must of necessity be preoccupied, even consumed with answering the question “how do we avoid hell?” Catholics answer it one way, Protestants (in general) another– but there are thousands of conflicting views on how to be sure we’ve made it. In my childhood church it was to confess our sin, repent of it, and accept Jesus’ offering of salvation– which we did in the Sinner’s Prayer.

But that’s not my framework anymore.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that vein of theological questioning isn’t important. As much as Matthew 25, James 2, I Corinthians 13, and Mark 6 has become more of my Christian foundation than Romans 10, I still find concepts like the Resurrection and Salvation incredibly important to how I think of my faith. I believe in the Resurrection– in many ways, my hope is tied up in it. Part of my faith rests in everything the Resurrection means, but I don’t have to walk around firmly and intellectually convinced that the Resurrection is a factual, historical event on which our entire religion is hinged. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but whether or not it actually literally happened matters less than whether or not I follow the teachings of Jesus. Do I love my neighbor? Do I feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner? Do I feast with publicans and sinners?

The theological concepts that constitute our religion, as well as the two-millennium history we have of arguing about them, are important. They’re important enough to me that I’m planning on starting seminary this fall (if I’m accepted) … but they’re not important to what makes me a Christian. That’s based on what I do, not what I think. We now see through a glass darkly; our understandings of God and religion are cloudy, only grasped in bits and pieces. But, in this present, it’s love that we can count on.

Theology

what do we do when saints are sinners?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the concept of ethics and what that means to me. What are my ethics? What should they be? It’s clear that my values have been shaped by a white supremacist, patriarchal culture, and maybe there are some things that I should examine more closely. Through all of this, one of the things that I’m becoming more convinced of is that there is a difference between the morals I can personally hold and ones that I believe should govern society in general.

For example, I believe that following Jesus means that I’m required to love my enemy, to do good to those who persecute me. However, that’s a standard that I have freely chosen– and I think it’s impossible to actually live out unless it is chosen. Loving one’s oppressor– even in the radical form of resistance I think it is — isn’t something that should be forced on someone as a universal moral imperative. In fact, I grew up in a culture where that was demanded of me, and they did so in order to further oppress and abuse me.

I don’t think Christians will ever be on the same page when it comes to ethics. The most glaring example of this is abortion: being pro-choice alone disqualifies me from being a moral person to a significant number of American Christians. However, I do think that there are some things that aren’t quite so fraught and intense, and that are a little more universally held among Christians, like they shall know us by how we love one another. Maybe we don’t all agree on what that practically looks like, but I think we all know we should be at least¬†trying to demonstrate our love to the world so clearly that it’s noticeable and obvious.

But what do we do with the fact that we’re all human, and fallible?

The justification that I grew up with– and one that isn’t isolated to fundamentalism, but seems to be endemic to American evangelicalism– is that of course becoming a Christian doesn’t make you a better person. This is, hopefully, obvious. Christians are “just sinners saved by grace,” after all. We half-joke about how “no church is perfect, because all churches have people in them,” or “my ‘old man’ is alive and well today!”

Looking back, I don’t think any of the people I’ve known who have said these things were trying to excuse sinful behavior from Christians. They weren’t trying to argue that because we’re “prone to wander” that we can do whatever we want and then receive “grace” and “forgiveness” for our actions. That’s not the point– we’re supposed to “become more like Christ.”

All of that doesn’t change the fact that when I comment on how my worst employers were Christians, inevitably someone comes along to quip about how “everyone is flawed” and we have to “forgive” them for it. This happens all of the time, in large and small ways. Over time I’ve noticed a pattern: Christians only seem to come out of the woodwork to order the rest of us to “forgive” when it’s a Christian who’s screwed up. The problem with this attitude is that I think the reaction should be the opposite: when a Christian is the one doing wrong, we should be coming out of the woodwork to make it right.

Shame and condemnation shouldn’t have a place in Christian culture. God didn’t send his Son to condemn the world, but to save it. If we’re to be like him, that should be were our priorities lie: in saving the world (of course, I have a slightly different definition of “saving the world” than most evangelical Christians). Swarming over someone and shrieking endlessly about their sin isn’t the ideal I’m striving for, but neither is removing the consequences for their actions.

Too often, getting defensive on other Christian’s behalf overtakes good judgment. Today, it seems like standing up to support Saeed Abedini and Josh Duggar is more important than anything else. Apparently, we can’t let a Christian even be criticized by the public for abusing his wife or molesting his sisters, because saying “yes, you’re right, that is wrong and their victims deserve justice,” would somehow tarnish Christianity’s reputation. We rush to to stand in solidarity with other Christians regardless of what they’ve done or the harm they’ve caused for no other reason than they supposedly share our religion.

Except, in our religion, one of God’s chief aims is justice. The characters in our sacred texts don’t get to escape consequences just because they’ve repented, and neither should we. Forgiveness shouldn’t exist in isolation, and forgiveness and absolution are not the same thing. Forgiveness without justice is meaningless.

For those who share my faith, it’s not unreasonable to expect better-than-average behavior, and it bothers me that Christian culture resists this so ferociously. Yes, we’re only human, but the whole point of following Jesus is to become as like him as we can possibly manage. Whenever one of us fails– sometimes publicly, sometimes catastrophically– we should deny the impulse to remind everyone that Christians aren’t really any better than other people. No, we aren’t, but we should be.

This dominant urge to defend monstrous acts and monstrous people is one of the reasons why I fight so hard to re-articulate the Christian religion to myself and others. In the last fifty years we’ve gotten caught up in this vision of Christianity as predominately being about avoiding Hell. “Being a Christian” means I will go to Heaven when I die, and not “I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus and to be like him.”

If all being a Christian means is that we’re not going to burn in Hell forever, then it could be a natural outworking for us to try to absolve every Christian of every wrongdoing, since that would be the basic premise of Christianity. After all, we all deserve eternal conscious torment, but we chose to accept God’s forgiveness and therefore get to spend eternity in paradise instead. If you’re going to reduce the beauty and entirety of Christian theology down to I won’t experience just punishment for my sin, then why not apply it to this vaporous existence?

I don’t think that being a Christian is about avoiding consequences, eternal or temporal. I think it means holding ourselves to the higher standard of following Christ.

Photo by Davide Gabino