Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Is Barack Obama a Christian?

This was a question asked of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican and one of the frontrunners for the Presidential nomination in 2016. Oddly enough, Walker’s answer was to say, “I don’t know.” I say his answer was odd because it has been used to create some political theater by his opponents. Media outlets like the LA Times  have expressed righteous indignation at the governor’s unwillingness to call the President a Christian without qualification. Given the propensity of many in media to be dismissive of religious faith, this is rather ironic. As David Burge put it on Twitter, “Media: How dare Scott Walker doubt Barack Obama's faith in Scott Walker's ridiculous invisible sky beard man.” This reaction was fairly predictable, so it is surprising that Walker answered as he did. One would expect a politician to take the safer road and say something like, “I do not question the President’s faith. The problem is his ideas on governing.”

I have to give Walker credit, though, for answering honestly and shedding light on the misconceptions of Christianity current in secular culture. There is a world of difference between identifying as a Christian and being one. My hope today is to point out some of those differences in an effort to clear up the confusion and help people understand what it really means to belong to the church.

What is the Church?

I suppose that brings us to the first area of confusion, then. What is the “church?” In English, that word derives from old German sources, which in turn translated the Greek word ecclesia. An ecclesia was, very simply, an “assembly.” Early Christians first described themselves this way because they were those gathered around Jesus Christ. A church, then, is not really a building or a location. It is the people. Furthermore, Christians have always marked a difference between the local and universal church. The former is, obviously, the local assembly. The latter is all those who belong to Christ. And this is the more important element. Attending services or placing membership in a local congregation does not automatically mean that a person belongs to the universal church. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true that sitting in your garage does not make you a car. Or look at it another way. A person born in another country can come and live here, benefiting greatly from all the advantages of living in this nation. But no number of years or experiences can make him an American until he goes through the process of gaining citizenship. Christianity has a naturalization process. It is not a matter of mere residency.

Carry this idea a bit farther. In most countries, citizenship is a birthright. You are born into it. Christianity, however, is comprised completely of immigrants. No one comes into this world a Christian. It is not something you get as a result of your parents being a member of a local church. Everyone who wants to join, has to go through the naturalization process.

The Importance of Faith

That word “want” is the key to this. What makes a Christian a Christian is the assent of the soul. You cannot gain grace any other way than by choosing it. Every individual soul must decide, for him or herself, whether the Gospel has merit. Do you believe you are a sinner, that you have acted selfishly rather than loving God and those around you? Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but that He was born as a human being to live a perfect life and then die unjustly as the sacrifice for those sins? Do you believe that He rose from the grave three days later, and ascended into heaven? If you believe these things, have you asked forgiveness of your sins through Christ and received the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of your eternal life? To answer “yes” to these questions is to be a Christian. To answer “no” to any of them, in my opinion, is not to be a Christian. Tradition, upbringing, actions, and words do not determine it. Faith alone does that. You have to want Christ because you know you need Him.

The word “Christian” has become so overused that it might be necessary to consider using another term for those who have chosen to belong to Jesus. It is a word that is as old as the universal church, and it has also been misused, but it at least has more sanctity granted to it by secular culture. That, in fact, is the word: “saint.” This word is used over and over again in the New Testament, in the salutation and the closing of just about every letter, and in the body of a few of them for good measure. In Catholicism, it became a very specialized term applied to those who had done some special good for the church. Their good works, along with requirements for a few miracles and incorruptibility, were seen as proof that they had been acceptable to God. However, in the Scriptures themselves, the saints were all those who belonged to the church, not just the chosen few. When something is sanctified, that does not mean it is especially good. Actually, when you look at the Greek used to write the New Testament, you find out that the word derives from a concept of filthiness. Something mean, normal, dirty, profane, worthless is taken and set apart for service to God. And that is precisely what it means to be a true Christian. Christians are people who know how bad they are, but that God wants to turn them into something new. That is true sainthood, and we ought to reclaim the idea in order to show that Christianity is more than just a social club.

This is also, finally, why Walker could say he does not know if Obama is a Christian. It is the same reason why I do not know if Walker is a Christian. Sainthood is an immensely personal matter. There are times when true believers are unsure about their own salvation. Certainly, we can never be sure about someone else’s. The choice to follow Jesus goes right to the root of the soul. Since we cannot see into anyone’s heart, we cannot know whether they truly hold the faith they proclaim. But “God, who knows the heart” (Acts 15:8) does see into the soul, and does know who has truly accepted His Son, and who has not. Ultimately, we must rely on the Lord to disclose the truth about every other person, and we are justified in claiming ignorance about the state of anyone else’s eternity.

