This post was inspired by a discussion with a friend (you know who you are if you’re reading this).
Here’s a question that always seems to have an easy answer until you actually apply that answer in real life: what does it mean to be a Christian? Certainly, anybody with the faculty of speech could blurt this platitude out from the rooftops, but what does it mean? Should someone view you in an entirely different way just because you said that? Why should it matter whether or not you’re a Christian if you say that to me? What if you were just a nice guy before, very forgiving, and you’re the same after you become a disciple as well? How are you supposed to tell the difference, and how will anyone else unless you tell them outright? Is that even ok, or does that smack of pride and hubris?
You could certainly go on and on with these odd questions. I’m sure everyone has though about this, but putting it into words really nails it: a statement, an action, or anything you do doesn’t neccessarily imply that one is a Christian, rather than not. Just because I give 90% of my money to charity, for example, might heavily suggest that I am, but does not mean in every case, that because a person happens to go to church, or be religious, or read his/her Bible every night that they’re also religious. Maybe he or she is a curious atheist who also believes in social justice. You never can know (unless you ask! But only when asked!)
I’m not going to discuss the divide between grace and works; there’s been centuries of debate on the subject, and I stand firmly in the former camp. Let’s look at Galatians 2:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. 17 But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! 18 For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.19 For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.
If I’m reading Paul right, then we no longer live under the Law, the law given to the Jews long ago at Sinai (and following that, of course). That is a very scary position for human beings – it implies that there isn’t a “safe” path to being a Christian, or one that becomes absolutely, without equivocation, clear to the individual. In Peter’s case (Cephas in the NASB, which is more accurate on that note), he acted differently with one group than he did the others – the Gentiles and Jews were two separate groups, and neither wanted to mingle with each other. Christ justifies all, yet Peter drew away from one group for a simple difference. That, obviously, isn’t Christ-like, an intentional separation of people on arbitrary terms. The moment you begin to codify certain actions over others, this is when you descend back into the Law, the very thing that crucified Christ. The recent movement to re-frame Christ into pacifistic terms follows this same formula, attempting to place Christ’s ethic into human categories once again. Hence, Hebrews 6, talking about pressing on to maturity in Christ:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it isimpossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame
Christ came to be the Truth, and the Truth will set you free, not burden you with a new set of regulations to add to your old list! What frightens us more than anything is freedom; as poet Thomas Gray said “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” That is because you know the truth now. There can’t be any excuse not to act right. Certain things remain pretty obvious, I’d imagine, like stealing, lying, and those situations. It’s obvious because they don’t represent love of God (you’re stealing His creation, directly or indirectly which was granted to another) or love of neighbor (stealing does not equal love in any circumstance).
The problem, then, is that “Christian living” becomes contextual to you as a person – you’ve got the general guidelines, but one has to be creative (as God gave us the tendency to be) in order to be Christ-like. You know you’re a Christian, but how do you “show it”? Let’s say, for example, you just happen to go to a bar and grill, and a friend accosts you with a beer in his hand, heavily inebriated. The friend offers you a beer as well; it’d obviously be rude to refuse, yet you don’t drink. What’s the proper response in this situation that represents the love of Christ and love of neighbor?
Perhaps the right answer is “You’re drunk, and I’m not talking to you. I’m a Christian!” Really, though, does instant condemnation really help the situation? In my view, I think the answer is not to say “Sorry, I don’t drink”. Why would this be a wrong answer? First, you’re implying that drinking is wrong, or that you are superior in some sense to the other person. Whereas you might not think this will sound the wrong way, why bother leaving the opening? Rather, it’s better to say “Sorry, I don’t really want one.” That is, you’ve accepted the offer of hospitablity, but you don’t want the beer. It’s not the alcholic substance per se that becomes the problem, but how you treat your neighbor. You care enough not to offend them on the first pass, even if they’re not your favorite person in the world; you treat them as you would yourself, because you know telling them “You’re wrong” would absolutely turn you off as well. It’s complex, to say the least.
In this freedom, there are an unlimited number of situations like this that arrive at our doorstep every day, and the correct response is different in every case. God didn’t make you a robot; no universal rubric applies to the niceties of language. You’ve got the general moral character from Christ’s example and the Bible, but love means different things at a social event versus a battlefield. That’s what it means to be free to love others – to interact with other human beings kindly, carefully, and with understanding and forgiveness. That’s a Christian, but it’s going to look different everytime you see it, so look carefully. Not everyone is a Paul or Peter; sometimes, we’re just the little guy, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Pay attention!