What does it mean to be a Christian?

Recently, Scott Walker got a great deal of media attention for how he answered a question about whether President Barack Obama was a Christian. This was his response:

“I don’t know. . . . I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian? To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

A wide variety of pundits jumped on Scott Walker for his answer and sharply criticized him. At least a few thoughtful pundits have considered his remarks in light of the theological perspective he brings as the son of a minister and a member of an evangelical church.

Tim Graham for instance pointed out that: “Walker, the son of a Protestant minister, hears the question very differently: asking if someone is a Christian is a very personal question, asking whether someone has committed themselves to Jesus in their heart. It’s like asking if he knows how often Obama prays. His reluctance to answer for someone he doesn’t know is not a “No.”

Over at New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig likewise echoed a similar thought: “And so Walker is probably right: Without knowing Obama personally and having enough of a relationship with him to both probe his convictions and develop an intuition of his beliefs, it is impossible to begin to forward an educated opinion about whether or not he is Christian. More to the point, it is not even possible to advance a litmus test for proving his Christianity that the general public can widely agree upon, and even if it were, there is no reason to presume one’s Christian-ness can or should be decided democratically. In short, we lack the public agreement necessary to begin to decide how we would even know whether or not Obama is truly a Christian.”

When I first read Walker’s answer, my immediate reaction, other than cheering for his willingness to take on the media who asks such irrelevant question, was that his answer was theologically consistent. Since joining the LDS Church, I have had conversations with many evangelical friends and we discussed the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The answer that I have most often heard from those who take their theology seriously is that while Mormonism as a religion is not in their mind Christian, Individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be Christian. For them, being a Christian has more to do with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who has accepted Christ as his personal savior and is therefore saved. There are many many members of ostensibly Christian churches who are not Christian because they themselves have never accepted Jesus as Savior. Likewise, there may be members of Churches that teach falsely (such as ours in their mind) who nevertheless have come to know Jesus Christ and received a remission of their sins.

For someone like Scott Walker who comes from this background, the only proper answer when asked about whether another is Christian is “I Don’t Know,” This is especially true for someone that one has not had a religious or theological conversation with to asses whether that person truly knows Christ.

I think this goes to a deeper point about society and the role of religion. In popular culture, we like to treat religion as something like a hobby or a diversion. Religion is a social club that we belong to and attend sometimes. For the media, anyone who takes religion seriously is a fanatic and not to be taken seriously. Yet, this view is alien to the millions of religiously devout Americans who take their faith seriously. It is easy to grow somewhat cynical of those who attend church only periodically or seem to wear their religion solely as a social status symbol. Yet, Walker’s answer should remind us that we are not the one’s to judge the hearts and minds of others.

As for me, for me it is pretty easy to answer the question in the affirmative. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Individuals in the ancient Americas who were called Christian: “ For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church. And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.” (Alma 46:14-15). While some might read these verses as suggesting that only members of the LDS Church are to be called Christians (those who belong to the Church of God), I think this is an inaccurate reading. At the time of Moroni, there was not the diversity of churches that exist today. Just as with the Church of Christ at the time of the Savior, there was one fold for all of those who believed. Moreover, the verse also speaks about “ALL true believers in Christ” taking upon themselves the name. Christian was a title that was at one point given derisively, and became a badge of honor for those who accepted Christ.

For me, these verses suggest that anyone who i willing to take upon themselves the name Christian and pledge to follow the savior is a Christian. This is true whether or not someone has some faulty theological ideas, or fully understands the savior. Christians are those who head the call of the Savior to “Come Follow Me.” They may do so imperfectly. The Apostles and Disciples of Christ who followed him did not fully understand him or his divine nature.

In the end, the wheat and the tares will be separated. Those who claim to follow Christ and yet do so without a sincere heart will be sifted like chaff and burned. Some of those who are burned will be those who claim to be members of Christ’s true Church. Yet, for this life all those who claim to be Christians are welcome to take upon themselves that badge. It is not my place to question them or to doubt their sincerity.

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One thought on “What does it mean to be a Christian?

  1. Thank you for this post! It has always bothered me when I am asked if I am a Christian, I answer in the affirmative, but when they find out that I am LDS the question the validity of my answer. It is about a personal relationship, and since they are not in the relationship with me how is it that they are able to define that relationship? I take at face value a persons declaration of faith, (call me naive) but I know in the end it will be my Savior who I stand before, and not anyone who doubts my belief or sincerity. HIS opinion is the only one that matters.

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