A few weeks ago I commented on this blog about the quotation that James Dobson made to U. S. News & World Report senior editor, Dan Gilgoff, which in effect questioned whether or not former-senator Fred Thompson is a Christian. Several reminded me that there is always context to such interviews. And there is also much the newspaper will often leave out. I know this to be true and have been burned before because I did not pay careful enough attention to this very point.

Well, in today’s issue (May 21) of the national newspaper, USA Today, there is a follow-up on this story, also written by Dan Gilgoff. I have written a much longer piece, to be published as an ACT 3 Weekly in a few weeks, on the question: "Who is a real Christian and how do we know?" Because of this I will forgo saying many things I will include in that article.

What struck me as more than relevant was the report issued to the media, after this original flap, by Focus on the Family. This was not a careless off-the-cuff comment but a thoughtful public response. I had not followed this carefully until I read today’s column by Gilgoff. What Focus said, in their response a few weeks ago, was this: "We were  . . .  pleased to learn from his spokesman that Sen. Thompson professes to be a believer" (italics mine).

I believe Gilgoff is correct when he concludes that this is "not exactly a clear-throated affirmation of Thompson’s Christianity." He suggests, and I have to agree with him, that this comment actually "cast doubt" on Thompson’s confession that he is a Christian.

The point this raises, and a point I will pursue in the longer article, is what makes evangelicals so confident about who is and is not a real Christian? Something is terribly wrong with this approach and I think it we should have a serious discussion about what that is. I am interested in your thoughts. You can read mine in a few weeks. For now I am open to many suggestions.

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  1. Phil Wyman May 21, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    For now all I can say is that I find quick judgments of a person’s salvation to be overly judgmental, and perhaps a fitting place to utilize the seriously overused Bible injunction “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

  2. Chad Toney May 22, 2007 at 9:18 am

    My family-in-law’s church has a tendency to label any Christian that disagrees with them or is insufficiently pious as a “professing Christian” as if we’re all supposed to go around judging our neighbor’s election.
    From a Catholic standpoint, I liked Mark Shea’s take on the subject:

  3. K. Darrell May 22, 2007 at 10:39 am

    This is a very complex issue and I don’t really have a good answer, but I am usually “frustrated” in this discussion, because it rarely takes in much of what Scripture teaches and merely focuses on many peripherals. Any exposition needs to include 1 John in the mix:
    Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
    Note: I am not commenting per se, but I believe it needs to be included in our discussion. After all, the “evangelicals” aren’t the only judgmental bad guys, we all make judgments, even those who are claiming that others are in are making judgments (“Judge not…”?). It is always an issue of standard. Related to Focus is their treatment of the Haggard scandal. Is a meth using (sorry: he was ‘tempted’, but didn’t use) pastor that gets “massages” from other guys in or out? How can we be so sure either way?

  4. Gene Redlin May 22, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    What Keith Said………

  5. Nathan Petty May 23, 2007 at 9:47 am

    I just listened to a Focus on the Family program in which Dr. Dobson was being interviewed by Glen Beck. Beck had apparently criticized Dobson for intimating that Thompson was not Christian “enough”.
    Dobson denied saying what was reported and clarified his views. Beck accepted the explanation and apologized for relying on published reports and not checking with Dobson before reporting his reaction. They both committed to more thoroughly check out reports involving each other before going public
    in the future.
    Whatever your views about Dobson’s ministry, we should all grace each other with the common courtesy of verifying before going too far out on a limb of response.
    Dr. Armstrong was recently the target of such a reckless approach by a well known Christian writer and speaker. One of the things I appreciate about John Armstrong is that he thinks and reflects before going public.
    A good lesson for us all.

