I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. It seems like every time an ex-Christian mentions having once believed, a chirpy still-Christian will show up to ask about their former beliefs. What they’re trying to get at, of course, is that the ex-Christian had gotten something drastically wrong about the faith, and this grievous error is why that faith became untenable. The still-Christian thinks they know what that error was, and thinks that if it can be corrected, then nothing hinders the ex-Christian from reconverting and going to Heaven. In short, the still-Christian thinks they’re a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, the ex-Christian wasn’t, and they’re gonna make that crooked path straight again.
Very soon, I’m going to embark on a review of a Calvinist evangelical book called Before You Lose Your Faith. It’s every bit as bad as you’re imagining right now, if not worse. (Its subtitle really should be You idiots need to see Christianity “from a certain point of view.”) And its contributors rely very heavily on this kind of thinking, so I wanted to get this post written first as a foundation to the review. The simple truth of the matter is that every Christian is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ — because none of them really are. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t actually exist, except as bludgeons for Christian infighting and disqualification.
(This post originally appeared on Patreon on 10/4/2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron!)
Our working definition of TRUE CHRISTIAN™
Over many years, I’ve developed a working definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. It boils down to only three points, none of which contain any specific beliefs at all.
A TRUE CHRISTIAN™:
- Believes about the same package of nonsense that the judging Christian does
- Hasn’t gotten caught yet doing anything the judging Christian thinks is completely off-limits
- Dies with the first two conditions being true
Generally speaking, the first two conditions are all the judging Christian uses in most cases. The third condition only peeks out when the judge engages with those who have left the judge’s flavor of the religion. No matter how well an ex-Christian fits the first two conditions during their time of belief, if they left, then their walk with Jesus was obviously a fake Christianity.
Judging Christians think that it is a given that nobody who really, truly believes in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ would ever leave it. After all, they themselves believe in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and they haven’t left it. That’s even in the Bible! Checkmate, atheists!
(See also: Rosa Rubicondior’s brilliant 2011 post, “How Do You Know Satan Didn’t Write the Bible?” Do not miss the comments, if you check it out.)
Our definition of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ neatly explains exactly how there can be thousands upon thousands of denominations and millions of quirky idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible, with each believer thinking sincerely that whatever they believe is obviously what Jesus wanted Christians to be like all along.
What is more, every one of those Christians will measure all other Christians according to their own definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Thus, every TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is a heretic-or-worse to some other Christian—and vice versa.
In the wild: Definitions galore
It’s absolutely amazing to see just how many Christians have taken a stab at defining TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. It seems like every major Christian leader and group has done it. Looking at it all, I’ve just got to wonder:
Or are they trying hard to put forth their own flavor of Christianity as the bestest, truest, most Jesus-licious one of all? Is this just about recruitment and retention? Join us if you want to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™!
Or are our definition-makers trying to disqualify any competing flavor that doesn’t fit into their hand-drawn Texas sharpshooter fallacy?
It’s really hard to say. But wow, there are a lot of these definitions floating around. I got over 21M returns on the search “am I a true Christian.” Today, I won’t even be talking about all the dumb quizzes in those results (since they’re obviously just the preambles to sales pitches from various Christian organizations), just the attempts to answer the question of what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ should look like.
A few sorta-definitions of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to consider
Got Questions, of course, has its own definition. Unfortunately, their definition disqualifies all evangelicals on one or t’other of the six points they describe. So does the one offered by Compelling Truth.
The uber-Calvinist group Ligonier offers another definition. Again unfortunately, theirs (centering on “obedience”) disqualifies all evangelicals, even if they do punt to predestination in the end.
And so does the equally uber-Calvinist site, Desiring God. The writer of that post, Scott Hubbard, makes the exact same mistake with the obedience/faith link that we saw last time we met up. In the end, however, he doesn’t actually define anything. I don’t believe for a minute that an uber-Calvinist writing for the Lizard King of Uber-Calvinists, Rowdy John Piper, really thinks that “all who come to Christ, trust in Christ, and embrace Christ” are TRUE CHRISTIANS™. That definition, after all, includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Oneness Pentecostals, Arminians of all stripes, and Quakers.
(Arminians are the opposite of Calvinists. In Arminianism, individual people choose or reject Christianity instead of being predestined by Yahweh. Similarly, Oneness is the opposite of Trinitarianism. Oneness Christians think Trinitarianism is a dealbreaking pagan heresy injected into TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ in the 4th century or so by demon-corrupted Catholic leaders.)
We see a similar lack of clarity in the definition provided by Compassion International. Their definition definitely involves a high degree of self-interest, focusing as it does on charity. But they tack on subjective feelings of Jesus-osity, so it’s all right. (Almost makes me forget about those potent criticisms of their operation.)
