Who Are the Real Christians?

John ArmstrongJesus, The Church, Unity of the Church

I wrote on Tuesday about how a particular evangelical responded to an address I gave on Christian unity last week. The issue, for this earnest brother, came down to the issue of faithfulness to the gospel. I was calling for something (unity) that would involve compromising the gospel thus my appeal might include Roman Catholics. This compromise must be wrong, so wrong that he felt strongly he must openly oppose it out of love for the truth. The gospel, in his thinking, was at stake. (By the way, this is one way I try very hard to be a better listener and not a judge of motives or character. This brother really did believe that he was acting wisely and in character with the truth of the gospel.)

180px-StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face If we appeal to the letters of St. Paul himself we can readily see that a major point of division in the early Church surrounded the issue of circumcision. This was no minor matter if the context of the debate is understood. The gospel was at stake here. Paul’s reaction to the controversy, however, ranges from indifference (1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians  5:6; 6:15) to extreme frustration (Galatians 5:12) and even anger. (Anger is not always wrong!)

Circumcision was potentially a Church-dividing issue in the first century. Yet in the church today it is entirely a non-issue. So does Paul’s specific teaching on this subject have any bearing on our debates about “real Christians” today? I think that it does.

What we know is this – Paul was a pioneer missionary who made three wide-ranging journeys across the world of his time for the purpose of establishing Christian congregations. At each city he visited he left behind fledgling churches of new Christians made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This left the infant church open to some rather complicated issues regarding their teaching and their unity both. Other teachers followed along behind Paul saying to these new converts that “what Paul told you was fine as far as it goes but if you want to be a real Christian, you really should be circumcised.” His gospel is OK so long as you add this important element he left out.

Are not some teachers saying to Christians today “Yes, it’s great that you confess Christ as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, but if you want to be a real Christian, you should do/believe X.” Depending on which part of the church X comes from, it might mean to “be baptized by total immersion” or “speak in tongues” or “accept the Pope as head of the Church on earth” or something else. In each case, X introduces an impossible division between Christians, as if “all who confess that Jesus is Lord are Christians (but some are more Christian than others)”! The end result is we have the gospel plus X. Just this week I’ve heard a half dozen versions of X.

  • X is the need to be convinced of sin by the right use of the law which will then be followed by a brokenness which will lead you to properly believe on Jesus.
  • X is the requirement that you understand justification by faith alone in precisely the correct way.
  • X is the ability to understand the importance of repudiating homosexual unions in the name of Christ and the courage to openly oppose them in every context.
  • X is a right view of ecclesial authority and thus embracing the “right” church government and forms of Christian dogma.

But the unity that we have in Christ is clearly able to withstand strong diversity and difference. If we seriously embrace our diversity, within our Spirit-given unity, there will plainly be times when we cannot see how some of the beliefs and practices of others are consistent with our personal Christian profession. You could name a list of them, besides the four I’ve named, if I asked you to do it right now. My point is that a genuine striving for unity means we must continue to hold many/most of those we disagree with in the koinonia of love while we continue to discuss, even debate, our difference. If we trust in the corporate guidance of the Spirit rather than measuring one another against our doctrinal/moral statements then we will discover that just as God is always far greater than our understanding of Him, so is the one catholic church. This will require a deep commitment to Jesus and the truth. It will also require a deep – maybe deeper in terms of our emotional and spiritual development – grasp of how great is the love of Jesus for all who follow him even if they are wrong in some important aspect of their faith and practice.