Amid the opportunistic scrambling to control the narrative of the Duck Dynasty fiasco, I find there is a sudden uptick in attempts to define what is a “true Christian.” Example: Dr. Jerry Walls, a professor at Houston Baptist University, claims that “all orthodox Christians” ostensibly affirm the sinfulness of same-sex relationships. People in Facebook conversations have been saying the same thing. Conservative Christians in particular are eager to cordon themselves off from more moderate or liberal Christians, claiming that they, the good upstanding conservatives, have the genuine article, whereas everyone else is just faking it or making up their own religion. While this is a classic case of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, it also merits further investigation.
Well, what is a “true Christian”? I’m not sure that’s a helpful question, though perhaps it would be someone who affirms the first creeds of Christianity. I think the better question is to ask what function these “true Christian” claims play in the narrative put forth by conservatives. Where the first question is ambiguous and could vary depending on whom you ask, the second is much clearer and helps us understand why it is that moderates and liberals need not concern themselves with such claims.
In the first article I linked, the claim about “all orthodox Christians” serves to discredit Christians who adopt other perspectives than the one given. The particularly arrogant qualifier “all” serves to deny even the possibility of there being orthodox Christians who support other views. Thus, people who accept this view — that there are no orthodox Christians who accept same-sex relations — do not even need to consider the opinions and reasoning of those who are outside the carefully-constructed box of orthodoxy.
But of course, the lines around the box expand and contract depending on which so-called “authority” or organization you ask. If you ask Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, the box is very small, only allowing for a very narrow set of views which include nothing but the literal-historical interpretation of the entire Bible (except where it is inconvenient, like in dealing with Old Testament laws). We have to have literal six-day creation; after all, “God has spoken clearly and truthfully. Will you trust His Word over the arrogant claims of sinful men?” If you ask John Piper, the box must include women being submissive to their husbands’ leadership, rather than allowing men and women to decide for themselves the nature of their marriage, “submitting to one another in love.” Piper “challenges” women to “support the leadership of [their husbands] as deeply as obedience to Christ will allow” — even to their own detriment.
If you ask a white supremacist, the box prohibits interracial marriage and promotes the subjection of other races. They’ll give you verses for that. And if you follow the example of xenophobic portions of the Old Testament, then quite honestly the white supremacists have a strong “Biblical” case for racism. What keeps us from taking this seriously, though, is that we simply don’t think that way anymore. We don’t think in terms of “chosen people” versus everyone else, and consequently we’re blind to how xenophobic the Bible can be. If we wanted to, though, we could include racism inside the box very easily. In fact, many Christians did so until VERY recently.
Dismantling the Box
We can dismantle these boxes around supposed “true Christianity” if we adopt a new perspective on what it means to follow Christ. Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan: a man travels down a road when bandits beat him up, rob him, and leave him for dead. Two people, a priest and Levite, pass him by, but a third man, a Samaritan, takes pity on the man, loves him, and cares for him. The last man — the Samaritan — was a child of God, where the priest and the Levite were not.
The surface-level takeaway from the parable is that we should care for those in need rather than just passing them by. Definitely true! But that’s just the start. Jesus’ selection of characters is phenomenally important. You see, the priest and the Levite would have known Jewish law; they would have worshiped God on the Sabbath and done all the right things in keeping religious observance. On the other hand, the Samaritan would have followed after an entirely different (but related) religion.
For the Jews to whom Jesus spoke, it was outrageous for Jesus to consider the Samaritan — who did not follow the Jewish Law — as fulfilling the Law greater than the priest and the Levite, whose very professions required them to fulfill the Law. Jesus’ point here is that being a child of God is not following every jot and tittle of our sacred texts; it is about loving one another.
Embracing and Listening
Our boxes for “True Christianity” disappear when we love others rather than trying to figure out how to fulfill every obligation of a religious system. In fact, doing the latter can make the former prohibitively hard. When our system tells us one thing, such as that same-sex relations are wrong, it can be hard to listen to our gay brothers and sisters, to those with gender identity issues, etc., for fear of violating our system.
So when we look at the insensitive remarks Phil Robertson made about not only gays but also black people in America, we see a person who has chosen to adhere to his religious and ideological system rather than engage with others and learn about their lives and struggles. He is blind because he has chosen not to see. He has buried his eyes in his Bible to the exclusion of the world around him.
As I wrote not long ago, we need to look up from our Bibles. There are people out there, and we need to embrace them and listen to their stories. We can’t love people by reading about them in a book, even a holy book. So, as you go out into the world trying to figure out how to treat others, consider the Good Samaritan and how he treated the man on the side of the road.
“Go and do likewise.”