What makes someone a REAL Christian?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Last week, I wrote a post about the personal conflict I often feel when asked to support a mission effort directed toward European Catholics. It was humbling and eye-opening to hear from a friend who has a real heart for European missions and who hopes to serve full-time in Germany.

(Here’s a link to the “Why Europe?” page on Greater Europe Mission’s Web site.)

As she and others pointed out, there are a lot of Catholics who are Christian in name only—Catholics who believe in God, show up for mass every now and then, try to be good people, but don’t have what evangelicals refer to as “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

This is probably true. But the observation led me to think to myself, “Well, there are a lot of evangelicals who are Christian in name only as well—Evangelicals who walked an aisle when they were kids, show up for church on Sundays, hold what they perceive to be ‘Christian’ political positions and ‘Christian’ lifestyle standards, but who are so convinced that faith is simply a matter of securing one’s place in heaven that they do not actively follow Christ's teachings."

…Which, of course, then led me to ask myself, “But am I actively following the teachings of Jesus Christ? Am I really the best one to decide who the ‘real Christians’ are? Maybe I’m the one who needs a missionary!”

Or maybe I’m over-thinking this.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to look more critically at my own faith, which has led to a lot of deconstructing and reconstructing of my theology, my lifestyle, and my priorities. In most areas, I feel like I am beginning to put the pieces of my faith back together. But one of the areas where I still feel a bit bewildered is evangelism.

During the deconstruction process, I began to realize that my previous attitude toward evangelism went something like this. “A lot of people who claim to be Christians are not really Christians. One of the goals of evangelism is to convert these fake Christians into real Christians. The litmus test for deciding which Christians are real and which Christians are fake is my own convictions about Christianity. REAL Christians are the ones look and act like me—the ones that worship like me, believe like me, think like me, and behave like me.”

Now, I am not at all suggesting that evangelical missionaries to Europe believe this. Nor am I suggesting that there is not significant truth to the notion that many who claim to be Christians are not really followers of Jesus. (Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”)

I guess I’m just having a hard time forming a strong opinion about who is “in” and who’s “out” of the kingdom of heaven when I struggle so much to do the will of God myself.  Furthermore, it always makes me suspicious when the underlying assumption of any of my evangelistic efforts is that my way of being a Christian is the only way of being a Christian.

On the one hand, I am no longer convinced that faith is simply a matter of believing the right things. (The Bible says that even the demons believe Jesus is the Son of God.) On the other, I remain convinced that faith is not about earning God’s favor by checking off a to-do list.  The Gospels clearly show that true faith is always accompanied by action. The two go hand-in-hand. 

Jesus said that our litmus test should be fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). False disciples will produce bad fruit. True disciples will produce good fruit. And we all know what the fruit of the Spirit is—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,  and self-control.

So how do we respond to people who claim to be a Christians but do not exhibit these qualities? How do we respond to people of other faiths or other denominational affiliations who do? And what do we do when we take a hard look at our own lives and realize that we are missing many of these traits ourselves? Does that disqualify us from trying to convince others to be ‘real Christians’ like us? In a way, aren't all who claim to follow Christ "Christians in name only"? 

To be clear, not a single word of this post is meant as a veiled insult toward individuals or organizations that seek to spread the good news that the life, death, resurrection and eventual return of Jesus Christ will restore the world. It’s just an honest reflection on some of the questions I ask myself.

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