The question of who is a Christian is a good one, I think. I have struggled long with it. In America, at least, the word is so broadly used as to be meaningless. I have had folks tell me that they were Christians, of course, because they weren't Jews or Muslims or any of the others, so what else would they be? Others say they attend church more or less regularly and are nice people who don't do nasty things, so they are Christians. Still others say they believe in Jesus, and therefore are Christians, though they are not part of a local church and their lives are unremarkable.
There are so many people making so many claims for such a myriad of reasons, all the while living lives that are indistinguishable from anyone else, "Christian" or not, that it seems to me someone must not be living in the real world. Or perhaps they are just flat out lying.
I have been thinking for a long time about this, mostly from wanting to be on solid ground if I publicly identify myself as a Christian. I want to be consistent. And the outcome for me is that the word means little, and even has some strong negative connotations, as well. So I prefer not to use it for myself.
I have been watching different groups I have encountered who call themselves Christians. Some are from other countries and cultures. And - if this were a scientific experiment, which it is not - conveniently bring along a control group. Alongside the professing Christian population in some of these groups are others from the same culture who are from other traditions: Buddhists, Muslims and more. Still other groups include the members of a local church. In the latter, a woman once told me that "every person who is in regular attendance at this church is a Christian." Oh? A young woman, a single mom struggling financially, needed legal advice. She went to one of the pillars of said church, a woman lawyer, and asked for help. The reply? "Honey, you couldn't even begin to afford me." A Christian response?
So what's the answer? Does saying it's so make it so? Is everyone a Christian who claims to be a Christian? I will argue that we can call ourselves anything we choose, but our saying it has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the claim. Neither does regular attendance at a church service mean anything. We can live in the church building, and be unsaved. Someone said, "Going to a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car."
As the "proof of the pudding is in the eating," the proof of the claim to Christianity is in the living. How do we live? How do we treat others? Not just others we like and approve of, but how do we treat those we dislike or consider in some way beneath us?
Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by the love we have for each other, the same love he has for us (John 13:34, 35). When we are self-righteous or judgmental, we have no credibility with the world, and perhaps not with God, either.
What about feuds and grudges among us? Do we forgive each other? Do we forgive even those we consider unworthy of our forgiveness?
A very disturbing statement in the gospels has Jesus telling us that we have to forgive each other. That if we don't forgive others, he said, the Father will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14, 15).
That stops me cold, because, you see, I am one of the "bad people." I am one of the sinners of the world. I shudder to think of all the reprehensible things I have done in my life. I desperately need God's forgiveness. Without it, I am utterly lost. I have no hope.
And so I must forgive. I must forgive totally and generously, as the Father forgives me.
Because the sinners of the world and the bad people we know are precisely those for whom Jesus came. They are the ones he hung out with and for whom he gave his life.
And those who are "good people," who are happy with what they see in the mirror, apparently don't need a savior. The fact is, Jesus didn't come to good people, but to the ones who just couldn't get it right in life. The screw-ups. The losers.
The good folks, the anointed few, seem to be left out, from what Jesus seemed to be saying. He didn't come for the well, but the sick, right? (Matthew 9:12)
So, those who refuse to forgive, who sit in judgment of others, and who are satisfied with their own righteousness, should remember one thing: You cannot live that way and be a follower of Jesus. You can't have those attitudes and know Jesus and truthfully take for yourself the name Christian. You can't live in blatant disobedience and hope to have God's blessing.
It's good to consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), and ask ourselves which son we would be? Because the parable is about us: you and me.
Is a Christian one illustrated by the younger son, the runaway? Or is a Christian more like the elder son, the one who always did his duty and never challenged the father?
Which am I? Which are you?