Last evening, through a confluence of events (my wife is out of town and our soccer schedule got messed up), my daughter and I had dinner out together, just the two of us. It was a good-time with a lot of animated discussion (which her and I are known for). In the course of our conversation, we stumbled upon the question: How can you tell if someone’s a Christian?
I said, “There is only one way to tell if someone is a Christian: Ask them.”
Short of that, every other method leads you into judgements based upon what you can see from the outside. That is dangerous business.
Jesus did say that you will know a tree by the fruit that it bears. If you profess to be a follower of Jesus there should be some evidence that you are indeed following him. More to Jesus’ point, those who hold themselves up as “folks who speak for God”, spiritual leaders, religious teachers and so on should have values and goals consistent with the kingdom of God that Jesus’ proclaimed. There should be a connection between what they teach and how they live. Is that a green light for judging the faith of others based upon what you can see from the outside? Perhaps another teaching of Jesus will help.
Quite famously, Jesus also said;
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
– Matthew 7:1 – 5 (NRSV)
In American cultural life, this passage is often misused by folks that don’t want to have their moral choices critiqued by others. That’s not what Jesus was talking about. If it were, then he contradicts himself because much of the sermon on the mount is about judging some thoughts and actions as wrong and others as right.
Then what is Jesus talking about? He’s talking about the act of deciding for yourself if another person is “in” our “out” with God. That’s something we shouldn’t do for two very good reasons. One, we can’t see that clearly so our judgements are off. Many times people will even become hyper-critical of the sinfulness of others as a way of avoiding the reality of their own sin. If we major on the speck in someone else’s eye – that we can’t even see that well – then we don’t have to attend to the log in our own. That’s dangerous, self-delusional and leads to pride. Two, according to Jesus, the standard by which we judge others becomes the standard by which we are judged. For some, that idea doesn’t sit too well with their notions of salvation, but it is a consistent point of Jesus teaching (say, in the Lord’s prayer and other places). One BIG sign that you understand God’s mercy and grace towards you is that you extend mercy and grace towards others (see Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, Matt 18:23 – 35).
If grace is unmerited favor, then it comes to us apart from anything we do. That means the whole basis for judging who is “in” and who is “out” based upon outward behaviors is not anchored in grace. It is anchored in the legalistic adherence to rules. If you want to be judged on that basis, that is your choice. According to Jesus, the way you signal your wish to be judged that way is by judging others that way.
If you want grace, extend grace. If you want law, judge others by the law.
That’s why I say that if you want to know if someone is a Christian, ask them. Don’t assume they are. Don’t assume they aren’t. Ask them. Don’t judge them.