Real Christians™

What is the measure of a Real Christian? Where is the line between someone who isn’t a Christian, and someone who is? How can we know? Why is that important?

In December 2012, a Gallup poll revealed that 77% of the adult population of the United States considers themselves Christians. Twenty-three percent self-identify as Catholic, leaving 51.9% as Protestant / other Christian. A 2008 Pew report revealed that 26% of Americans self-identify as Evangelical Christians.

My wife and I are part of a Friday night Bible study that has recently morphed into a mini-course on evangelism. We’re touring a book by Bill Hybels about Becoming a Contagious Christian, and a line from that book sparked a conversation. It said something like “Every true Christian wants to share his or her faith.” I squirmed a little because I don’t like it when people try to pin down marks of “Real Christians.”

I don’t get why American Christians think that most of the people around them aren’t Christians, even when the statistics indicate that the opposite is true. It’s almost like evangelicals need the majority of the population to be godless. When I mentioned the statistic about 26% of Americans self-identifying as evangelical, the leader of our group found it incredible that out of every four people one might run into, one might be a Real Christian™.

I don’t understand why there’s this need to draw boundaries. How do we know if someone’s a real Christian? Here are a few ways people tell the Real Christians™ from the other kind:

  • They’re Republican.
  • They’re straight, or if they’re gay, they repress it.
  • They go to church at least once a week.
  • They pray and read their Bible at least once a day, sometimes more often.
  • They don’t do drugs or smoke.
  • They don’t drink.
  • They don’t use bad words.
  • They don’t cheat on their wives / husbands
  • They’ve accepted Jesus.
  • They’re trying.

Okay, so can I be honest? I’m a Christian, and I vote Green. I think people can be gay and be Christians. Some of the most intense Christians I know don’t go to church because they don’t feel spiritually safe there. Some Christians feel guilty about not praying and reading their Bibles often enough. Does the guilt mean they’re Real Christians™, or do they actually have to stop to be Real Christians™? And if they have to stop first, does that mean it’s a works-based faith?

We know somebody who is trying to reduce the amount of weed he smokes. (It’s cool, we live in Colorado. It’s legal here). This guy has been stamped as a Real Christian™.

A number of reformed Christians treat drinking as a well-established tradition. Mark Driscoll, one of the most famous pastors in America, is famous for using bad words from the pulpit. People who clearly aren’t Christians, like the characters from How I Met Your Mother, treat cheating on husbands / wives as wrong. And I would bet money that everybody who’s evangelical considers themselves so because they’ve prayed to accept Jesus.

And let’s get real: the Bible doesn’t say that we can tell the Real Christians™ from the other kind because they’re trying harder.

The funny thing is that God doesn’t ask us to try to tell the Real Christians™ apart from the other kind. In fact, in a story that Jesus told, the wheat and the tares get separated at the end of the story, not now. We’re here to love people, not to convert them to Christianity.

So why are we so invested in splitting off the nominal Christians from the Real Christians™?

Real Christians

I have two theories:

1) The evangelical obsession with (surprise) evangelism, and
2) Judgmentalism (drawing the line around our righteousness).

Evangelism
For some Christians (and for Bill Hybels, author of the book about being a contagious Christian), the primary reason people are on earth after they become Christians is to help other people become Christians. That’s actually in the book.

When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

And when all you exist for is evangelism, everybody else starts looking apostate.

Judgmentalism
This comes out of evangelism.

We all draw the lines in different places. I’m sympathetic toward people who get upset at evangelicals. That’s not really a sin. I struggled with porn. Of course you can be a Christian and struggle with porn. I never stole anything, so I can’t really identify with kleptomaniacs who are Christians. Sins on my side of the line are okay, but if you have sins that I don’t deal with, you’re probably not a Real Christian™.

We all draw the line in different places. Some are okay with drinking booze every now and then, and others draw the Real Christian™ line right there. Some even allow that others can be more liberal than they are and still be Christians.

But deep down, we all know that most Americans aren’t real Christians. If they were, they would be more like us. Y’know?

What do you think?

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • The Ubiquitous

    If you’re baptized, you’re Christian. That’s easy. That also isn’t really the question.

