In our current cultural divide, a frequent denunciation that arises is that someone is not really a Christian. This is flung at people from both believers and non-believers. It is usually reflective of whether a person agrees with them on their favorite moral issue ranging from abortion to human sexuality to matters such as immigration or the death penalty. If you are on the wrong side, then the demonization begins. It can also be used if someone questions things a Christian does such as curse, drink, dance or some other supposed “Thou Shalt Not” activity.
On the spiritual hand, no human can rightly judge whether another is truly a Christian. It is a matter between them and the Lord. Even if we could, that is not our place. On the practical hand, someone can claim to be a Christian and can point to their profession of faith, baptism and church membership or attendance. What is it that makes someone truly a Christian, though? Every denomination seems to have its formula for answering that question often to the exclusion of anyone not in their circle.
As a strong adherent and appreciator of the concept of grace, the unmerited love and mercy of God, I believe there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. That said, if someone genuinely has Jesus in their hearts, their life should be different as a result. One of the ways we should be able to reflect on the progress of our faith journey is where we are in the growth of the fruits of the spirit. As we read in fifth chapter of Galatians, those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As with most people, I am better at demonstrating some of these than others. I also find I am better on some days more than others.
Another guide for Christian definition is found in Romans 12. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, these passages are given the heading “Marks of the True Christian.” 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I should paste these words on my bathroom mirror as a reminder as I start each day. Notice there are only a couple of “Thou Shalt Nots” in these lists and zero doctrines as such. There are no defining positions on social issues. The saint and the stranger are to be treated with compassion. So how can we tell if someone is a Christian? Well, it’s distilled nicely into a song lyric based on John 13:35, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Life is messy and difficult and there are some people who make it more so. I am especially fond of verse 18 above: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I pray that our unity will one day be restored.