Friday, August 22, 2008

No True Christian

Ever heard of the time that the Norse god Loki bet his head? Well he lost the bet and when the dwarfs (who the bet was with) came to collect, he said “Sure, take my head – but remember you are not allowed to take any part of my neck, that wasn’t part of the deal.” By doing that he managed to keep his head because no one could agree on where the neck began and the head ended. Obviously some parts were all head and some were all neck but where did the one stop and the other begin? This is the reason I love stories and myth so much, they always end up teaching us a lot about ourselves and the world we live in. This particular story forms the basis of a logical fallacy called Loki’s Wager - insisting that a concept cannot be defined, and therefore cannot be discussed.

This is related to another logical fallacy of equivocation called the “No true Scotsman” fallacy. Antony Flew described it with the following example:

“Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again." Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

Antony Flew, Thinking about Thinking, 1975

If you have ever read Christian literature, watched or listened to Christian media or debated with a Christian regarding the bad things perpetrated in the name of God it should be very familiar to you. Christians have a horrible tendency to list all the worst examples of every other religion/ideology/group as proof positive that these guys are obviously wrong (not to mention evil) and Christianity is then obviously true – since Christians do none of these things. However, should someone bring up things like, the “Holy” Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trails, the Christian persecution of Jews etc (it’s a very long list really) the immediate answer is “Well those don’t apply, because those people weren’t true Christians!”

It’s brilliant really. With this kind of reasoning, Christianity is bulletproof. We get to claim everything good done by people calling themselves Christian but the moment a Christian does anything wrong, we don’t have to claim responsibility for that since obviously he wasn’t a true This way Christianity gets to be perfect (in the eyes of Christians anyway, I doubt anyone else is fooled) and no one gets to prove different. After all, you need to define something before you can prove it wrong and when it comes to this one the definition can be slippery. Basically the definition of a "true Christian" is whatever it needs to be in order to dismiss the argument against us (the same thing happens with the ever elusive Biblical kind). Maybe I should rephrase, it’s brilliant but it’s also cowardly.

It may seem like we are protecting the integrity of God and the Church, but really we are doing the opposite. For one thing we are preventing healing when we distance ourselves from the damage we do. How can there be healing and restoration if no one asks forgiveness? How can we ask forgiveness if we won’t admit we were at fault? Its not good enough to say “It wasn’t us, it was them.” Are we not the Body of Christ? Should the actions of one not also affect the rest of the body? By doing this we are also harming ourselves. By refusing to admit our wrongs and by pretending we (Christians) are perfect and above all others, we give ourselves no room to learn or grow. Then of course there is the fact that we really aren’t fooling anyone and by continually changing what a “true Christian” is we are only looking like fools and hypocrites in the eyes of the world. Really, this is the opposite of protecting the integrity of Christianity.

Who counts as a true Christian? James Dobson? Billy Graham? What about Benny Hinn? The problem is that depending on whom you ask, some would agree and some would strongly disagree about just how Christian these men are. I have to admit, I was rather surprised at just how many websites there are calling Billy Graham the anti-Christ. Clearly general opinion can’t really be a factor as it seems to be rather fickle. Does Jimmy Swaggart qualify as a true Christian? He sure seemed like one for a while, is he one now? Was he only a true Christian up to the point where he fell from grace? Is "true Christianity" something that comes and goes? Can you only be a true Christian if you never sin? If so we have a bit of a problem because then because since we have all sinned, none of us can be true Christians. But since all discussions on the subject make it clear that true Christianity must be something that exists (and not some theoretical ideal that can never actually be real), being perfectly sinless can’t be the definition either.

Many would insist that a true Christian is someone who lives by the Bible. This definition I’m afraid might be the worst of the lot if you want to distance yourself from the sins of Christians past! Certainly those who practiced slavery had a lot of Scriptural support! The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, it gives guidelines for it! We would like to distance ourselves from those Christians who killed women accused of witchcraft but weren’t they simply being obedient to the Scripture that reads “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”? Very few Christians would like to associate themselves with the atrocities committed during the Crusades, but let’s be honest here, the Crusaders didn’t do anything Joshua didn’t do and Joshua was doing what God told him to do. Was Joshua not bound by the exact same “Thou shalt not kill” commandment that we use to condemn the Crusaders with? How about those pedophile priests? We definitely don’t want to think of them as true Christians! Yet by what verse do we condemn pedophilia? While several sexual sins are listed very explicitly, sex with children is wholly absent from the Biblical list of “don’ts”. Makes sense considering the fact that girls around 12 and 13 were considered marriage material in Biblical times though…

Actually, once you realize how hard it is to have a definition for Christianity that satisfies everyone you realize why people prefer a more intangible definition! The atheists have it easy, all they have to do is not believe in God. Apart from that there are no rules! Not so with Christianity though. Even believing is not enough. It’s a lot easier to be a Christian when you don’t actually have to think about what that must mean. Sure we are quick to say what doesn’t It’s really easy to list what it isn’t but a little harder to list what it is though. Although I think that deep down we already know what a true Christian is supposed to be. It’s right there in the name actually. Christian means disciple of Jesus Christ. qualify you as a true Christian: Bible reading, church attendance, good deeds, charity, giving money to the church, growing up in a Christian home, etc.

