Who Decides Who’s A Christian?

Who Decides Who’s A Christian? June 19, 2015

This is not a continuation of the Mormonism discussion just closed–at least not directly. It’s a “spin off” from that discussion which raised the question “Who decides who’s a Christian?” I have discussed that here before, but not recently enough (apparently).

Let me set forth a few basic theses for consideration and discussion:

1) While everyone should have the freedom to call himself or herself (or his or her church) “Christian” it simply cannot be the case that every claim to be Christian is really valid theologically. If “Christian” is compatible with anything and everything it’s meaningless. People who claim that every claim to be Christian is automatically valid and above question can always be shown some case they would agree does not fit that claim. (I suspect they are just not aware of all the varieties of “Christianity” that exist “out there.”

2) In our extremely pluralistic society every Christian needs to decide at some time, in some situations, whether they believe an individual or group really is Christian. For example, when emissaries from a particular group promoting their brand of “true Christianity” comes to the door or stops them in a public place to “talk” or when a close friend or relative is being attracted to a religious group called “Christian” that is very strange and whose beliefs are totally incompatible with everything the person knows as “Christianity.”

3) Churches (denominations and congregations) will sometimes need to make decisions about what counts FOR THEM as authentic Christianity. Many churches find themselves in situations where “invaders” from some cult or heterodox group or even other religion entirely want to join the church or begin attending it with the clear intention of spreading their “different gospel” within it. Not that long ago many churches and their affiliated ministries (e.g., coffeehouses) found themselves confronted with emissaries from Korean-based alternative religions and/or esoteric groups teaching reincarnation who clearly intended to promote their radically alternative beliefs using the church and/or its ministries as platforms for recruiting.

4) Many Christian institutions, even ones affiliated with a particular denomination, will admit as students, hire as staff, work closely with, other Christians but not non-Christians because of the spiritual-theological component of what they do. For example, many Christian seminaries will admit all Christians as students, not just members of their own denomination or tradition. But then they have to decide (for themselves, at least) who is truly Christian (in their minds) and who is not.

5) No individual or group speaks for all Christians; nobody has the authority or power to expel or exclude anyone from the people of God (the church universal). So when an individual or group says of others “they are not Christians” all they mean is “for us.” Their only “power,” as it were, is the influence of persuasion and exclusion from their groups (denomination, congregation, ministry, ecumenical group). Such exclusion cannot be avoided entirely. A group that automatically admits to membership or affiliation every individual or organization claiming to be Christian will soon be nothing but a (to use William James’ term for nature itself” a “blooming, buzzing confusion.”

6) It will not do simply to use “the Bible” as the criterion for deciding whether an individual or group is authentically Christian. As the second century church fathers (e.g., Irenaeus) realized, the Gnostic sects used the Bible to defend their radically unorthodox beliefs (e.g., that matter is evil, created by a demented god, that Jesus Christ was not truly human and did not die on the cross, etc., etc.). The second century and third century church fathers developed “rules of faith”–brief summary formulas of basic Christian doctrine–to express what the Bible means. These were the first Christian creeds and they were meant to exclude people who claimed to be Christian and used the prophets and apostles but interpreted them wrongly.

7) It will not do simply to say “Everyone who believes in Christ is Christian.” Many adherents of non-Christian religions “believe in Christ.” Many who call themselves “Christian” deny Christ as more than a human prophet. Many who “believe in Christ” also believe in: reincarnation, contemporary prophets who are equal with Christ, etc., etc. The “Christian” world is a blooming, buzzing confusion of beliefs that are often completely incompatible with each other.

8) Saying that an individual or group is not Christian is not necessarily or automatically the same as saying they are not saved. Many Christians believe salvation is wider than the class of people are really Christian.

9) The vast majority of Christians believe that there is a core set of beliefs that necessarily define authentic Christianity in terms of beliefs: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (Jesus’ ontological deity), the unsurpassibility of Jesus as unique Savior, Jesus was truly human as well as truly divine, God exists eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and yet is one divine being (substance), humans are sinners who need a savior and are only saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation is by God’s grace and cannot be earned, and Jesus rose bodily from the dead leaving an empty tomb and will return to judge the world and establish his eternal Kingdom. The vast majority of Christians believe among these core beliefs and, in a certain sense underlying them, is that the Bible is God’s uniquely inspired Word and authoritative for Christian faith and practice.

So let’s drop the nonsense that “All who believe in Christ are Christians” and “Nobody should judge others’ Christianity.” Those claims are simply impossible given the pluralism of contemporary “Christianity.”

Note to potential responders: Keep your responses relatively brief (no more than 200 words). Do not include hyperlinks. Make sure your response responds to what I said and not to something I did not say. Ask yourself whether your response promotes understanding and dialogue about the subject. If you express an opinion give some reason for it.

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