Checking the Fruit

Ultimately. Yes, ultimately. But the uncertainty of living in that ignorance would make it impossible to worship or commune with anyone. We must frequently make our best guess, and the Bible teaches us how. There are certain signs in the life of the believer, and while it is conceivable that they could be insincere, the likelihood is so small that we can use them make emphatic statements about who is a true member of the assembly of the saints. In Matthew 7:16-20, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Knowing how to recognize good fruit is knowing how to recognize a Christian.

The first and greatest of these signs is love. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus explains that the purpose of life is to “‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” But it is difficult to love God and others as the Bible explains we ought. Love is not a feeling. It is a decision to sacrifice. It means putting others ahead of ourselves. That is what Jesus did (see Philippians 2:3-5). This type of love runs very counter to our normal desires. The first thought is almost always for the self. What sets a Christian apart is resisting this selfish urge and giving something up for the sake of another, even a stranger. If someone claims to be a Christian but never displays an attitude of love, then the truth of his claim is certainly open to question (see 1 John 4:20). This is, after all, the criterion Jesus gives for knowing who belongs to Him. As He said in John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What follows next from love is obedience. What God requires from us, He does so for our good. We are to pursue a life of righteousness. Living this way is not supposed to be an obligation, though. Obeying God is not about avoiding punishment for Christians. Punishment has already been avoided. Christ made that possible on the cross. Obedience for us, therefore, is about gratitude rather than fear. Obedience is love. 1 John 4:19 says “We love Him because He first loved us.” We do what God wants because we love Him for saving us rather than leaving us to the destruction our willfulness earned.

Love and obedience are clear signs that back up a claim to be a Christian, and only Christians can do them in the completely biblical way. But charity and morality are also universal goods which can be practiced, at least generally, by anyone. One final sign of true faith is proclamation. A saint fulfills the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, 20 by going out and proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, and that salvation is only available through Him. This means not just doing it when it is comfortable, but also when it results in persecution. Jesus explains in Matthew 10:27-33, “Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” A saint has the willingness to make Christ known even when it results in persecution, because faithfulness to the Lord is more valuable even than temporal safety. They have a faith substantive enough to result in their speaking out. As an example, you can look to this article from Ana Marie Cox. She and I would disagree on many issues, and again, I cannot know her heart. But this is the sort of brave statement that would lead me to believe her rather than doubt her.

Not Leaping to Conclusions

So then, is Barack Obama a Christian according to these criteria? Since I have explained them, it should be clear that I can answer no differently than Scott Walker did. I do not know the President personally. All I know of him is what I hear in the news, and it all has to do with his position as a government official. That is not enough to make a judgment. Better to refrain than to leap to a conclusion. The little information I have does not even leave me with a clear picture. I will say, I do not like what I see. But how can I know with absolute certainty? How can I know of anyone? What I do know is, it is never enough for anyone to just say they are a Christian. People can say whatever they want. It is what they do that proves their nature.

That is my point in writing today. Barack Obama’s faith is not the question. The question is why people in the secular world are so quick to criticize Christians for being slow to judge. They seem to think it means we deny someone’s goodness. In doing so, they prove their ignorance. It is possible to do good, whether you are a Christian or not. True righteousness, however, is something different. The good we do never outweighs the bad. Only the blood of Christ tips the scales. Christians do not want to keep their enemies out of heaven, and doubting those whose faith is questionable is not a way of excluding them. We want to make sure they know what it really takes to get in.

What we believe matters to us. Jesus tells us to be on the lookout for those who claim to belong, but do not (Matthew 7:15). He even tells us to beware of ourselves, to make sure we are following Him in truth, not just in word (Matthew 7:21-23). We have a responsibility to do more than merely accept claims at face value. And most importantly, if we notice someone whose life is not in keeping with their what they say they are, we are supposed to help them find the right road. If Barack Obama is a Christian, good. If not, I hope someone will point out to him how claiming to be does not make it so. And I hope the same thing for everyone else who relies on self-identification rather than faith in Jesus Christ. 

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