Sometimes making a choice can be one of the most difficult tasks for a person. Probably the most thorny of these choices is the always troubling question, “What do you want to eat?” I’m sure we’ve all been down this disastrous road a time or two. What’s the problem? Too many choices and too many individual tastes. I’ve been on road trips where we have circled an area five times only to end up in a restaurant that no one is happy with. However, once our stomachs are full and the argument is over, we realize that food is food, and in the end, it’s all really the same, right?
Looking into the world of religious organizations and belief systems, one may come to a similar conclusion: “It’s all the same, right? I mean, does it really matter what you believe, what your faith is in so long as you have faith?” This kind of thinking is exacerbated when one considers all of the groups in town who claim the title “Christian”. In fact, I was recently having a conversation with a young man who, as the topic moved to spiritual matters, agreed with me but then interjected, “But I look around and see Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, and all sorts of other groups — how do I know which one is right?” This is such an important topic.
To begin, we must start with the assumption this young man made; namely, that although each of the groups would claim, to varying degrees, the title “Christian”, there must be something which differentiates them. There must be something which makes one “right” and another “wrong”. So while we may try to be “PC” affirming that all groups who self-identify as Christian do so rightly, our instincts tell us otherwise.
To begin with, we must have a standard about what a Christian is from an objective point of view. You see, words are only as good as their definitions. Somehow we’ve come to believe in our modern culture that words can mean whatever we want them to mean. If this truly is the case, then no words have meaning and all conversation and debate will go nowhere. Fortunately, words do have meaning and this is the case for the term Christian. The standard, then, we use in order to define Christianity must be the Bible. For in the Bible we learn of the Christ, from who Christianity comes. Therefore, if one is going to claim Christianity, we should be able to look at the Bible to discern the validity of the claim.
However, it may be helpful to start with an illustration. We are currently inundated with coverage of the Democratic debates. Now imagine if a presidential hopeful got up on the stage and began to argue against the basic Democratic position on every topic and to argue instead for the Republican platform. How do you think the others would respond? Perhaps at first they would be confused, but eventually someone might be brave enough to say, “Why are you here? You’re not a Democrat!” The person might respond, “Yes, I am! How dare you say that!” However, in what sense could an individual be a Democrat if they do not hold to any of the foundational beliefs of the party? In truth, they couldn’t. You see, self-identification alone does not mean anything. The question is, “What is the content of your beliefs?” The content comes first and then the label follows.
Similarly, just because a group or denomination claims a Christian label and perhaps even a Christian heritage, one must look at the content of their beliefs in order to discern how “Christian” they truly are. Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that I personally have a corner on the market of truth. There are areas in which true, Bible-believing Christians disagree, and yet both can still be legitimately considered Christian. The Democratic debates show that there are areas in which Democrats disagree on, while they all remain within the broad Democratic spectrum. However, there would come a place when a Democrat moved so far from that spectrum that they can no longer be consider a true Democrat. This is also true of Christianity. Some have moved so far from historic, Biblical Christianity that there is no way to truly consider them Christian (even while they cling to the term).
What must be part of the content of the beliefs in order for a group to be considered Christian? Briefly stated, 1) One must believe that Jesus is who He said He was throughout the Gospel records. Jesus was not merely some teacher, guru, great example, or prophet. Jesus is God in the flesh (cf. John 1:1, 14). Jesus clearly recognized He is God (cf. Mark 2:5) and proclaimed Himself to be God (cf. John 8:58).
2) One must believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God and that it can be trusted as such (2 Timothy 3:16, 1 Peter 1:22-25). How can one be a Christian and yet believe the Bible is suspect? If you believe the Bible needs to be updated to fit current trends, that the Bible is missing “many parts which are plain and most precious,” or that the Bible needs to be corrected by science, then I don’t see how you can legitimately consider yourself to be a Christian.
3) One must believe that salvation comes by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone. Even a superficially reading of New Testament books such as Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians would make this point very clear. Yet, so many groups want to add rituals, organizational membership, or other types of “works” to the requirements of salvation. This is not Christianity.
This is in no way intended to be exhaustive or my final treatment on the topic, but it is a starting place. As I talked with this young man, I encouraged him (as I do all of you readers), not to be sidetracked by names on buildings or organizational identifications. Rather, look to the content of their message. If a group is truly part of Christianity, their message and teaching will make it clear.
Add your voice to the conversation. Questions, concerns, clarifications can be sent to AskPastorJones@gmail.com.
By Pastor Nick Jones
Maranatha Baptist Church
1320 E. Saguaro Dr. Globe, AZ