The trouble with litmus tests

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
testphoto © 2006 David Bleasdale | more info (via: Wylio)

Popular evangelical pastor and activist Rick Warren was put through the wringer recently in an interview with Reformed theologian John Piper. Designed to test Warren’s doctrine on everything from the sovereignty of God, to unconditional election, to substitutionary atonement, to homosexuality, the interview was seen by Piper as proof that Rick Warren was indeed a “doctrinally sound” evangelist.

But not all of Piper’s colleagues agree. One blogger and pastor, who a few years ago criticized Piper for inviting Rick Warren to speak at a conference, responded to the interview with a post calling Warren “just another run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminian” whose credibility should continue to be questioned by people of faith. Among his critiques was that Warren held in high esteem Mother Teresa, who he dismissed as “a Catholic of Catholics” and “a universalist.” (Even Mama T. doesn't make the cut!)

The sentiment behind the interview and its fallout is as clear as it is absurd: It matters not how a professing Christian loves, or how much fruit of the spirit is exhibited in his or her life; the only way to determine whether someone is a “real Christian” is to sit around a coffee table and talk about theology. 

Doctrine is the litmus test for faith. 

This approach ignores significant portions of New Testament teachings that suggest that “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16), that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), and that “he that loves not knows not God” (1 John 4:8). 

Now, before you think I’m about to digress into a rant against neo-Calvinism, you should know that I see an equally troubling trend among those in the more progressive camp of Christianity. 

While some Christians like to use specific doctrines as a litmus test, others like to use specific lifestyles as a litmus test. We bumped into this in the conversation that sprung from my post aboutfollowing Jesus without being Shane Claiborne. Several folks in the comment section argued that one cannot seriously follow Jesus in the context of suburbia, and that true Christians will sell their belongings, move to the inner-city, and live in intentional community among the poor. 

In this case, zip code is the litmus test for faith

I’ve been in conversations with progressives that are every bit as judgmental and prideful as those of fundamentalists—only the targets are not democrats, gays and lesbians, and the poor; they are Republicans, “homophobes”, and the rich. 

In both cases, the standard by which other people are judged is one’s own beliefs and lifestyle. The closer a person is to me, we tend to reason, the closer he or she must be to God. 

 This is unadulterated arrogance if ever it existed, and I am just as guilty as the next guy of indulging it. I confess that I have judged Christian women in my community for their lack of theological depth, despite the fact that when somebody gets sick or has a baby, they are the first to show up with casseroles, tissues, offers to help, and shoulders to cry on. I confess that I have judged conservatives for not caring about “justice issues” when their resolve to protect the unborn often puts my resolve to protect the poor to shame. I make snap judgments about people based on what they wear, what news station they watch, and what favorite quotes they chose for their Facebook profile.

I apply litmus tests to my fellow Christians because, for about five seconds, they make me feel better about my own decisions and beliefs. After those five seconds have passed, however, it becomes painfully obvious that my efforts at “fruit inspection” or “doctrinal correctness” are being seriously hampered by the massive log stuck in my eye. If one must have God entirely figured out and Jesus perfectly imitated in order to be a true Christian, then where does that leave me? 

The trouble with issuing litmus tests—be they of the beliefs variety or the works variety--- is that when we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we too would fail them. 

 Unless someone has committed egregious acts against the testimony of Jesus (which being an Arminian, a Catholic, a Republican, or a suburbanite most certainly is not!), Christians owe one another the benefit of the doubt.  We need not waste our time finding the right boxes in which to cram one another, the right labels with which to dismiss one another…not when there are so many more important things we could be doing together.

The way I see it, I can spend my life trying to figure out whether other people are true followers of Jesus or I can spend my life trying to figure out if I'm one.  One path is a heck of a lot easier than the other…which is why I suspect I am so prone to taking it.


Do you find yourself applying litmus tests to fellow Christians? Which did you grow up with and which are you most prone to using? (fruit inspection? spirit filled? doctrinal? denominational?)

How can we maintain our opinions about theology and praxis without challenging someone’s commitment to Christ when theirs are not the same?

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