What Kind of Christian Are You? (And Does It Matter?)

Roger Olson, an evangelical blogger here on Patheos, wrote a post last week on “Why I Am Not a Liberal Christian.” He offered six criteria by which to evaluate whether someone is a liberal or conservative Christian. For example, a conservative Christian believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, whereas a liberal Christian might see the resurrection as a symbol for how Jesus’s disciples recognized the eternal nature of Christ’s wisdom.

For the most part, I think Olson’s six points are indeed useful for discussing ways that some liberal Christians’ theology differs from traditional Christian theology. Tony Jones, a fellow blogger here on the Progressive Christian channel, did a good job of calling Olson out on a few areas where his assertions about liberal Christians were questionable. For example, in response to Olson’s question, “Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor?”, Jones remarked that he knows of no Christian who sees salvation as something to be earned by enlightenment or endeavor, as anything other than gift.

By Olson’s reckoning, I am a conservative Christian. This fits with my usual way of describing myself as “theologically conservative, and socially/politically moderate to liberal.” Olson has done a great service to our faith by making clear that defining Christianity is, and should be, primarily about theology, and not about one’s opinion on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Commenters on this blog regularly tell me I am not worthy of the label “Christian” because I think abortion should be legal within some limits. During the election, some evangelicals questioned President Obama’s Christianity because of his support for same-sex marriage and other ways in which Obama’s faith doesn’t mirror that of white evangelical America. Olson’s focus on theology is an important corrective to this tendency to judge other people’s faith by how they vote or how they apply biblical wisdom to today’s controversies.

But while I appreciate Olson’s focus on theology, and hope his fellow evangelicals take note of it, I’m also frustrated. I’m frustrated by his need to undertake this kind of evaluation in the first place. While Olson rightly refused to make any claims about liberal Christians’ salvation, his need to define some other kind of Christian, and draw clear lines between his kind of Christianity and theirs, seems as unnecessary, and potentially destructive, as the more traditional evangelical concern with who is and is not saved.

It is human nature to categorize and label ourselves and others. And to the extent that doing so helps us better understand and accept each other, categorizing and labeling can be a good thing. Olson’s criteria for what makes a “liberal Christian” is potentially helpful to anyone exploring the landscape of modern American Christianity. The danger of such categorizing, however, is that the Christians in one category decide that they are the only “real” Christians. Such categorization not only smacks of the Pharisees and fails to model Jesus Christ’s hospitality, but also robs people of the opportunity to be part of a varied, vibrant, messy, life-giving community with people who are not like them in many ways, but who share the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

As I wrote last year about my own experience as a “mixed-label Christian,” labels can divide, but if we’re willing to engage the human beings behind those labels, our faith is enriched by engagement with those brothers and sisters whom we might not immediately recognize as kin:

In dividing up my Christian connections and smacking labels on them, I realize I’m doing everyone a disservice. Labels can diminish people. We slap a label onto a complex human being and BAM, we think we understand them. The labels themselves aren’t very important. But by occasionally trying to figure out what they mean, I hope that those who are firmly in one camp or another, for whom those “other Christians” are a strange, foreign bunch of weirdos they don’t quite get, will learn to see the good stuff they’re missing by deciding that only one brand of Christianity is okay.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://www.culturemonk.com Kenneth Justice

    I agree with you that labels can diminish people yet despite the potential negatives behind using labels, there are also a lot of positives.

    Labels are most useful in speeding up conversation. If I tell you I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, that i’ve been influenced by Schaeffer, Lewis, John Berger, and Neil Postman, although it doesn’t tell you everything about me, labels like “conservative” & “evangelical” have begun to paint a picture on your canvas of who I am. Its kind of like looking at a Monet; you get an impression of what Monet was trying to convey (hence the label impressionists) although you can’t make out the exact details or specifics; just the generalities.

    Thus, its not the labels which are bad; its how people USE the labels. If you use the labels to stereotype someone before you get to know them; than you’re guilty of jumping to conclusions.

    Evangelicals stereotype progressives and non-evangelicals WAY too much, but if we’re going to be honest; progressives and liberals stereotype evangelicals WAY too much as well (i am definitely guilty).

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      “Evangelicals stereotype progressives and non-evangelicals WAY too much, but if we’re going to be honest; progressives and liberals stereotype evangelicals WAY too much as well (i am definitely guilty).”

      As am I.