This may cause a bit of confusion though since the Rabbi-disciple relationship is not something most of us in the Western world deal with anymore. Disciple is not the same as follower. It’s also not the same as student. A disciple doesn’t want to know what his master knows, he wants to be what his master is. While actually living and behaving exactly like Jesus would eliminate us all from aspirations of true Christianity, we are supposed to be working towards that goal constantly. This is the one definition we can’t wiggle out of. You are either a disciple (someone trying to be like Jesus) or you are not a true Christian. The good news is that this leaves room for us to fail. True Christianity is more of a journey than a destination (if you'll pardon me the cliché). The bad news (for some at least) is that we need to own those failures, not pretend they don’t involve us. This means we would need to be more humble, for if we get anything right it’s not because we are the best but because we are following the best example. Even more so, when we miss it we need to be humble enough to come clean and admit that this reflects badly on the One we claim to be following.

Being a true Christian is not about being perfect or never being wrong or never sinning. True Christianity is not about being right all the time or having a better system than anyone else. While being a disciple of Jesus means that there is a way you should be living in this world and that there are things you definitely shouldn’t be doing and ways you shouldn’t be living, but it doesn’t make being wrong impossible. When you get right down to it, every disciple of Jesus is still a human being and still fully capable of failure. All the time*. Therefore it is possible to behave very contrary to the example of Jesus and still be a true Christian. So then even though I don’t like the idea, the Crusades may have been partially at least the work of true Christians. I need to own that and admit that it was very wrong of them. In the very same way I need to own it when I behave unlike Jesus. Because much as I would love to say that everything bad that was ever done by Christians was actually done by false Christians, I know that I would be disqualifying myself from Christianity by those very same standards.

*I am not referring to the disturbing habit some have of calling themselves Christian while living any way they please, preferring a life of constantly asking forgiveness from God to one of actually obeying Him. That's not following at all. Cruising through life on the Grace of God is not the same as being a disciple. It's one thing to try to follow and fail, it's another thing entirely to do nothing but fail because you aren't even bothering to try. If thats the way you are going to live, please don't call yourself a Christian.


RandomSue said...

Well said, I have this debate with my friend Kathy all the time. The whole what makes a true Christian thing and look at all the bad things that have been done in the name of God blah blah blah.

I call myself a Christ follower. I am very thankful that everything is a matter of the heart with the God I serve. I am also very thankful that HE is the only one that can see what is really in my heart. I wouldn't want his job.

Tania said...

I agree! You've articulated brilliantly what I am currently dealing with - thanks! And "...if we get anything right it’s not because we are the best but because we are following the best example." Soooooo right, bro!

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your article. I have just been studying the Crusades for the first time and have really been pondering how in the name of Christ people could have done such things. One thought (this is specific to the Crusade example - I know your article is not specifically about that, but Christians dismissing all bad behavior in general) though is this. Pope Urban promised those who went on the Crusade their salvation if they died in battle. This is salvation by works, and not by faith in Christ's death. This means that they were truly not "true Christians" if one defines a "true Christian" as someone who is trusting by faith in the redemptive work of Christ, rather than on one's one efforts.

Anonymous said...

A few more thoughts.... you have asserted here that it is unfair for Christians to claim that anytime someone does something egregious, they were not "true Christians." I have been thinking more about it, and I think that it is quite Biblical for us to say this. Didn't Jesus tell us that we would "know a tree by it's fruit" and that "no bad tree bears good fruit and no good tree bears bad fruit?" I agree that Christians can and do sin and make mistakes. But, if someone is a true Christian than they are filled with the Holy Spirit and they are seeking God to lead them in their life. The tone of their life should consistently show that. If the overall tone of a person's life shows the exact opposite of following Christ, then one can logically conclude that they are not a true Christian. The Bible tells us that Satan came to lie, kill and destroy. I can't think of three better descripters of what the Crusades, and the Inquisitions were about than lying, killing and destroying. The fact that it was done in the name of Christ only shows that Satan loves to smear the name of Christ.
I guess it would be like this - if someone claims to be a vegetarian, and once in a while you see them eating meat, you would assume that they are a vegetarian, but slip up once in a while. If you saw them eating meat at ever single meal, you would not consider them a true vegetarian.
If being a Christian means being a follower of Christ, then only the people that actually follow Christ are legitimate "true Christians." That doesn't mean we don't slip up and do wrong things, but there is a big difference in a slip up and mass murder, rape and pilage.
The same arguement could be made for a Buddhist. Theirs is a religion of peace. (I believe it is a false religion and dangerous,but still, I can't deny that they advocate peace) If a bunch of Buddhists went on a murdering rampage, we would not reasonable be able to then conclude that "true Buddhists" did it. It violates everything that religion teaches.
We could not say the same for the Muslim faith. The most devout of Islam - the ones that follow their holy book the closest and follow the example of their leader Mohammed closest are the most dangerous. The ones that are least devout, the ones that don't follow the Quran or Mohammed's example are the peaceful ones. One cannot assert that the murderous actions of Muslims are done by those that are not "true Muslims." The ones that follow thier leader and holy book the most are the "true Muslims" and they are the ones committing atrocities in the name of Islam.