    What does it mean to live your faith in Christ? It means living a life filled with sanctifying grace, overflowing with cooperation with God in works of mercy, in prayer, in worship, in joy.

    • You know why I like the new Disqus system that I installed? So I can like your comments. Beautiful. Spoken like a true Catholic. I’m not always one for pat answers, but I like that one.

      Living your faith in Christ? Indeed, a great discussion to have, and I love your response.

      • The Ubiquitous

        You might want to undo that upvote. I just added a bunch about sin.

        • Darn.

        • Nope. Keeping it anyway. Mostly for those last two sentences. Gosh, if we’d only met a few years ago I probably would’ve become an awesome Catholic.

          • The Ubiquitous

            Gah. So close yet so far.

            I should temper the language about “buggery” in light of the always prescient CCC 2357-2359.

            I can understand disagreeing with someone as regards the too-rhetorically convenient sexualities from scandal. Talking about homosexuality rhetorically cheapens the persons affected by it. It’s almost like calling someone Hitler in the way it cheapens the real pain caused by the historical Hitler. It seems like a kind of indifference to human suffering to always toss that out as an example of morality, as if that were the one rule above all. Well, no — it is a rule, and an important one, but it requires context.

  • The Ubiquitous

    If my only exposure to Christian morality was a Fred Phelps or some other Judaizer merely looking at Jewish law for inspiration, I’d reject Christian morality, too. But there’s so much more, so much more beautiful. There’s the positive teachings than the negative prohibitions which are made necessary by them.

    Think of it like plaster mold. Just as the mold forms the image the plaster is poured into, just so do negative prohibitions form the positive beauty of Christian morality.

  • JohnCross116

    Sharing your faith is FAR more than asking people if they know Jesus and handing them a tract :). It’s being passionate about God and letting that overflow into your life. And you do this well David!

    And you’re right about that being a very bad quote about evangelism being the primary reason we’re here, ugh! We are here to glorify God and to know him! To live out the abundant life in Christ, full of freedom, peace, joy, love, etc. And when we do this, people notice, with or without speaking about it. Evangelism is important still, but only when it comes out of this place of abundant life, because that’s what people want.

  • Excellent post David! I really liked your list of ways to determine real Christians. It rang true; I lived in that environment for many years.

  • Noel

    I am so glad I hooked in to your blog. Love your insight and how you articulate it.

    Another way we define who’s Christian is with the “informal fallacy” (ie. no true Scotsman). At least I see myself using that when people say, “look at that guy, he is a Christian, you must be just like him”.

    • Every time that comment about “every true Christian” came up, “No True Scotsman” flashed through my brain. Thank you for your comment 🙂

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  • Rick Mcmichael

    I actually had a former pastor say more than once from the pulpit, ” we are either goers or senders.” Apparently our creation in His image and the sole purpose of our lives is reproduction….sort of like ants…Jesus, on the other hand was clear that he came to bring us a life of great meaning and purpose beyond evangelism, Jn. 10:10.
    God said He loves the world, my focus is on loving Him and my neighbor.

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  • Edwin Woodruff Tait

    David, I think your point about evangelism is excellent, and there are historical reasons for this. The roots of evangelicalism lie, essentially, in the Pietist movements of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were movements that arose in response to the realization that the Reformation (itself an important part of the story, since it was also about labeling apparent Christians as “not real”) had produced another variant of cultural Christianity and hadn’t made enough progress in producing vibrant communities of Christians who practiced their faith in ways that really made a difference. The Pietists thus took up the important task of evangelizing the baptized (one in which Catholics had, of course, been engaged ever since the Middle Ages), but they did it through a version of the Protestant teaching of justification by faith, infused with a good dose of medieval Christocentric mysticism (all to the good in my view). In other words, instead of saying, “you’re a Christian, now act like it,” as a Catholic evangelist of the baptized would, the Pietists said, “if you don’t live like a Christian, it’s because you have never truly believed in Jesus, and thus are not really a Christian.” This was an extremely effective method of evangelizing people whose Christianity was largely cultural. In fact, this greater evangelistic effectiveness is the main thing sola fide has going for it, in my opinion. But it did create a mentality conducive to writing off large numbers of the baptized as “not real Christians,” and that feeds directly into your second point about judgmentalism.

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