Rethinking What It Means to be a Christian | Sojourners

Rethinking What It Means to be a Christian

“You are not only a coward but a non-believer as well.”

It may not quite be at the level of Captain America’s vibranium shield, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. When you start a blog that promotes something as insanely unorthodox as the idea that the author of Genesis 1-3 might have (like most other biblical authors) made use of a metaphor here and there, you come to expect that some fundamentalists are going to call Father Merrin and start reaching for the holy water.

It’s unfortunate — and, often, perplexing — but you learn to get used to it.

Even so, there are times I receive emailed messages like the one quoted above, and it hits like a punch in the gut. I know I should just ignore such trollishness. Usually I can. But not always.

Don’t worry, though. This is not a whiny column about how mean the conservatives are to us open-minded, forward-thinking progressives. Instead, it’s about how messages like this are helping me rethink almost everything I thought I knew about the Christian faith.

We evangelicals are partial to the idea that faith is paramount to Christianity. In basic terms, this is a very biblical idea (James 2:24 notwithstanding). The problem is that “faith” is almost synonymous with the word “beliefs,” which is pretty darn close to the word “doctrine,” which leads to the subconscious (and hence, very powerful) idea that theological purity is the ultimate goal in the life of being a Christian. (Thanks a lot, English language).

I have not been immune to this. At various points in my life, I have found myself bizarrely, irrationally feeling as though the Catholic who prays to the saints, or the Pentecostal who speaks in tongues, are more my enemy than the atheist who thinks we’re all a bunch of crazies that worship fairy tales.

Even as I’ve come to the view that things like the increasingly toxic war over same-sex marriage is more “our” problem than society’s, I have still held onto the idea that theology trumps all. I honestly believed that, if some of these brothers and sisters could simply be persuaded that it really does matter that “sinners” were drawn to Jesus but are repelled by us, then they would change their minds and behavior.

Because of emails like the one above, I’m changing my tune. More and more, I’m seeing that the issue is not doctrine; it’s attitude. It’s not theology; it’s posture. It’s not the brain; it’s the heart. In short, it doesn’t really matter what kind of Christian you are. What it comes down to is what kind of person you are.

It’s about how we treat people. Do we see them as … well, people? People with hearts and minds and spirits and free wills of their own? People whose needs and desires, broadly speaking, are common to us? Or do we see them as objects: prizes to be won, numbers to be accounted for, rebellious animals to be brought in line?

To say there is a spiritual component to all this is an understatement. The Spirit is the key. Galatians 5 contrasts the “acts of the flesh” (among them, immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, disputes, dissension, division, envy) with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

These latter nine are the adjectives that are to characterize the Spirit-indwelt Christian. It is these nine traits that are to distinguish us from “non-believers” — not our stance on a select few social issues.

Again, this is not about bashing conservativeness. But it is about bashing the idea that self-righteous, indignant, hostile anger over matters of theological disagreement is somehow a virtue of the “true Christian.” Because it just isn’t.

Nor am I saying, “Let’s just play nice and agree to disagree.” By all means, let’s talk about important things. But Galatians 5 does not conclude its catalogue of spiritual attributes with the qualification: “except when there is a disagreement over national policy or political ideology.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest are not limited to interactions in which we’re already inclined to agree; they are non-conditional.

This kind of life requires checking oneself constantly, because peace and joy and love are not exactly our natural states. It is the fruit of “the Spirit” after all, not the fruit of “humans just doing their human thing.”

This subtle but powerful change in thinking has helped me in my own faith, but it’s also helped me in relationships. For one thing, it’s helped me make sense of why I can meet a young Mormon missionary with an obvious and genuine heart for others, and an evangelical who — though our theological views would probably be almost identical — can hardly wait for God to show up and start barbecuing people. 

In evangelical culture, we talk a lot about whether someone can be a “real Christian” and believe in this or that — the whole theological purity thing again. But biblically, I think it makes a lot more sense to ask whether someone can be a “real Christian” and not showcase the fruit of the Spirit, especially in trying situations.

Fortunately, that’s not my call. But I do know this: If this fruit is not evident in one’s life, it is not because they are mistaken on some fine point of Christian doctrine. I’m afraid their confusion goes much, much deeper.

Tyler Francke is a print journalist and freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest. He is the founder and lead contributor of God of Evolution — a blog promoting the harmony of biblical Christianity and mainstream science — and author of Reoriented, a novel due to be released in 2014 by TouchPoint Press.

Photo: ArtFamily/