Monday, April 03, 2006

On the touchy subject of "true Christians"

I’ve been reading the comments on my “Were the Nazis Christian?” post. There I tried to make the point the Nazis weren’t Christians just because they claimed to be. As additional and powerful evidence, I linked to (secular) research providing evidence that part of the Nazi Master Plan was to persecute the church.

Even if we disregard the Nazi persecution of the church, I would still argue that Hitler was not a Christian, regardless of his claims to the contrary. And while personally I think that Hitler did not really believe he was a Christian, but simply used the mantle for propaganda, much like the KKK, I would go further and say that even if Hitler sincerely believed he was a Christian and he sincerely believed in Jesus and in God, he still was not a true Christian.

As I wrote in the previous post, anytime you claim someone is not a “true” Christian, regardless of how loathsome that person is, you’ll find yourself standing accused of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

In responding to the original post, GCT comments:
I'm not going to say that it is a good argument to try to link Nazis to Christians or anyone else for that matter, but your treatment of the No True Scotsman fallacy is lacking. Without a viable definition of what a Christian is, it is hard to say what one is not. Most people say that a Christian accepts Jesus as his/her lord and savior and believes in god.
In that first post I did not suggest the possibility that Hitler was sincere in his profession. So as far as that post is concerned, a straightforward (and still relevant) response to GCT would have been: Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean that everyone who claims they accept Christ is a Christian.

However, in this post I’ll even grant, for the sake of argument, that Hitler sincerely believed that had accepted Christ.

That still doesn’t make him a true Christian, and in fact the evidence is overwhelming that he was not.

GCT is correct when he writes “a Christian accepts Jesus as his/her lord and savior.” However, it is not necessarily true that a person who believes he has accepted Jesus as his/her lord and savior is a Christian. It’s the old “all animals are not horses.”

The bible teaches this very clearly. There are many who believed but were not saved. Simon the Magician in Acts 8 is one example. The parable of the sower teaches that some believe but nevertheless are not saved. And most terribly, Jesus tells us:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Mt 7:21-23)
So even if Hitler really believed, then he still faces the possibility that he will hear those dreadful words: “I never knew you.”

Should we ever reach a conclusion that someone is not a true Christian? Is that ever for us to decide?

Yes we should, and yes it is. Not routinely (the essence of legalism) but it is called for under certain circumstances such as preaching a different gospel and continued, unrepentant sin. There is plenty of biblical precedent for excommunication. And the basis of excommunication is not judging the strength of one’s testimony, nor judging the sincerity of the testimony. The test has always been judging one’s behavior--or more to the point, judging one's refusal to change their behavior.

Oh, we are most definitely supposed to judge. Even considering the famous verse:
Judge not, that you be not judged. (Mt. 7:1)
This is an admonition that is understood as a call to avoid hypocrisy, and to refrain from that judgment which is God’s alone. This warning does not mean, as it is often used, that we are to be unrelenting in our tolerance. For just a few verses later we are instructed:
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Mt. 7:6)
Here is a call to make an assessment: some are dogs, some are pigs. How are we to know, unless we are to judge?

But how are we to judge? Jumping just a few verses ahead, we read:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Mt. 7:15-20)
The very admonition to avoid false prophets presupposes this: we have the ability and the responsibility to judge some who claim to be Christians, and God’s approval to examine the evidence and, if warranted, return a verdict of: apostate.

Now in a technical sense GCT has a point, although I don’t think it was what he meant (perhaps I'm wrong). Ultimately Paul cannot judge the unrepentant fornicator in the Corinthian church (who was bedding his step-mother) as unsaved, which is synonymous with "not a true Christian"—we agree that such a judgment of one's eternal fate is God’s alone. But Paul certainly did judge the man, and he instructed the church to go as far as humanly possible: excommunicate him and treat him as if he were not a Christian. There was no question in Paul’s mind that the church had every right to claim that the man was not a true Christian.

The biblical support and mandate for self-cleaning implies this: Although excommunication can and has been abused, the church is not warned about making, in good faith, a false positive—it is warned about allowing false negatives. In other words, Hitler is out, and if it turns out that he was saved, then the church still did what is was told to do—evict unrepentant sinners. On the other hand, keeping Hitler in the church to avoid the True Scotsman fallacy would be in direct violation of scripture.

Later in the comments, Matt makes this same point: we are to judge people by their good works. The very thing (good works) that does not save them will nevertheless mark them. Christians are justified before God by the internal witness of their faith, but they are justified before one another by their actions. This is the essence of the resolution of the alleged discrepancy between Paul’s and James’s teaching on justification. Abraham’s faith (and Christ’s righteousness) justified him before a Holy God. Abraham’s obedience with regards to his son Isaac justifies him in our eyes, eyes that are incapable of seeing the heart, eyes that see only the behavior.

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