by C Michael PattonOctober 31st, 2012 48 Comments
On a website separate from this blog, I recently made the comment that I did not believe Obama was a Christian. I don’t believe he is. I am not sure, but from what I know of him, it is more responsible for me to say (context allowing) that he is not rather than to remain agnostic or just give him the benefit of the doubt.
The uproar was tremendous and, often, vicious. Many Christians were appalled that I would presume to make such a judgment upon someone who claims to be Christian. It is as if once someone makes the claim, you had better have “hands off” even suggesting that such a claim may not be true.
I am not sure where people get this.
First, this post is not about whether Obama is a Christian. I will not defend my belief that he is not here and I don’t want this to turn in that direction. It is about whether or not we can biblically make such judgments about a person’s status before Christ once they have declared themselves to be Christians.
It is understandable in one sense. If you are a conservative evangelical such as I am, to say that someone is not a Christian when they claim to be is acting as if you know them better than they know themselves. More than that, saying they are not a Christian is the “lightest” way one could put what they believe about the person’s status before God. Think of these three things I could say:
1. Obama is not a Christian (mean)
2. Obama is not saved (mean and arrogant)
3. Obama is going to hell (past the point of rescue)
“So, you believe Obama is not a Christian? . . . So, you believe he is not saved? . . . So, you believe he is going to hell?” See the escalation? I am not comfortable starting with the last, but that is often all people hear.
First, I am not the judge of whether someone is a Christian or not. I am not the judge of whether someone has true faith or not. But why does this mean that I can’t make informed judgments about a person’s status?
Rarely would someone call foul if I believed someone was not a Christian when they themselves confessed that they weren’t a Christian. After all, if someone claims to be an atheist, since there is an element of embarrassment to this confession, then it is very easy to take them at their word. However, my belief that they are not a Christian does not judge them to be so, it just makes a judgment that their confession is probably true.
I have a couple of things I look for when someone claims to be a Christian:
1. Beliefs: Are their beliefs consistent with how historic Christianity has been defined?
2. Practice: Is their life consistent with the life expected of a Christian?
The more one has of both of these, the more I have reason to believe their confession to be true. The less one has of these, the less reason I have to believe that their confession is true.
Of course, neither of these have to be perfect. One can have some bad beliefs and I could still believe (at least to some degree) that his confession is true. For example, I know some pro-choice people whom I believe are Christians. I think the pro-choice stand is inconsistent with the historic Christian faith, yet this alone does not necessarily condemn them in my book. As well, I know some Christians who are drunks, but I still believe they are Christians. Bad doctrine and bad life choices are issues that we all have. However, when one has really bad doctrine or makes really bad life choices, I think Christians have an obligation to rank these things higher than a nude confession. I know of some Christians who have perfect doctrine (beliefs), but have nothing in their lives which evidence a true conviction. As well, I know some people who live wonderful lives, but don’t claim Christianity at all.
So, I don’t believe that once someone says he is a Christian, we are somehow obligated to take them at their word. In fact, my default position (at least here in America) is that this is nothing more than a verbal affirmation of their initiation into American culture. I normally start by not believing them.
Let me give you some other examples: Glenn Beck says he is a Mormon. I don’t think he is. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he embraces the central tenets of Mormonism. I am not too sure about this though. Norm Geisler says he is a Calvinist. I don’t think he is. I think he redefines Calvinism to make it fit, but I don’t believe he fits the mold. I am very sure of this. I did not believe my sister when she said she was not addicted to prescription drugs at the end of her life. But she said she wasn’t. Was I obligated to believe her? I don’t believe my co-worker Carrie is a Baptist. She says she is, but I joke with her all the time saying she does not fit the mold. Now, am I obligated by some Christian virtue to believe everything that people believe about themselves, punting to the “they-know-themselves-better-than-I-do” answer? No. That would be both naive and irresponsible. What if someone came to you and said that she was a car? However, she neither looked like a car or acted like a car. Would you say, “Well, if she says she is, who am I to say she is not? Once she have made the confession, God wants me to believe it”?
Is this judgmental? No. It is just making informed judgments the best we can. It is being discerning. Unfortunately, we use the word “judgmental” in such cases. Even well-meaning Christians believe that we can make judgments on everything else under the sun, but it is always wrong to make a judgment about someone’s Christianity, especially when they profess to be Christian. Where did we come up with this? Yes, judgmentalism is wrong. But judgmentalism is where you either 1) arrogantly believe that if you were in another person’s shoes, you would make better choices because you deem yourself to be inherently better than the other person, or 2) you place yourself in God’s position, making judgments about issues that God has not revealed (Romans 14). We can avoid doing both of these things, but this does not mean that we cannot have informed beliefs that turn upon the evidence.
There are some people who profess Christianity, whose confessions I absolutely don’t believe. Am I certain of my beliefs in such cases? No. Not infallibly certain. I am not that certain about anything. There are others whose confession I believe, but am not as sure about. There are some who profess Christianity about which I remain completely agnostic. And there are many who claim to be Christian, but I don’t believe their confession with relative degrees of assurance. Again, it all comes back to those two criteria: beliefs and life. The more of these one has, the more God expects me to believe them. The less they have, the less God expects me to believe them. However, I don’t believe that God ever expects us to have a naive approach to this issue. In fact, without a healthy skepticism, I don’t think we can change the world with the Gospel, as many will confess that their world does not need to be changed. In other words, I think we should let go of this “prime directive” that Christians cannot ever believe someone is not a Christian when they have confessed to be so.
And remember that this post is not really “Is it okay for me to say Obama is not a Christian when he says he is?” It is “Is it okay for me to say someone is not a Christian when they say they are?” Let’s keep off the Obama thing.
- Things I Used to Believe, but Now I’m Not So Sure
- Christian Deism
- The Problem of Nominal Christianity
- The Premature Funeral of the “L” Word
- Leaving Christianity for All the Wrong Reasons