When is a Christian a Christian? When is a Hindu a Hindu? When is a Mormon a Mormon? When can we say that anyone is a "true Christian?"
Jesus said, "By their fruits you shall know them." He did not say "You can tell them by their names." But neither did He mean that "Anyone who attends church is a true Christian." One of the hallmarks of the Evangelical movement has been the observation that "not all 'Christians' are Christians, and not all church-goers are Christians." This parallels Jesus' comment that not everyone who calls him "Lord" will make it and Paul's statement that "not all Israel is Israel." This severe caution is Biblical even if it is a delicate point. Thus:
- Point one: We must be careful not to assume that just because people say they are Christians or that they attend church that they are real Christians. This is difficult because we can't be too sure we are always right if we feel free to make judgments as to who is and who isn't a true Christian.
- Point two: We must be careful not to assume that just because people are not called "Christians" that they are not true Christians. The easiest example of this is the "Messianic Jew" who believes and follows Jesus Christ and yet prefers not to be called a Christian.
On the other hand, can we assume that some groups which do call themselves Christian are truly Christian? What about Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Catholics?
From the standpoint of the usual Evangelical believer, the thing wrong with all four of these groups is that they believe not less than but more than the Bible. And they may also not understand the Bible correctly either.
[I hasten to add that it is a bit unreas-onable to put Seventh-Day Adventists in the same list with Mormons. But it is really a matter of degree: both have semi-sacred scriptures in addition to the Bible, and both, from our standpoint, stand guilty of mis-interpreting certain verses in the Bible.]
However, a very large perspective is needed here.
The Larger View is Breathtaking
It has been fashionable for some time to speak of the times as "post-Christian." A considerable qualification of such an idea has come from David Barrett's sturdy statistics which show undeterred growth of the Christian movement all across the world.
However, although the world is definitely not post-Christian, it certainly may be possible to speak of "post-Christianity." Evidences are flowing in from almost every mission field that the Christian faith has frequently "jumped the tracks" of formal, traditional Christianity. These glimmers of a new reality are harder and harder to ignore.
I am reminded of the Catholic popes who tried to ignore the fact that in their day more and more movements were popping up which did not track with the full array of features belonging to their contemporary Catholicism. There was Peter Waldo. Stop him! There was John Hus. Stop him! There was Wycliffe. Stop him! There were also the Cathari and the Albigenses. There was more reason to stop them--but not to kill every man, woman and child in towns as large as 10,000. Eventually the tide of reaction became so strong that a major anti-Catholic phenomenon called "The Reformation" broke forth never to be recovered or reconquered.
Today, if we will open our eyes wide we can see many movements popping up which do not seem to track with the Christianity we know. Many of these may consider themselves within "Christianity." Others do not wish to be identified with "Christianity." In neither case are we as Evangelicals inclined to consider them standard Christianity. So, are we, too, on the eve of a new major breakaway movement similar to the "Reformation?" And if so, is it all pure heresy or is there any validity to this new Reformation?
You may test your sensitivities about all this with one more ancient example. An even earlier "Reformation" took place when a major anti-Roman phenomenon called Islam swept up millions of Christians who had for various reasons been loath to identify themselves with the Roman Empire. It was a Semitic reaction to Rome not a Teutonic reaction to Rome as in the case of the Protestant Reformation, but it was just as clearly anti-Roman. Unlike the situation where Catholics and Protestants for many years killed each other without blinking an eye, Islamic leaders for centuries (prior to the Crusades) were generally much more friendly to those who continued within their midst to be "Christians."
In any case, today we are forced to contemplate a disturbingly dissimilar number of major cultural traditions which have basically sprung up from Jewish roots: Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. All of these desperately need the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Within each of these is staggering cultural diversity as well as differences ranging from devout souls to crass nominality. They even overlap. That is, some forms of Islam are closer to the Bible than some forms of Oriental Orthodox "Christianity." A recent book tells of the perplexing existence of churches in Syria today where Christians and Muslims worship together (William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain, New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1998).
