Who is a Christian? Some suggested criteria.

Who is a Christian? Some suggested criteria. November 20, 2011

Recently I received a brochure from an evangelist I admire.  He is well known in certain Christian circles.  I have myself traveled some distance to hear him (he also sings with his wife in a duet and I like the kind of music they perform. It reminds me of the church I grew up in.  He has also written many songs performed by other singing evangelists).

The brochure quotes me and that is why I’m responding here.  But I don’t want to do the man any harm.  I think everyone who knows him and might consider inviting him to their church or organization’s conference now knows his theology, so I don’t feel the need to warn people against him.  However, I have asked him to delete my name and the quote he attributes to me from his brochure as it is misleading and could cause some people to think I don’t believe in the Trinity!

The brochure is full of small print and many quotations from well-known and highly regarded historical theologians–all taken out of context and misused to imply that the persons quoted agree with the evangelist’s new found belief (or denial of belief).

According to the brochure, sent out to thousands of people, including many pastors, Jesus is not God and should not be worshiped as God.  And there is no Trinity.  Only the Father is God and should be worshiped.  This is a new belief the evangelist has come to hold; he apparently grew up in and for a long time belonged to a Oneness Pentecostal church.  Of course, he does not belong to it anymore.

As Christian theologian, I sometimes find myself needing to answer the question “Is this person a Christian?” I’ve been asked that about Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich (in the past tense, of course) and about Hans Kung. I former colleague and I used to argue about whether Kung is a Christian or not and I insisted on keeping the decision focused on his Christology.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the evangelist of the brochure is not a Christian. 

Having said that, I must immediately go on to explain that my claim he is not a Christian is NOT to say he is not saved. Whether a person is saved or not is entirely God’s business and not mine or any person’s (other than God’s).

This is why the distinction between “Christian” and “saved” is so important.  And I don’t just mean it in the sense of “Christian” as a nominal term to designate membership in a Christian church.  Almost everyone recognizes the distinction between “saved” and “Christian” when the latter term is used that way.  (Everyone has heard and agrees with the old adage that “Just because something’s in the garage doesn’t make it a car!”)

What’s more controversial (for reasons quite beyond my comprehension) is my distinction between “saved” and “Christian” in which I say a person can be saved but not be a Christian.

So what makes a person a Christian? What makes a person saved? As I said, the latter is God’s business but he has given us some guidelines in his Word. I believe anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, and puts his or her trust in him for their salvation, and who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, is saved. (I don’t insist that a person call his or her spiritual life a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” That’s what I’m calling a life of devotion to Jesus Christ.)

Having said that, I personally withdraw from making decisions about whether a person is saved or not; that’s God’s business and between the individual and God.

However, whether a person is a Christian is NOT just between the individual and God; churches and Christian parachurch organizations must make that decision about applicants for membership, for example. I propose that ANY Christian church would decline to accept into full membership a person it believes is not a Christian. So people must sometimes make that judgment call. As a Christian theologian I feel obligated to make such a judgment at times, but it is not a judgment about a person’s eternal destiny or current relationship with God as reconciled or not. That neither I nor anyone else can know with certainty.

I have concluded that the evangelist of the brochure is not a Christian brother. He is, I believe, promoting a false gospel.  It needs to be resisted with all (persuasive) might. In practical terms that means IF (hypothetical) my church invited him to come and sing/preach, I would not attend and would even call on the leaders to disinvite him.

So that raises a question I need to keep wrestling with: what are my criteria for judging a person a Christian in this normative, prescriptive sense?  Well, first, of course, the person must be a Christ follower, a person of “The Way,” as Christians were first called.  That’s clear on the basis of the New Testament.  The person must also meet the criteria for “saved” that I stated above.  But what else?

1) A Christian will confess Jesus Christ as God and (the only) Savior (the minimum requirement of the World Council of Churches). The evangelist of the brochure argues that the Bible nowhere explicitly says (and nowhere in it does Jesus explicitly say) “Jesus is God.”  True enough, but so what? The evangelist, like Arians and adoptionists of all kinds, quotes only certain scripture passages that seem to subordinate Jesus to God. He conveniently overlooks the many sayings of Jesus and sayings about Jesus that impute to him words and acts that only God could say and do–such as the many “I am” sayings and his forgiving of people’s sins (and not merely in the sense of declaring them forgiven but actually forgiving them himself!). The evidence from scripture and the earliest post-apostolic writings is unassailable; scripture attributes godness to Jesus and the earliest Christian communities worshiped him as God.

2) A Christian will be baptized into the body of Christ or at least have the baptism of desire (as the Catholic church puts it). I grant to certain Christian sects and their members the status of Christian in spite of the fact they do not practice WATER baptism.  They believe in and experience baptism of the Holy Spirit. I wish they would use water.

3) A Christian will, of course, believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even if he or she is confused about the doctrine of the Trinity.  (I consider many modalists such as Oneness Pentecostals Christians because they do believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit even if they are confused about their unity-in-diversity. I cannot consider someone who entirely rejects God’s triunity a Christian.)

4) A Christian will believe in a supernatural worldview–that is, nature is not all that is real. Whether they believe in miracles today is not the issue; the criterion is that a real Christian will believe that God is not just a dimension of the universe or of human existence (e.g., the “call to self-transcendence”).

5)And, of course, a Christian will regard the Bible as the Word of God, sufficient and normative for Christian belief and practice.

Now, of course, laying out criteria ALWAYS raises the question of exceptions.  And I use these criteria with SOME degree of flexibility. If someone comes to me and mentions a person who meets all those criteria but ALSO, for example, believes in reincarnation, I will have to wince and consider whether such a person can really count as a Christian (because reincarnation and resurrection are incompatible and if reincarnation is true, then Jesus was not raised from the dead but was reincarnated).

Now, OF COURSE I believe much more than those five things.  This brings me to my distinction between “dogma,” “doctrine,” and “opinion” that I have laid out in some detail in several of my books.  As a Baptist Christian I hold beliefs that are not essential to being a Christian but are essential to being a Baptist.  These I call “doctrines” in this strict, narrow sense.  They are neither dogmas (essentials) nor mere opinions; they are to being Baptist what the five criteria above are to being Christian. That’s a subject for another post.

My heart is heavy as I say that I do not consider the singing evangelist a Christian; I could not have Christian fellowship with him.  How is that different from, for example, R. C. Sproul declaring Clark Pinnock not a Christian and saying he would not have fellowship with him?  (I have it on a recorded tape.) The difference is that, in my opinion, Sproul’s criteria are too detailed and go far beyond what I think the Bible or the original post-apostolic faith of the early churches required for Christian identity. In my opinion, Sproul and all neo-fundamentalists move too much from the opinion and doctrine categories into the dogma category and that is one way I decide who is a fundamentalist or neo-fundamentalist (viz., they elevate doctrines and opinions into the dogma category and go around declaring people not Christians just because they disagree with some of their opinions that in no way touch the deity of Christ or the Trinity or the sold mediatorship of Jesus Christ.)

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