“Is he a Christian?” my Campus Crusade women’s small group leader would ask us whenever we mentioned going out on a date or to a fraternity formal with one of our male classmates. I never liked the question. It always seemed jarring as well as a little presumptuous. As a lifelong churchgoer, faith has always played a prominent roll in my life. Nonetheless, I have never felt comfortable with asking this question so blatantly, as if matter of the spirit could be as easily identified and labeled as race, ethnicity, or sex. What does “being a Christian” mean anyway?
Some people figure that self-labeling oneself Christian is really all it takes to be one. This has been the case, all the way back to the beginning of Christendom when Roman Emperor, Constantine mandated that his entire Army wear symbols of Christianity into battle. I am sure that some of them, perhaps even Constantine himself, were true followers of Jesus, but certainly, not all of them. Wearing a cross doesn’t change a person’s heart. A label alone has no transformative power. One could probably survey any congregation asking for a definition of Christian and get a different answer from every person. Some may talk about belief in Jesus Christ or being saved while others may focus on acts of service and charity. When I consider the question, I can’t help but think of a song that I learned at church camp whose chorus repeats these words, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is love of God and love of neighbor, so naturally the answer should have something to do with love, shouldn’t it?
This is why I think there are better questions to ask than whether or not a person calls himself Christian. What about how following Jesus influences how we make choices or how discipleship increases our capacity to love our spouses or children better? There are many thoughtful questions to ask, but most of these require much deeper probing. As a Christian, more important than asking these questions of strangers, I think we need to ask them of ourselves. They aren’t easy to answer, especially on the days when we must confess that our following Jesus hasn’t really changed much at all in how we live our lives or how we love one another. Holding up a mirror and facing who we are truthfully takes significant courage. Sometimes seeing our own honest reflection is one of the hardest parts of our faithfulness to Christ.
I was reminded of my wariness of this question when a fellow solider, and friend, brought the subject up over lunch this past week. She has a boyfriend who doesn’t like to call himself Christian. He regularly attends church and pursues deeper faith in God. He is kind and compassionate. He prays, at least according to his girlfriend. But, when her friends and family ask whether or not he is a Christian, he tells them that he is not. This is not the answer they want to hear. Subsequently, he is not considered a good choice. Mostly, they just ostracize him.
Exclusion is not a very effective tool of evangelism, yet it seems to be the way of the church and its people, past and present. This is not only the problem of one denomination or sect, but the way that we all seem to conduct our business, even in Jesus’ name. We get so wrapped up in defining what it means to be one of us, on the inside, that we forget all the ways of inclusion that Jesus showed us. We look past how he ate with sinners without spending the meal judging them or how he healed the sick and lame, no matter who they were or where they had come from. We worry that by loving “the sinful,” we may give the impression that we are condoning their fallen choices and all the while we neglect to remember that we are just as wayward. We notice every fleck and splinter lodged in other people’s eyes while remaining blind to the planks in our own. We fail to remember how much we need God to transform our hearts, to fill us with divine love because no other love is as generous.
I read an article this week about a Christian school who was actively reaching out to non-traditional families in its local community. Instead of barring children from the school because their parents were gay or in jail or struggling with drug addiction, they decided to open their doors widely and allow all children, no matter their home circumstances, to be a part of their school family. Some of the parents worried that their children might be confused by these “other” children who came from backgrounds seemingly contrary to Christian values. Yet, the principal, also a priest, had a different approach. He recognized that these children and their families, warts and all, were a valuable addition to their school. Sure, hard questions may arise more often. Their presence may even be more of a challenge on some days. But, this is what being a Christian looks like, being willing to reach out in love, even when it is at a cost. Because in the end, that is exactly what Jesus did for us. This is what he did for the whole world.
It’s like my camp song. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” This is at the heart of being Christian. I hope I never forget it.