  6. John H. Armstrong May 23, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you Nathan. I would like to know the source and context of the Dodson clarification besides an interview with Glen Beck. I find Dr. Dobson hard to put in any context when he is not a theologian and seems to say differing things based upon “sound bites.” I assure you I am not seeking to discredit him but to force a dialog that is actually much wider than Dr. Dobson and these references. If I have misrepresented him I will gladly correct the use of his comments. Please direct me to the sources.
    I completely agree about newspaper quotes. I too have experienced this and find it frustrating when a statement of mine is lifted from a full context.
    However, I tend to think Dr. Dobson likely said something pretty close to this about Fred Thompson or the retraction/explanation would not have been made. The problem is that the retraction/explanation raises a whole series of new questions about how we know who is or is not a Christian. This is my concern, not making Dr. Dobson look bad at all. He merely represents a common kind of thinking among many evangelicals in America.

  7. Steve Scott May 23, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    “…what makes evangelicals so confident about who is and is not a real Christian?”
    We sometimes place more emphasis on doctrine than on Christ. We also impute a church’s official doctrine, no matter how minute, to everybody who sits in their pews. And sometimes we put pet doctrines in the place of the gospel itself. The doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” while I believe is true and important, is looked at by all too many evangelicals as the gospel itself. Paul’s description of the gospel itself in 1 Cor 15 mentions nothing about justification by faith alone. But anybody who doesn’t believe in justification by faith alone, who questions it, doesn’t have all his ducks in a row, or who is ignorant of it is looked at as having a false gospel, and therefore not a true Christian. These are only a few reasons.

  8. Nathan Petty May 23, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Dr. Armstrong, the program I listened to was the regular 5/23/07 daily edition of the Focus on the Family program. It runs at least 3 times daily in my town of 500,000, so I would guess it will be played multiple times today in larger cities. I believe Beck was interviewing Dobson via telephone for his (Beck’s) program. Not having knowledge of the original comments or their context I cannot say if Dobson was simply clarifying or was actually changing his statement in response to Beck’s criticism.
    I wasn’t attempting to second guess anyone’s motives, and I didn’t take your post as an attempt to discredit Dr. Dobson personally.
    I am not a particular fan of Dr. Dobson’s brand of cultural engagement. I see it as spending too much time on the results of a fallen world and not enough time on the means of redeeming a fallen world. It seems this leads to thinking that there are secular, political solutions to problems that are intrinsically of a more spiritual nature. I do, however, honor Dr. Dobson’s concern for the moral decline of our country, and I’m sure many have been helped by the ministry.
    But there is obviously a danger for anyone, including Dr. Dobson, who has been elevated (by self-promotion, media acclamation or achievement) to think that he has to express an opinion just because he is asked. It must be quite tempting for a person representing any large organization (corporate, government, ministerial, etc.) to speak to many issues, qualified or not, God inspired or not. It’s easy for me and I don’t have an organization stoking my ego.
    I am quite interested in the larger theme that will be discussed, that of evangelical certainty of salvation. For a kid in a SBC church it was pretty simple – respond to the invitation, walk the aisle, get baptized – you’re saved. Don’t do those three things – not saved.
    My current understanding of salvation is most succinctly summarized in 1 John 5:12 “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
    Based on this I do not know if Senator Thompson, or any other real or potential candidate, is or is not a Christian. I don’t think that is knowable based on sound bites.
    Thanks again for the opportunity to participate.

  9. Kevin J May 24, 2007 at 7:21 am

    I tend to leave the question, as to who is a christian, in God’s hands. I try to be true to my own mission in life and to preach the gospel and I try to raise disciples of Jesus. If a person confesses Jesus then I try to study the Bible with them and try to co-work with them and to help them to obey Jesus’ world mission command. (Mt 28:18-20)Whether we grow together in faith and co-work together is up to God and them. I try to keep and teach the Biblical standard of who is a Christian. I like the Nicene Creed. But I think I will be suprised who I see in heaven. Ultimately it is in God’s hands.

  10. John H. Armstrong May 24, 2007 at 9:50 am

    You are, of course, correct Kevin. We should accept those who confess him and work with them to make disciples. God knows those who are his. The question I will address in my longer article is not so much who is really a Christian, since God alone knows, but “How should we treat people who profess to be Christians who do not fit a particular form or expression of Christianity?”
    This questions matters a great deal since the answer will determine how we actually treat others who are followers of Christ who are very different from us in ways that make us uncomfortable but in the end are not essential to the gospel itself.

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