      When I consider my career as a writer thus far, I see patterns—certain points or issues that come up again and again, in a variety of contexts. I believe that one of my roles as a writer has been to help chip away at the stereotypes that evangelicals and progressives have of one another. I have had feet in both of those camps. I want to help evangelicals understand that progressives are just as passionate about our faith as they are, though we might use different language or see different implications for how we live out our faith. I want to help progressives understand that evangelicals are not a bunch of science-hating Bible thumpers, but people who are striving to apply what they believe about God and Christ to a wounded world.

      So yes, let’s use the labels to introduce ourselves, but then learn to see the person behind the label!

      • Tamara

        I have had my feet firmly in the evangelical world, but my heart and soul left that world long ago. I think it’s given me a bad attitude about evangelicals – especially when once again the LCMS church (which we attended since the late 80s) has admonished another pastor for participating in a community event which involved praying with non-LCMS members. It disheartens me to see the way their passion for their faith suggests the rest of us have none. And it’s hard for me to see them as people who are striving to apply what they believe about God and Christ to a wounded world – although that is certainly how they see themselves.

        • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

          I found the LCMS controversy over the pastor praying/worshiping with others to be really sad. My husband saw it as Pharisaic. That is definitely not the sort of witness that gathers people to Christ.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    On matters of faith, I really prefer to consider whether positions are orthodox or heterodox. Is it sound doctrine or unsound doctrine? It seems to me that this is the only distinction the Bible tells us to make under the New Covenant. (E.g., Titus 2:1.)

    Drawing those lines and allowing people to see if they end up standing on one side or the other is fine by me.


    • DaveP

      > I really prefer to consider whether positions are orthodox or heterodox.

      I am so tempted to say that some positions might be considered bidox, then bat my eyes and smile at you ecumenically. :)

    • DaveP

      > On matters of faith, I really prefer to consider whether positions are orthodox or heterodox.

      I think I am unclear on what you mean. Do you mean “orthodox” as a particular religion (“Roman Orthodox”?), or do you mean “orthodox” with respect to any religion?

      For example: if someone told you that they were a Lutheran, would you class them as heterodox, or would you ask them “Are you an orthodox or a heterodox Lutheran”?

  • Jeannie

    It strikes me that this discussion of labeling relates to the realm of disability too. If my son’s labeled as being on the autism spectrum, that has some helpful ramifications: it allows us access to school services and funding opportunities, and it explains some of his behaviours like doing the same 2 puzzles 20x in one day or insisting on taking the same route home from school. But it tells you nothing about his favourite foods or his love of Simon & Garfunkel or his awesome ball-handling skills. So as has already been said, the label can be a helpful starting point (and it’s particularly helpful when we’re labeling ourselves and not other people!), but it’s not the whole story and it shouldn’t be used to say “Oh well then you must be X” or “Then of course you believe Y.”

    Thanks for this very interesting post — I could spend all day following the links, it’s so fascinating!

  • DaveP

    Thank you for the interesting post.

    > By Olson’s reckoning, I am a conservative Christian. This fits with my usual way of describing myself as “theologically conservative, and socially/politically moderate to liberal.”

    I think I’m exactly the opposite from you. :) I’d describe myself as “theologically liberal (i.e. agnostic), and socially/politically moderate to conservative”.

    I followed the link to Olson’s post and was a little perplexed by some of his six criteria, because it was actually far more than six if you look the number of sub-criteria in each of the main criteria. For some of his six main criteria, I fit half of the sub-criteria, but not the other half of the sub-criteria.

    For example: Olsen’s 1st criteria was “First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.”

    I would answer “Yes” to question 1, but “No” to question 2, although I would answer “Yes” to question 2 if he didn’t use the word “supernatural” and left out the specific example of Jesus’s resurrection, because I don’t think God or Mother Nature are supernatural, nor do I think that Jesus was even necessarily brought back from the dead, because I am not convinced that he was dead to begin with.

    Miracles would be quite easy for God or Mother Nature to undetectably create by manipulating the exact order of quantum events, which to us appear to be random. For example, God could arrange flips of a coin to come out in a certain head-tails order, and if God arranged the order so that overall there were about 1/2 heads and 1/2 tails (among various other statistical tests), we wouldn’t be able to tell. And if one of those flips resulted in someone deciding to drive instead of fly, and the plane crashed, there is no way we could tell if their life was saved by a random flip, or if God performed a “miracle”.