An 85% Christian?

What does it take to make someone a Christian? Or perhaps the better question is, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is there a difference? It depends on who you ask. Lutherans have always held that faith and works go hand in hand; faith (alone) in Christ justifies, where the natural fruit of that faith is seen in works of love and service to our neighbor (any fellow human being).

Thus, going back to the question, what does it then mean to be a Christian? How much love and which works are necessary for one to qualify as a Christian? I have found attempting to measure one’s Christianity to be a rather dubious business. The notion of someone trying to quantify Christianity throws it into the realm of subjective sinful human beings. However, I am by no means advocating a fruitless, deedless, or loveless form of Christianity. I am simply saying that any attempt to measure it is sure to run into problems.

If we deem one’s Christianity to be measureable, just how should we go about doing the measuring? Should we use the commandments? If so, how many? For example, which commandments should be kept in order to constitute being a true and authentic Christian? How about commandments 1-3—the First Table of the law? Would keeping 3 out of 10 count for anything? If we are talking baseball, batting .300 makes you an All Star, and gets you millions of dollars in the big leagues. But being a 30% Christian doesn’t sound so good. What is more, if we are talking gymnastics, or diving, that’s actually a lousy score. There you need 8’s and 9’s to be anywhere near the top. So would keeping, say, 8.5 commandments make one an authentic Christian? Or would it mean that one is only 85% percent Christian? And does 85% cut it? I seem to remember Jesus saying something about being perfect.

So how do we measure Christianity? Right now, the North American Church— Lutherans included—are debating just this. In short, they are debating
the nature of the works Christians are to do if they are truly Christian. They
are asking similar questions to the ones above. But with a bit of a new perspective: “What does it mean to follow Jesus?”

I believe Jesus had plenty to say about this. And historically the confessional documents of Lutherans have had a solid grasp about this. However, this is the issue being debated right now in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The particular issue is not so much about the 10 commandments, but about the commandment of Jesus to make disciples of all nations.

Presently, congregations and individual Christians are being evaluated and measured on how well they are fulfilling this command of Jesus. But this can prove to be a dubious matter. For the subjective nature of fallen human beings is bound to rear its ugly head. Who gets to say how much is enough? Who gets to say when you have tried hard enough, sacrificed long enough, and given enough? Could it truly ever be enough? Doesn’t Jesus demand perfection?

Please do not misunderstand. I would never advocate against keeping the commandments or against intentionally witnessing to our neighbor about Jesus Christ. Rather I am simply asking for a reality check about the burdens and demands being placed upon individual Christians as a condition of their authentic Christianity. And I am also asking for honesty about the way that we
talk.

Again, how should we measure our Christianity? How much is enough? How many commandments need to be kept? Is tithing mandatory, or can a person give only 8.5% of their finances and still be considered a Christian? Is winning one person for Jesus enough? Or is there a larger minimum requirement? And
how fast should we be able to do it in? Can the busy stay-at-home mother of four
young children feel good about spending her time caring for her family and raising her children in the faith, or does she bear a bigger obligation? Who gets
to say when she has done enough to count her as a Christian? How about the
couple who downsizes to a smaller house so that they can give to the poor, and
spend time in the streets? Or the missionary who is killed because he dared to
take the Gospel into a Muslim country? Does that make them “better” Christians? Who gets to say? Does Jesus love them more?

Please understand. I aptly realize that the “missional movement” is aimed at shaking up what is perceived to be a complacent, inward focused, and, dare I say, lazy, North American church. I get this. I also agree with some of the critiques the movement has about the current state of the North American church. However, speaking as an evangelical Lutheran, there is a degree of theological integrity we must also be willing to wrestle with as we confront the context of the North American church. And attempts to measure levels of authentic Christianity would seem to threaten the integrity of our confession of faith, particularly by confounding law and Gospel (see previous post), and burdening consciences of pastors and people alike. Thus, my continual plea for dialogue.

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and
demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and
collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian
Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all
nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome
your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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One response to “An 85% Christian?

  1. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Hi, Pastor Woodford! As always, you bring needed discussion to the forefront.

    I think it was Pelagius who was sent to Rome. Upon seeing nominal Roman pagans who had become nominal Roman Christians, his attempts to bring about a greater degree of Christian living brought him eventually to deny original sin and espouse the condemned teaching we now know as Pelagianism. What got in the way? I’d say it was, in the final analysis, his ego. In fact, that seems to be the common problem with all heresy. The heretic begins with the greatest of intentions and then fails to sacrifice his ego.

    I say this because I believe the issue you raise ultimately has an ego behind it. If we start asking which works do we really need to do, does that number apply to everyone? And, who gets to decide if the works were done well enough to be really good? It’s one thing to tell Christians they need to give. It’s a completely different thing when the pastor tells individual Christians they don’t give enough or not to a God pleasing level. By doing so, I’ve declared myself to be the judge of the scale. God doesn’t grade on a curve, but I can assure you that the rest of us do.

    A brother in the ministry told me once that all Christians – he was speaking primarily of the laity, but I believe this applies to pastors, too – believe that justification is along the lines of the Bridge of Death over the Gorge of Eternal Peril in “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.” Remember the bridge keeper’s words? “What is your name…” The thought is, if we get enough questions right, we can enter into heaven. The place where this is most apparent is in our confirmation classes. Hand out a worksheet or get confirmands ready for the end of the year examination, and what question do we get? “How many of these can we get wrong and still pass?”

    The missional movement sends us down this road, unfortunately. As much as it plays to our desire to bring Christ to the nations, the movement invariably leads us to know that there are good works, some works are a little more good than others. Unfortunately, we wind up with the “goats” of Matthew 25, holding our qual cards and responding, “Lord, when did we see You…”

    So endeth the diatribe (and there was great rejoicing).

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