But never mind the confusion of overlap. The inevitable question today is: "Is there room, for better or worse, for one more major tradition with roots in the Jewish faith?" In other words, "Do we today see the essential, true Jewish-Biblical Christ-centered faith being expressed irretrievably in clothing which does not easily classify as Christianity?" That is, must we more consciously and honestly yield to the fact that there are already various major movements on the world level (even within the Hindu culture) which really aren't historical Christianity but which in some way are valid cultural carrier vehicles of true Jewish-Biblical faith?
Swallow Hard; Go Forward.
I think so. In fact, I think it is very overdue that mission leaders especially need to loosen up a bit and recognize what anyone might have been able to predict: that other cultural expressions of authentic Biblical faith are bound to develop, more and more allowing our precious Christianity to be seen as merely one particular historical stream of truth and faith. We need also to recognize that as with other major streams of Biblical faith, our Christian culture is, alas, accompanied by a good deal of arbitrary, cultural nonsense.
I advance this perspective for discussion because it has monumental practical implications.
As an aid in seeing these immediate, major implications, let us go back to the Bible again. Consider the perfectly enormous consternation and turmoil exploding when Peter, by divine initiative, was loosened up enough from his own historical tradition to welcome into the kingdom a cultural tradition so far removed as that embodied in the other world of Cornelius. Far more than a sheet full of repugnant foods was involved. And it was not a temporary incident. No less than perhaps a million Gentile "God fearers" were in the next few years to crowd into the essentially Jewish faith (not culture) of the nascent Christian movement. This marginalized Jewish believers (like Peter) who continued to exercise their faith within the Jewish carrier vehicle. Indeed, Jewish believers would almost continually be persecuted for the next 2,000 years. Talk about practical implications!
In earlier issues of Mission Frontiers I have spoken of the fairly recent discovery of a very large number of "Hindu Christian believers." Many might feel this phrase is a contradiction in terms. If I were speaking of Hinduism--the religion--they are right. But I speak of the cultural traditions in general of the Indus valley, a cultural complex also called Hindu.
There is a crucial difference between speaking of the religion typical of Hindus and the myriad details of their culture. The word Hinduism may refer to a religion just as does Judaism. But being a Hindu or a Jew does not necessarily define that person's religion. There are Jews who follow Christ and--guess what--there are (now) Hindus who follow Christ, just as there are also Muslims who follow Christ.
A parallel question is whether all "Christians" are truly Christians. And my point here is whether we who are Evangelicals can dare to continue the Evangelical tradition of its early years. Thus the question:
Is "Christianity" What We are After, or Christian Faith?
After all, we may do well not to assume that God has called us merely to extend the social phenomenon called Christianity, much less our particular denominational brand thereof. Rather, shouldn't we be content with heralding the blessing of knowing Jesus Christ through His Word, and enlisting all those who call upon Him to do the work of His Kingdom, "to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God"?
For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) in its mission work around the world long followed a policy of not planting "Presbyterian" churches. Many substantial Christian movements around the world thus owe their origin to Presbyterian missionaries but yet are not called Presbyterian. Granted that donors might feel it safer to plant "Presbyterian" churches, nevertheless that was by no means what was always done.
Thus, might it be only one small step further not to plant churches at all of the kind that would be called by any name associated with Christianity (this is to deliberately "go beyond Christianity"). Rather we might settle on fostering true, Christian, Biblical faith distinctly within the Islamic or Hindu cultural (not religious) spheres. Even before that, we may do well to recognize and seek to foster Biblical faith wherever we find it, whether a movement's origin can be attributed to our efforts or not.
Otherwise we will not see all that God is doing around the world. We may miss the next major groundswell, just as centuries ago earnest Catholic leaders deplored the Reformation (and some still do).
Otherwise we will be more pessimistic than we need to be about what is happening to our faith in our tumultuous world.
Otherwise in the face of seemingly impregnable Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam we may soon be discouraged with the "global stalling" of formal Christian growth around the world, thinking that our preaching and our outreach has had no effect.
The fact is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is right now penetrating all three of these traditions amazingly--unless we are merely looking for the kind of Christianity with which we are familiar.
Today we can see many movements popping up which do not seem to track with the Christianity we know.