Who is a true Christian?
The question of who is a true Christian often comes up when Christians are debating their religion both with other Christian and non-Christians. With over a thousand different denominations, Christianity is the most fractured religion in human history. Because of this, there is endless in-fighting over which denomination represents true Christianity. Some Christian like to exclude most others, while some take the approach of ecumenism, which tries to build bridges between the different denominations. However, even the most inclusive ecumenists still draw a line.
Although this page is about Christianity, most of the topics described here are accurate for all other religions as well.
Why Christians exclude others
There are various motives for why Christians exclude other individuals or entire denominations from their religion. The three primary ones I'm familiar with are:
- Theological disagreements.
- Disassociating sinners.
- Dismissing apostates.
Religions fracture into separate denominations each time there is a large theological disagreement. This is usually based on differing interpretations of scripture, disagreements on historical tradition, or differing conclusions on theological conundrums especially how they apply to social policy. Although many churches present a unifying front to their religion with affirmations like, "We're all God's children," the reality is, Christians disagree on nearly every aspect of their religion. See my table on What the Christian god wants to better illustrate this problem.
The phrase, "you're known by the company you keep," is common among Christianity. You see this frequently in Christian organizations which are quick to disassociate themselves from their own members when they're exposed doing something their church deems taboo. Each church has a different name for the formal expulsion of someone from their church excommunication, disfellowship, etc., but this disassociation is also commonly the result of pretty much anyone who commits a great sin. You will often hear Christians say that Adolf Hitler couldn't possibly have been a Christian, not because he was formally expelled from the religion (he wasn't), but because he did such terrible things, and anyone who does terrible things isn't a true Christian. This is essentially a version of the no true Scotsman fallacy.
It's typical for people in any group to question the devotion of people who leave the group. For example, if a person says they were once a booster for the liberal party, but have since moved to the conservative party, other liberals may doubt they were ever a "true" liberal, because, if they really were, how could they possibly ever belong to the conservative party? I find this especially true when Christians address people who leave Christianity.
Most Christians who learn about my de-conversion are quick to quiz me on my understanding of Christianity. These questions are generally based on their own denomination, for example, a Catholic may ask when I was baptized, an Evangelical may ask when I invited Jesus into my heart, and so forth.
I find that the reason people ask these questions is not so much because they're interested in what the apostate believed, but because they want to find a reason to disqualify the apostate from their religion. I think their motive is one of fear, even if they don't recognize it. Most Christians I know live in a fear of losing their faith because they see it happen so frequently around them, and learning that there are people just like them who have deconverted suggests that they too might lose their faith. However, if they are able to disqualify the apostate for Christianity, then the apostate isn't really like them after all, so they can ignore the fact the people with faith even stronger than their own still leave their religion.
I'm always as honest about my former religious life as I can, but, if I think the person is asking this question simply to discount my former beliefs, I try to preempt their dismissal by talking about The Clergy Project, which is full of apostate clergy from all religions and denominations. This way, even if they do dismiss me, they'll have a much harder time trying to dismiss hundreds of ordained ministers, priests, etc. from all different denominations.
So, Who Is a True Christian?
I've never met a Christian who believed everyone was a Christian, which means they must have some criteria for how they decide who is a true Christian. To find out who, I usually ask them directly.
Who Gets to Pick the Criteria?
When I ask a Christian, "who gets to pick the criteria for what it means to be a true Christian," I almost always get one of three possibilities: God, Jesus, or the bible. However, when you ask some follow-up questions, this almost always distills into a single answer.
If they answer with "God" or "Jesus," I try to get them to agree that their god and Jesus aren't exactly loquacious these days, so I ask them, "how can we know what God or Jesus wants?" If they answer with "the bible," then we can move on. However, they may also answer with things like "prayer," "personal revelation," or something to that effect. To nip this in the bud, I follow up with, "but many people claim personal revelation that contradicts other Christians? Is there anyway to know who truly received a revelation from God, and who is mistaken or lying? Most Christians will then say we can know if personal revelation is true if it fits with the bible. If they don't have an answer, I usually help them along by asking, "suppose someone claims God told them to do something that is the exact opposite of what is written in the bible, do you think that would be a good indication they were lying?"
Protestant denominations (and all their permutations) are based on the belief of sola scriptus, the idea that the bible is the only infallible religious authority, but there are some branches of Christianity which assign some authority to church tradition or additional books other than the bible. However, when you ask them, "how can we know if a tradition or an additional book is genuine?" It usually comes back to, they must be in-line with the bible.
My goal here isn't to force them into choosing the bible, but rather to help them understand that this is what they believe. If they're adamant that they don't think the bible picks the criteria for a true Christian, I'd certainly suggest exploring their thought process. However, every Christian I've ever spoke with eventually ends up agreeing that bible is ultimately the thing which picks the criteria for what it means to be a true Christian.
Does the Bible Unambiguously Describe True Christian Criteria?
If they believe the criteria for a true Christian is in the bible, I'll ask them, "does the bible unambiguously describe this criteria?" If they admit that it doesn't, I like to end by asking them if they agree that any description of what it means to be a true Christian is subjective. If their god exists, surely he knows who is truly adhering to his commandments, but, for whatever reason, he did not want mortals to unambiguously know who is a true Christian. And, if that is the case, maybe we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss people as not being true Christians.
More likely, however, they will claim that the bible does unambiguously list criteria, to which I will challenge them to quote such scripture. They most likely won't be able to, so I will ask them if it's fair to say that, they believe the bible does. Perhaps someone else knows it for a fact, but they're currently believing what others say, not knowing themselves what it means to be true Christian, and, until they do, perhaps they shouldn't be so quick to dismiss people as not being true Christians. My hope here is that they will do more research on the topic, and realize that there isn't any obvious criteria.
If they know their bible and personal denomination very well, they might be able to quote specific passages. If I know of a specific competing denomination's criteria, I might try to argue about it, if not, I might search the phrase "true Christian" online and invite them to offer their commentary on the opinions of other denominations. I usually admit that, as a non-Christian, I'm not really qualified to debate at such a specific level about theology. Instead, I ask them a more general question, "If the bible is so unambiguous, why are there over a thousand denominations of Christianity? Why do the majority of other Christians disagree with you?" By that I mean, no matter which denomination of Christianity a person belongs to, the total number of Christians in different denomination is always greater. If the criteria were so unambiguous, shouldn't all Christians agree on the criteria?
If the Question Is Turned Around
Rarely a Christian will turn the question around on me and ask me what I think the criteria should be for a true Christian. I appreciate their interest in my opinion, but I don't think it's my place to answer it. As long as groups are being honest about the process, I think they should be able to pick their own criteria and name for themselves, and, since I'm not a Christian, I don't feel I should decide the criteria for their group. In the same way, I don't think I should get to decide on what it means to be a true woman, a true black person, a true Jew, etc. This might raise the question, "then why are you arguing with me over it?" My reply is that I'm not trying to tell them their criteria is wrong, but rather trying to get them to see how their criteria might be subjective.