From a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor, we get yet another vague sorta-definition. PCA isn’t PC(USA); it’s conservative, evangelical, culture-war-embracing, and Calvinist. That pastor’s sorta-definition also focuses on obedience and feelings. But then, it adds “love for the church” as a requirement for qualification. It’s not hard to see the self-interest there, either. A pastor, after all, benefits tangibly and hugely from Christians actively participating in churches.
Notice something interesting? Yes. Not one of the definitions includes any specific doctrinal beliefs. But they’re certainly there, just in a “from a certain point of view” way. Obviously, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ will show their zeal by actively participating in church. Obviously, they will show their obedience by embracing the correct package of beliefs. And so on, and so forth.
One Christian’s TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is another Christian’s heretic-or-worse
Nobody in the Christ-o-sphere seems to want to define anything more specific than what I’ve outlined here already. I can tell why, too. I experienced exactly what happens when someone explicitly spells out the beliefs and behaviors needed to qualify as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
When I was in college, I was a very fervent, zealous, active Pentecostal. Likewise, all of my friends were fervent, zealous, active evangelicals or fundamentalists of one kind or another. And to each group of us, all of those other groups were riding on the fast train to Hell.
Trinitarians thought Oneness Pentecostals were dangerous heretics. In turn, we returned their feelings in full. Evangelicals thought fundamentalists were dangerously legalistic. And again in turn, we fundamentalists thought evangelicals were too spiritually weak to handle the real TRUTH YES TRUTH of the Bible. Southern Baptists thought that people who spoke in tongues were channeling demons. Tongue-talkers thought Southern Baptists weren’t really filled with the Spirit at all.
Don’t even get me started on how each group felt about the correct way to baptize a new believer. Every group was convinced that any other method of baptism wasn’t valid, which meant that all those other Christians hadn’t ever really been baptized at all. Quelle horreur!
And yet, every one of us felt very strongly about obeying the Bible and Jesus-ing with all of our might. We all had Bible verses out the wazoo to support our various opinions and interpretations. We’d all read tons of apologetics for our own beliefs, attended tons of sermons and Bible studies that did nothing but reinforce them all, and could argue persuasively and eloquently for our particular position.
We often did, too. Thankfully, none of those debates ever got really bad. But they did often end in deep frustration for all sides. Not once, not ever did any of us persuade anyone else to change their mind.
But Christians can always identify fakes, somehow!
Though absolutely nobody in Christendom can adequately set a single standard for Christians, they all think they can spot someone who isn’t the real deal.
This is about gatekeeping more than anything else, of course. In gatekeeping, someone tries to forbid other group members from using their common label. Effectively, that judge tries to close the gate to these group members they don’t like. As you might guess from that definition, group members practice gatekeeping in large part because the people they’re trying to keep out of their label are embarrassing them somehow.
But what embarrasses one TRUE CHRISTIAN™ gatekeeper only makes another drill down harder on inclusion.
When Josh Duggar’s incest and molestation scandal first broke in 2015, many of his group members circled their wagons around him. They didn’t consider incest and molestation to be dealbreakers in their definition of TRUE CHRISTIAN™. But when news broke that he’d also frequently cheated on his wife, he finally violated the second part of the definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. At that point, his group finally disavowed him.
Well, most of them, anyway. He’s still got supporters, I guarantee it. In his flavor of Christianity, there are ways to hand-wave away anything done by the scions of powerful families.
Similarly, back in 2015 when evangelicals finally realized that they definitely were in decline, they switched gears. Instead of arguing with critics about being in decline, they turned to blaming fake Christians for leaving. This is where we see evangelical leaders talking about cultural Christians being the ones leaving, while convictional Christians were supposedly the ones staying. Some of those leaders, like Ed Stetzer, had been talking like that for years already.
Why it’s so hard for Christians to define a TRUE CHRISTIAN™
Alas for Ed Stetzer and all other gatekeepers, nobody owns the right to define the label of Christian. Even when Catholics controlled the religion with an iron fist, they couldn’t stop heretics from trying to redefine it. The Bible is a maddeningly imprecise and flawed document that way. That’s why Christians have, from the very dawn of their religion and even in their religion’s own source document, the New Testament, argued about this exact point.
Only one thing seems certain: The beliefs of first-century Christians don’t look a thing like those of modern Christians, especially not modern evangelicals. We barely even know what those first Christians were like, but what we do know is that they hadn’t even nailed down who and what Jesus Christ himself was, much less what his life was like, much less what his death and resurrection really represented, much less just how much Judaism their faith should contain. Scholars are still arguing about those first Christians today.
The sheer difficulty in defining what real Christians should do, believe, and practice should clue us in to the completely imaginary nature of the religion’s focal points.
But Christians keep trying to claim ownership of the label of TRUE CHRISTIAN™. And they keep getting ignored by Christians in other flavors. All of them think that everyone else is Jesus-ing all wrong, and they’re the ones Jesus-ing the way Jesus wants to see.
They can’t all be correct.
But they can all be wrong.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!