In speaking to someone about faith issues I dropped into the conversation the, to me, uncontroversial term 'non-Christian,' only to be challenged, 'That's not a nice thing to say, that someone isn't a Christian.' Rather taken aback, I nevertheless realised the problem was one of definition. I was speaking to someone raised to believe a Christian is a good person, as in, 'He's a good Christian man, he'll always do you a good turn.' Of course, the Bible knows nothing of such a man and defines a Christian as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, indeed, as a bad person who has turned to Jesus seeking forgiveness and salvation.
I replied that there are many people in the world who would not thank you for calling them Christian. This was met with sudden incredulity, and I was asked, 'Who?'
Muslims, I replied, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, Atheists; When you think about it the list is formidable, and all those communities comprise many good people without being Christian people, non-Christians.
In his book Psychobabble Dr Stephen Briers, addressing the subject of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, writes about the power of narratives, the stories people tell themselves:
'The stories we tell ourselves are powerful organising forces. They exercise an inexorable pull over our actions, feelings and choices, rather like a magnetic field draws scattered iron filings into alignment with its own invisible lines of influence. When dealing with the steady undertow of someone's implicit narrative, reason and logic often prove feeble instruments. If an action, or feeling or belief 'fits' within the dynamic of the tale being told it will be embraced, however illogical or absurd it may be. Recasting and rescripting such stories is always destined to be an art as much as a science.'
The person in my story found it impossible to relinquish their narrative explanation of what defines a Christian. No amount of logic, or reason, no appeal to the authority of the Bible was going to change their mind. For them, for over seventy years, 'Christian' had been a good person, and 'non-Christian' was an unkind label.
If we want to understand how very powerful someone's implicit narrative can be, consider how seriously God takes this question in addressing it. God delivered Israel out of Egypt, the 'house of slavery,' and having brought them to himself, making them a holy people, set them apart as special before God. You might think such a people would prove eternally grateful, faithful, and uncompromised in their love for him. Yet, in Exodus 19, God must remind them through Moses:
'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' (Ex.19:4-6)
Chapter twenty of Exodus begins with the ten commandments, that are further unpacked throughout the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and beyond. Two things stand out here. One is the undiluted devotion Israel is to offer to the God who saved them. It is worth noting that the first five commandments remind us to offer honour to those who gave us life, the first four to God, the fifth to parents.
The second notable command is to avoid being like other nations. As Israel entered Canaan they had a raft of laws designed to make them different, make them stand out, remind them of their special status before God. Their diet was to be different, even the clothes they wore were not to be made of mixed fabrics (Lev.19:19; Deut.22:9-11). Several reasons are offered to explain this, which is not a moral law, one of which is that it was a reminder that they were not to mix Israel's customs with those of the surrounding nations; a sort of daily and visual mnemonic.
Yet Israel so often compromised, adopting the ways of surrounding nations, from demanding they be given a king, 'like other nations,' when they had God for their king (1 Sam.8:5), to practising child sacrifice to Molech (2 Chron.28:3; 2 Kings 21:6) even when God had expressly forbidden it (Lev.18:21) and made clear the precious worth of children (Pr.17:6; Ps.127:3)
Israel proves that if we are not attentive to our covenant faith in God, our narrative, the way we explain the world to ourselves and our place in it, will increasingly be defined by the world around us. Whether via social media, friendships, even family, the clamour of voices vying for our attention, seeking to mould our thinking, is increasingly loud.
Tragically, many follow the clamour and find themselves, like Israel, compromising and compromised. They deny the authority of Scripture, disobey God's commands, avoid the gathering of God's people, find easy fault with the church for which Christ gave himself, and make themselves deaf to the one voice that speaks true words of salvation. The writer of Hebrews gives a clear and urgent warning against such things:
'As the Holy Spirit says:
'Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the
where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that
and I said, 'Their hearts are always
going astray, and they have not know my ways.
So I declared in my anger,
They shall never enter my rest.''
'See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.' (Heb.3:7-15a)
It was B.B. Warfield who observed, "If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing."
It may be comforting to think a good deed makes a good Christian but it does not do to allow what has already been defined clearly, definitively by God in Scripture, to be redefined indiscriminately simply because it suits those who embrace the spirit of the age. So what is a Christian?
Jesus said in Matthew 7:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. [...]
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’."
There is doing in the life of a good Christian, good works, but that doing is according to the will of God, whose will so many feel they can ignore while still calling themselves by the name of Christ because they are decent people. This is the spirit of our current age and, for so many, the imperative narrative. But as William Ralph Inge wisely observed, 'Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.'
What defines our imperative narrative, that story about the world and our place in it that is not easily changed or compromised? Is it the world itself, that changes like the weather, now forbidding, now commanding, approving and disapproving, moving this way and that depending on whose voice is loudest? Is it the Word of God, that is consistent, unchangeable, guiding God's people as we navigate this troubled world, offering hope to a dying world, looking to a promise of a new world in which God reigns supreme, even as he reigns today in every heart that trusts and obeys him?