What is your working definition of a Christian? And who gets to decide whether or not a person is a Christian? In certain quarters, those are topics of great importance.
During the last presidential election cycle, there were frequent articles about whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a Christian. The same issue is at the heart of the argument over whether or not the United States was, at its founding or should be now, a “Christian nation.”
Christians are not the only religious tribe who face this issue. In every religion, there will be several expressions of what it means to be a member of that particular tribe.
Though this discussion is not unique to Christianity, I’m concerned primarily about how that plays out in my own tribe.
The evidence seems to suggest that certain groups of Christians think they have the right – or even the duty – to decide who is and who is not a legitimate member of the Christian tribe.
The most common way I experience people making that decision is by comparing others to their own understanding and expression of Christianity. A Christian is defined as believing, talking and acting like them, which makes the individual the standard.
Each of these people, of course, will claim that they use the Bible as the standard for deciding. What they really mean, but seldom say, is that they reference select texts from the Bible that they understand and interpret in a particular manner. As do we all.
Others make their decisions by “formula,” using some kind of checklist to decide whether or not someone is a Christian. Have you been “born again”? Do you believe in the Apostles’ Creed? Or the Baptist Faith and Message? Which version – 1963, 2000?
As Jesus said, however, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (or ‘I’ve been born again’ or ‘I believe’) will enter the Kingdom.”
In some places, you are a Christian if you have been baptized or even if you have been born a citizen of a “Christian” nation.
So we’ve come back to the original question. Who gets to decide who is and who is not a member of the Christian tribe?
Or is it up to each of us to make that declaration for ourselves regardless of what others might say? Can you be a member of the tribe if the tribe, or large segments of it, don’t want to include you?
I think all of that misses the point. The entirety of Jesus’ statement above is this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom, but he or she who does the will of the Father.”
Therefore, I believe that being a member of the Christian family is not defined by one’s own declaration of belonging or by affirming a human created formula.
Inclusion is defined rather by relationship. Relationship with God – loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength. Relationship with other people – loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.
In that sense, we each do get to define whether or not we are Christians, but not simply by making such a claim. We define ourselves as Christian by how closely our lives (our actions) resemble the life and actions of Jesus.
Saying you are a Christian no more makes you one than saying you are a bird enables you to fly. A person is Christian to the extent his or her life looks like Jesus’ life, reflects Jesus’ values and echoes Jesus’ actions.
Part of that, by the way, means you don’t get to judge whether others are Christian or not. You get to love them anyway, just like you find them. Just like Jesus did, which then quite clearly identifies you as a member of the Jesus tribe. As Jeff Foxworthy might say, “You just might be a Christian if….” you look like Jesus.
Some will be bothered by that because it doesn’t require adherence to certain beliefs or assertions that they hold sacred and essential.
That’s one of many things about Jesus that bothered the Temple priests and elders. In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus told a parable about a father who had two sons (see Matthew 21:28-32).
This father asked both of his sons to go work in the family vineyard that day. One said he would not, but later changed his mind and worked in the vineyard. The other son told the father that he was on his way, but he never showed up. “Which of the two,” Jesus asked, “did the will of the father?”
Doing the will of the father is Jesus’ standard for entering the Kingdom. For being a member of the family of God, being in the tribe of Jesus and being a Christian.
Jerry Young is the director of supervised ministry at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Va., and co-pastor of the United Baptist Church in Annandale, Va. A longer version of this column first appeared on the Leland Center’s blog, Theologically Thinking, and is used with permission.