Sometimes people who call themselves Christians do something morally wrong; even hateful or cruel. And not only do they do this, but they do it ostensibly in the name of Jesus. They will, for example, treat a perceived “sinner” badly while explicitly invoking God, quoting the Bible, and frequently even referencing Jesus’s offer of salvation, etc. When others condemn these putative Christians’ behavior, sometimes others will say something like “Those are not real Christians.” And usually they will explain that Jesus told his followers to love, but these people are not loving, ergo they are not real followers of Jesus and, so, not real Christians.
Of course it is not just Christians who do this. A lot of groups trying to influence others to join them can be found saying similar things as a tactic for distancing themselves from appalling or embarrassing members of their group who do things they don’t approve of. We will just representatively use Christians for specificity and because they’re the ones most often saying this to me and I would like a handy reply I can point them to. (Hello there, Christian reading this because I linked you here! Have a seat! Make yourself comfortable!)
There are some good things I think that Christians are aiming at when they say “That’s not a real Christian” and yet some really problematic things too.
Before we explore both we need to make some huge, important distinctions. With all groups that are built around beliefs and values there is a difference between the real world thoughts and practices, historically, contemporarily, and across the individual members and observable subgroups of the overall group–both historically and contemporarily. According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, there are presently around 41,000 different Christian denominations worldwide. And not only have there been many more Christian sects over the previous 2,000 years of the religion’s existence, but even the denominations that exist today have taken substantially different forms of believing, behaving, worshipping, and judging as they have existed in any number of different times and places. If we are being merely descriptive, the Christian church historically has comprised billions of people. And Christians, even on the account of most forms of Christianity I am familiar with, are imperfect people. And so not only can their beliefs and values differ widely, but their behavior in any given instance might often not even live up to their own standards, according to their own interpretations of their faith.
Maybe some Christians want to claim that Christianity is only for perfect people or people who agree with them perfectly, such that any Christian who, on their perception, does something wrong should not be called a Christian. But that’s not for an outsider to decide. We can, quite fairly, say anyone who believes some minimum constellation of identifiably Christian things and self-identifies as a Christian qualifies to be considered a possible permutation of a Christian.
Now, the other thing someone might be saying when they say someone behaving or thinking immorally is not actually a Christian is that they do not represent the ideal values or beliefs that Christianity should be understood as teaching. This could mean several things, but I think each of them has a claim something like the following at its core: “Christianity, when rightly understood, does not teach people to believe or value in the ways this person does, therefore the faith should not be assessed as false or bad on account of this person’s behavior. Since a right understanding of the faith does not teach people to act in this way, it should not be rejected on account of people who act in this way.”
This claim about the “right” interpretation of the faith might be interpreted one of (at least) two ways. On the one hand, it might be an attempt to say not only that this is the right interpretation of the faith but it is the one usually promulgated or, at least, the one consistently taught by those churches with true claim to be Christian, etc. On the other hand, reformers might acknowledge that something they’re saying should be understood to be a Christian belief or value judgment historically has failed to be recognized by the church but nonetheless clearly can now be seen to be given what we have since learned.
Since traditions are living things, I have no problem in principle with people wanting to argue for better, more humane, more rational understandings of their faith, which take into account modern realities, modern learning, and advances in moral values. While I reject faith-based believing in principle, if someone is going to be a part of a faith, it is always far preferable to me that their beliefs at least be interpreted in a way that is more consistent with reality and with objectively defensible good than not.
So, when I see a Christian repudiate something that I think is evil as not really Christianity, I am at least grateful that they are making a gesture of distancing themselves from that action. And when they are trying to disown Christians who have repugnant values or behaviors as not really Christians at all, again, I appreciate the impulse. I think it’s a good sign. It tends towards a good thing–the improvement of their faith. It also means that maybe there can be fractures in their faith where those with improving understandings and values might start renouncing their affiliations with those who make their faiths stagnant and regressive.
For centuries, given the hegemonic power of Christianity in the West, our moral and intellectual progress has depended on a Christian majority finding ways to reinterpret its faith to assimilate new findings of fact and new advances in values. If we depended on people becoming atheists in order to morally or intellectually progress, we would still be stuck in the Dark Ages. So, insofar as “those are not really Christians” means “we are working to make it so no Christian will promote that kind of behavior”, I am grateful and hopeful.
But that’s not all “Those are not really Christians” means. And the other meanings of the phrase need to be taken seriously and Christians who want to clean up their faith by distancing themselves from bad people, values, and beliefs within their faith need to be more conscientious and find another way of indicating that that’s what they’re up to.
When you say, “Those are not really Christians”, a lot of critics justifiably worry about several things.
