As a youngster, when someone asked me: “Are you a Christian?” I always answered: “No, I’m a Catholic.” Even back then, this question made me defensive.
Lately, I got interested in the litmus test many Christians use. They ask this question: “What do you believe?” It doesn’t seem to matter what you do—as long as you believe the “right things.” The right things come from a list drawn up by a group of 318 Bishops in the year 325 AD in the Council of Nicaea, and edited in Constantinople in 381AD. You remember: the followers of Christ had split into many different sects and the Emperor needed one religion to impose on his conquered nations; he didn’t care what it was. What he got, he called: Christianity. Believing in this list makes you a Christian.
Okay, maybe it does, but I can’t see how it makes you a follower of Christ.
And let’s be honest about this title: Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew. He was born a Jew, lived in a Jewish family in a Jewish town, and died a Jew. Jesus didn’t recite the Nicene Creed; neither did Mary Magdalene or Peter, James or John—or any of the followers of Christ until the year 325 AD. I guess they weren’t real Christians; they didn’t have the Christian faith of Nicaea.
I received a beautiful letter from an anonymous person last week who wants to convert me. She outlined her faith in God and Christ, but once again, she said nothing about what she does. It was all about what she believed: the infancy narratives, the atonement theory, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection and ascension etc., very close, I think, to the words of the Nicene Creed.
But she said nothing about feeding the poor in downtown Macon; nothing about helping to curb the amount of teenage pregnancies and gang wars and crime in Middle Georgia; nothing about standing up to our race problems and stopping the prejudice that permeates our churches and clubs and businesses like an ever-growing cancer. It said nothing about loving people who are different from us. I don’t know; aren’t these the kinds of things Christ would be concerned about?
I know that Paul says: “Faith without works” is the road to salvation. (Rom.3:28) But “works” for Paul was the Jewish Law, all 613 pieces of it. Paul (not Jesus) wanted to break away from Judaism and this was his way of saying it. (Gal. 2:11) But he certainly didn’t tell his converts that all they had to do was “believe” and they could do whatever they wanted; in fact, just the opposite. His famous statement to the Corinthians (1Cor.13:2) makes it clear that if he had enough faith to even move mountains but didn’t love his neighbor, he’d be nothing.
Another thing: in all the letters Paul wrote, he never claimed to be a Christian. “A Slave of Christ Jesus,” an “Apostle of Christ Jesus,” a “Prisoner of Christ Jesus”—but never a “Christian.” And he never wrote to a group of Christians; he wrote to people in an “ecclesia,” a gathering-place.
If all it takes to be a Christian is to say: “I believe,” both Paul and I want to be something more than that. We want to be followers of a young charismatic Jewish man who captured the hearts of all who watched him “walk the talk.” Words like Messiah and Son of Man, and even Son of God, are meaningless to 21st century ears, but words like: Don’t Judge others and Forgive others and Love others, etc. still ring true if we live it.
And he lived it.
Today, when someone asks me if I’m a Christian, it still puts me on the defensive. The question implies a possible negative outcome. If I am not a Christian, then I must be something “bad” like a Jew or a Muslim or, (God help us!) an agnostic. On the other hand, if the question is: “Are you a Baptist,” my “no” would be perceived positively; I might be a Methodist.
If I answer: “No, I’m not a Christian,” then I have opened the door to one of two negative outcomes:
As opposed to what?