Are All “Christians” True Christians?
Again I heard it. A student related how a non-Christian friend asked him how he could be a Christian when Christians were and are responsible for horrendous abuses and terrible evils. It would be pointless to ask the person “What abuses and evils?” because we all know that so-called Christians have committed horrendous abuses and terrible evils in human history and still do today.
In my experience this is one of the most commonly used arguments against Christianity—that “Christians” have committed horrendous abuses and terrible evils often against helpless victims. There’s no use going through a litany of the abuses and evils because everyone who knows anything about history and anyone who pays attention to the news knows about them.
I would apologize for the horrendous abuses and terrible evils perpetrated by so-called Christians except for the fact that I (speaking only for myself at this moment) do not consider people who commit horrendous abuses and terrible evils true Christians. Nor do many other Christians but I won’t speak for them.
Let it be known: Roger Olson does not consider people who commit horrendous abuses and terrible evils against anyone a true Christian. (And please don’t come at me for allegedly committing the “No true Scotsman fallacy.” That is not true. I’m not saying there are no true Christians.)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I am a church historian and historical theologian and I have studied various kinds of Christians throughout history. Right now I am involved in a years long project of reading Christian writings about ethics from the second through the twentieth centuries. I am “spotting” true Christians here and there and also “spotting” false Christians here and there—throughout history and even today.
How do I know who’s a true Christian and who’s not? Of course I’m not the pope of anything and don’t claim to be. However, it’s impossible to escape making some kinds of decisions when faced with the plethora of self-identified “Christians” who have lived extremely different moral lives. And here I’m only interested in ethics; doctrinal belief is a different issue for another time.
Let me just say that the earliest Christians knew and said that not all who claimed to be Christian were authentically Christian. Irenaeus of Lyons records the story of the Apostle John who, in his last years in Ephesus, was being carried into the public baths by his disciples. When John saw the “heretic” Cerinthus, a well-known gnostic leader there, he reportedly declared (paraphrasing) “Let’s leave this place as the heretic Cerinthus is here—lest the ceiling fall in on us!” My point is simply to say that Christians, at their best, when being true to their beginnings and their basic beliefs, know that there are false Christians—people who claim to be Christian but are not.
The earliest Christians after the first century emphasized virtues such as love for enemies, humility, forgiveness, hospitality, helping the poor, modesty, peacefulness, adopting children abandoned by their parents (a common practice in the Roman world), and respecting government. Great Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom, “patriarch of Constantinople,” courageously condemned government leaders, while respecting their positions, for living in extreme luxury while people were dying in the city’s streets of starvation. For that he died. Many of the early Christian leaders and some afterwards (for example Luther) believed and taught that a good society would have a common purse so that everyone in need is fed, clothed and housed and given meaningful work to do. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is not a principle invented by Karl Marx. A fair reading of any early Christian leaders and even some as recently as the eighteenth century taught something like that. (My book will give details.)
So what is the litmus test for deciding who is a true Christian? According to the New Testament and the ancient church fathers and many influential Christian thinkers and leaders throughout Christian history it is this: “You will know them by their love.” Love is absolutely inconsistent with: slavery, burning heretics, slaughtering people, incarcerating children, racism, misogyny, pre-emptive war, unnecessary violence, love of violence (celebrating killing even of wicked people), oppression of the weak and vulnerable, extremely luxurious living in a context where people are starving, etc.
Do not think that I am condemning anyone to hell; that is none of my business. Only God can judge a person’s eternal destiny. What I am saying, as a Christian theologian, is that “Christianity” is not consistent with any and every way of life. And it is time Christian churches began to know it and act on it.
Let me give a powerful illustration of what I am suggesting all Christian leaders do.
Many years ago, but within my lifetime, a group of Catholic (and therefore ostensibly Christian) military leaders who were part of the horrendously oppressive and violent military regime of a Latin American country, came to New York to attend a meeting at the United Nations. It was then becoming well-known that the regime was “disappearing” dissidents—mostly young students. They were (among other methods) simply dropping them into the Pacific Ocean from helicopters. First they tortured them. This all came to light and there was no doubt about the regime’s horrendous acts of violence against innocent people who were guilty of nothing worse than protesting non-violently.
“The Colonels” who came to New York, being Catholic, attended mass at a cathedral not far from the United Nations building. The officiating priest refused to give them the eucharist when they came forward to partake. He was in effect excommunicating them, declaring them not true Christians. This incident, which made headlines all over world, reminded me of Saint Ambrose of Milan who refused to give Roman Emperor Theodosius the eucharist after he had his soldiers slaughter rebels in Thessalonika. The emperor had to publicly repent before he could again receive the eucharist.
My point is that throughout Christian history and even today Christians know that there are false Christians. And we need to say so more often and more publicly and sometimes name names. I will say here, as I have said before, that anyone who claims to be a Christian but who says he has never repented is not a true Christian. Again, I am not judging his soul’s salvation; I am stating a fact about Christian theology.
“You will know them by their love” means you will know them by their compassion especially for the weak, the helpless, the indigent, the stranger, the outcast, the victims of oppression.
We, Christian leaders and teachers, have not done our jobs well when we do not make hard and discriminating decisions about who is and who is not authentically Christian.
So how? How might that be done better?
I remember my childhood very well and I was profoundly impressed with some of my relatives and their deep religious beliefs and passionate Christian practices. My father’s oldest sister was an elder in the Presbyterian Church—back when women elders was a new thing. She was a “ruling elder,” not a “teaching elder” (pastor). I remember many conversations she and my father (a Pentecostal minister) had about religion. It was their favorite subject and they agreed about much and disagreed about some. I listened. My aunt reported that in her church, and I assume this was then common practice in many Presbyterian and other churches, if a church member wanted to participate in the Lord’s Supper he or she had to go to the pastor (the teaching elder) and obtain a “token” to be welcomed to the “fenced table of the Lord’s Supper.” It was the pastor’s job to decline to give even the most powerful and influential church member a token if he or she was not worthy of the Lord’s Supper. “Fencing the table” was a figure of speech; it simply meant that not everyone present was welcome to partake.
I fully realize how intolerant that sounds today, but I think we may need to return to something like that. And deciding who is “worthy” to partake should be based also (not exclusively) on how the person treats others in the community. In a Presbyterian church it would be the elected ruling elders who would guide the pastor, the teaching elder, in deciding the requirements.
I would also suggest that Baptist conferences and conventions expel churches that are known for harboring racist members, especially deacons. If a deacon of a Baptist church is a member of a racist organization, the church should be expelled until and unless they expelled the racist deacon. This is especially an issue in the South but not only there. Many Baptist churches in the South have deacons who are openly racist. How do I know? Because for the past twenty-one years I have taught seminary students who have told me.
I could go on and on, but I will end here. Not all who claim to be Christian are true Christians and it’s about time we Christians starting showing that we know that by excluding at least from the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist people whose lives are not compatible with love.
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