For one thing, whereas within the Christian faith saying “That’s not Christian” effectively means “that’s bad”, it’s not that way outside the faith. It is a bit of Christian privilege to assume that calling something unChristian means calling it bad itself. That assumes that everyone shares Christianity as the standard of good and bad. That means you’re not being self-aware that to outsiders Christians are just members of a particular group among others, and that their values and behaviors are open to question and their faith has to prove itself in practice by more general ethical standards rather than just assert itself as the ultimate standard that can never itself be at fault for wrongdoing or challenged on account of bad Christians’ behaviors.
In this context, if you say “those are not really Christians” it sounds like you are unwilling to take responsibility for the historical and contemporary problems with your faith. It is healthy to think in terms of some corporate solidarity when belonging to a group. All belief-based (including the non-belief-based) groups have characteristic vices. All groups, no matter how noble their intentions, have temptations to certain kinds of flaws and develop cultures that create or reinforce some bad habits. Responsible group members are alert to this and are conscientious reformers. They refuse to become intellectually and morally idle and let the brain’s natural cognitive biases towards idealizing members of their own group and denigrating people outside their group blind them. They are proactive about engaging in critical self-assessment. They study and own up to the mistakes of their group’s past and work on tangibly improving things. They don’t send the message that when they see the bad behavior of group members they think, “Well, I am not like that, so it’s not a problem!” It is a problem and they acknowledge it.
They also don’t defensively say things like, “Well Christians are not perfect, we’re only forgiven sinners”. Because that just sends the message to outsiders that in their minds “being a Christian means never having to say you’re sorry.” Even if you believe God’s forgiven you, that doesn’t mean anyone else has to. You have to seek forgiveness from those you harm separately. Good people take responsibility for themselves and their associates (at least to the point of being able to offer apologies for them when they hurt people). They don’t claim for themselves a “Get out of remorse free” card and wave it in outsiders’ faces.
They are also aware of the danger of overreacting to the stereotyping they are receiving. When someone from a group does something wrong its enemies, thanks to their own in-group/out-group biased brains will say “See! That’s what they’re all like!” because it’s easy to demonize the Other and to see no differences between them. But it’s not any better to correct that slanderous mistake by going to the opposite extreme and saying essentially, “No, none of us are or could ever be really like that at all! That person’s a fake!” We need to have nuanced and sensitive discussions that acknowledge no groups are perfect but then assess, case by case, just how representative each bad actor is of his group in fact and just how likely belief and value statements associated with the group might account for the behavior, and how representative the motivating beliefs and values gained from the group are of the wider group’s beliefs and values, etc., etc. Neither “they’re all like that” nor “none of us are like that” are at all true in the vast majority of cases.
The other problem with saying “Those are not really Christians” when Christians behave badly is deeper and more theologically engrained in many Christians. This problem is with falsifiability. A “falsifiable” claim is one that could theoretically be shown false. Hopefully everyone can see that when someone claiming to be a psychic makes predictions that are so vague that they can never be exactly proven wrong, they’re cheating. It’s the same way with Christianity. Christians, when you make huge claims about the transformative power of Jesus but then rationalize every terrible thing actual Christians do by just saying “Those are not really Christians” you are being really slippery. When we regularly find that any given Christian is in fact no morally better or worse than any non-Christian, Christianity seems to make no essential difference.
When Christians claim their every good deed as “the work of Christ” and every bad deed as “their sinful nature” there is no observable difference between a normal person’s propensities to do good and bad. There is no proof that anything different is going on than with non-Christians in making the good happen or the bad. And when Christians talk about the True Invisible Church of people really saved and the Merely Apparent Church of people which is filled with people both genuinely saved and people who only seem to be so, this is laughably transparent. Every time someone turns out to be good, they were really a Christian. Every time they turn out to be bad, they only appeared to be one. In that case, becoming a Christian and spreading Christianity cannot be expected to actually improve people in the main. There will still be just as many bad people. We’ll just now call them “not real Christians”. What in the world is the difference then? Where is the evidence that anything supernaturally different about people thanks to Christianity and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
And, further, you cannot try to prove your faith by how much it improves people but then ignore all the ways that not only do Christians wind up making the same mistakes as everyone else but many Christians have certain bad behaviors that are either created or exacerbated by their interpretations of their faith themselves. When Christians have hateful ideas or obnoxious behaviors that are distinctly traceable to their interpretation of the Bible or to their overzealous desire to make others Christians, you cannot get away with saying “Those are not really Christians”. And you cannot so easily evade the question, “If Christianity is supposed to make people better why does it regularly make people worse in distinctively Christian ways?”
And it’s not just people who put the Christian religion over a relationship with Jesus. It happens with people who are very piously devoted to Jesus himself. So, why do people who explicitly and fervently pray to Jesus constantly for his will and guidance wind up not only doing and thinking terrible things anyway but coming away from all that prayer and service to God convinced that it is God who wants those things from them. It is one thing to say that Christians are just fallible people like anyone else and so make mistakes. But how is it that a perfectly loving and omnipotent God would let precisely the people who desperately beseech him for guidance go so wrong in precisely those matters of morals and beliefs that they pray to him about so fiercely?
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