In light of the recent comments by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Romans 13 and the plight of people seeking asylum, I have been reminded to think about what it means to be Christian.

I have grown tired of the complete lack of compassion of Christians who support a particular person or position at any cost, no matter how far that person or position is from the Spirit of Christ.

WWJD long

What would Jesus do? We like asking the question, but, asks Nils von Kalm, how much do we really come to terms with the answer. PICTURE: Ian Dooley/Unsplash.

 

"How can it be that calling ourselves 'Christian' so often results in us being less Christlike than many people who don't proclaim faith in Christ? Why is it that adherence to a set of beliefs is seen as the standard when determining whether one is Christian or not?"

Recently I listened to a sermon by God's Squad founder, John Smith, in which he talked about the evidence of a follower of Jesus. In the sermon, Smith makes the provocative statement that the devil is orthodox. What Smith means by this is that the devil believes the same things that Christians believe, but is just in rebellion against them.

This is backed up by the Letter of James, when James talks about the inseparability of faith and works. James 2:19 says, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder”. Many Christians don't like James, because it seems to talk too much about works, and indeed Martin Luther himself called it an epistle of straw for that reason. But it is in the Bible, and it is consistent with the rest of New Testament teaching.

The point Smith is making is that most Christians, particularly those of the evangelical persuasion, see being Christian as adherence to a particular set of beliefs, and that if you have those right beliefs in place, you have booked for yourself a place in the afterlife.

The problem is that the whole New Testament goes against such teaching. As a result, we think that once we have made a particular “decision for Christ”, everything is finished and our job is now to convince the rest of the world of the same beliefs. We therefore go through our lives thinking evangelism is more important than loving our neighbour. We become judgmental and wish those heathens would just believe the Gospel like we do and save themselves from hell. In practical terms, this often results in vilifying other religions, particularly Islam, and people, particularly refugees in the current context, most of whom we think are adherents of Islam and therefore potential terrorists. Fear has us over a barrel.

How can it be that calling ourselves 'Christian' so often results in us being less Christlike than many people who don't proclaim faith in Christ? Why is it that adherence to a set of beliefs is seen as the standard when determining whether one is Christian or not?

There are numerous reasons, most of which centre around the fact that I don’t believe we have heard the real Gospel of Jesus. We have focused on what we call The Great Commission in Matthew 28 and have taken that to mean we must evangelise the world. What it actually says though is to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. Even in the Great Commission we are told to live out our faith in action, but we have still managed to miss its main point.

As well as that, the fact that we have called this passage The Great Commission (something Jesus never did), means that we have placed more importance on it than was originally meant. This is not to undermine Jesus’ command to make disciples. After all, it was the final thing He said to His disciples. But He made it very clear that the most important command to follow is to love God and our neighbour. It was so important He said, that it actually sums up the whole Law and the Prophets; everything that framed the way of life of the people of God.

Being Christian is less about adherence to a set of beliefs than it is to following Jesus in our individual and corporate lives. But when you talk to some Christians about this, they see it as heresy. I have had my salvation questioned, I have been asked if I am born again, and I have even been told that I should be very scared on Judgment Day because I apparently didn't believe the right things about being Christian.

Just to put it out there, I consider myself an evangelical, born-again follower of Christ. I believe that the Bible is inspired, that God has spoken through it, and I believe in the new birth that Jesus speaks of in John 3. But that is not what is most important to me as a Christian. What is most important to me is that, while Jesus spoke once about being born again, he spoke 87 times about the need to follow Him. Based on that, I have a hunch that the latter was more important to Jesus than the new birth.

The problem when we get hung up on correct doctrine is that we find all sorts of reasons to not care for those less fortunate in the world. I remember being told many years ago that we shouldn't do anything for the welfare of indigenous people in Australia because they worship idols. The person who told me this was a genuine, sincere Christian. Sincerity, though, is not enough. It is very easy to be sincerely wrong.

The Old Testament constantly reminds us of God's ethical requirements to care for the widow and the orphan, as well as for the "stranger in your midst". Living a godly life in the Old Testament was about loving God and loving your neighbour. The Old Testament Law is filled with these requirements, down to minute detail.

"If being Christian makes us less like Christ, that is, less likely to love our enemy, less likely to feed the hungry, to work for the end of poverty and injustice; and if it makes us more fearful of refugees, more judgmental of other religions, and more likely to scapegoat the poor and outcast, then we need to question whether or not we are really Christian."

Jesus, Himself being Jewish, and being the fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures, went and taught the same. He even took it further by commanding us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. For Jesus, the ethical requirements of the Law were central. And when he was asked about it by a clever lawyer, he told the most famous parable of all, that of the Good Samaritan. In today's context, this parable could be called the Parable of the Good Palestinian Muslim, or the Good Mexican Immigrant, or the Good Conservative Politician.

All this is not to say that it doesn’t matter what we believe. I believe it is important to believe the right things. And that is actually the point I am trying to make here. If we believe, for example, that being a Christian is about getting our ticket to heaven and trying to evangelise the rest of the world, we will see that as a priority over caring for the outcast and oppressed. Those latter things might be good, but they will pale in comparison to the “eternal” work of saving souls.

On the other hand, if we believe that being a Christian is ultimately about following Jesus, trusting Him, seeking to become more Christ-like, working with God to renew this world, and that heaven is ultimately coming here, we will see evangelism as important, but no more important than seeking justice and an end to poverty and everything that demeans and degrades the human person, and indeed the whole of creation. Our entire worldview will be changed.

If being Christian makes us less like Christ, that is, less likely to love our enemy, less likely to feed the hungry, to work for the end of poverty and injustice; and if it makes us more fearful of refugees, more judgmental of other religions, and more likely to scapegoat the poor and outcast, then we need to question whether or not we are really Christian.

Being Christlike will always put us in conflict with someone at some stage. It is the nature of love and standing up for those less fortunate, as Jesus did. I believe that Jesus told us to love our enemies because He knew we would have them. When our enemies are the poor, the outcast, the refugee, and the Muslim, we can be almost certain we are not being Christian. However, when our enemies are the powerful, the arrogant, the rich and the oppressor, we can be much more confident that we are on the side of Jesus.

Who are your enemies? What is your priority as a Christian? What is my priority? Am I becoming more like Christ or not? It is a question we must all constantly ask ourselves.