Who is a Christian?

Article for St. Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.

“Who is a Christian?”, or “What is a Christian?”, or maybe more accurately, “Who decides?”

At the recent National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama said, “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior”, a statement that would normally be received with great joy in the evangelical community, but not necessarily so this time. While 18% of the U.S. population believes that Obama is a Muslim, that figure goes to 40% among Tea-party focus groups, top heavy with “born-again” Christians.

So, who really is a Christian?

Is the alcoholic, who feels unworthy to attend church, while maintaining personal faith in Christ, a Christian? What about the Christ-trusting church member, who slanders and condemns the alcoholic? Consider the pedophile priest, who now in his dying years is calling on God for mercy, and what about his victims, some of them, filled with anger and hatred towards the religious system that failed them and stole their innocence, and yet those victims still trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Look at the woman, now in her late forties, harboring resentment against organized religion, because as a pregnant teenager the church rejected her and her boyfriend. She prays every night, but says, “Church is not for me”. Then what about the church deacon, who behind the scenes, orchestrated the rejection of the pregnant teenager, because that was the “right” and “Christian” thing to do, those young people should be held “accountable”. Consider serial killer Ted Bundy, who before his execution gave a glowing testimony of Christ’s transforming power in his life. In all of these scenarios; who is or isn’t a Christian?

Many of the same people that think Obama is a Muslim, seem sure that President Bush was a Christian, but what about President Carter, who professed, “I am born-again”; does he qualify? Most Christians would say “yes”, while other think Carter just wasn’t conservative enough. At least in the United States, you are allowed to talk about faith and politics, while in Canada we sweep the matter under the rug, burying our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. For a leader of a national political party to admit to be “born-again” might result in a loss in the next election. Is our “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach the Christian way?

A few years ago after this newspaper reported that I had spoken to the Friday congregation of a local St Catharines mosque; I received numerous letters from Christians, who thought I had done something very “unchristian”. After a public debate with a renowned atheist from Wisconsin, a man describing himself as an agnostic, and with one of his children being a homosexual, thanked me for the way I had answered questions regarding homosexuality by emphasizing that we are all sinners, who need Christ’s transforming love. Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a “devout” Christian; “Peter, you really handled this debate in a great way, but your response about homosexuals was wrong”. I will spare the reader from a direct quote of the words the man thought I should have used. Later on I discovered that this devout anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian, had coerced his teenage daughter to have an abortion. The obvious question is; can a hypocrite be a Christian? 

Maybe we first need to look at another question; “What is sin?” Jesus worst critics, the Pharisees and many today, describe sin as breaking the rules, a list of dos and don’ts, while Jesus defined it as a broken relationship. If the Pharisees had the right idea, a good Christian is someone, who is able to keep the rules prescribed by his or her religion. If Jesus is correct, a Christian is someone, whose relationship with God is restored.

In the famous story of the prodigal son, the only one interested in the list of broken rules was the “older brother”; the father didn’t want to hear about it, his sole interest was a restored relationship with his son. Therein lies the answer. The only way anyone of us can do what is right and live a Christian life is in the safety of a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father.

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