Okay, here we go again. Last week the Rev. Franklin Graham was asked if he thinks President Obama and others politicians are Christian. Here is a link to the interview.
Rev. Graham said many amazing things in that interview, but let’s just focus on his answer to that perennial favorite question, “Is X a Christian?”.
There are three things that occurred to me as I thought about that interview.
1. As Christians it is not our job to speculate about who is or is not a Christian. ( see John 21:20-23, Matt 7:1-5; Rom 2:1-3; Rom 14:10-13) Jesus and Paul are both clear, we are not to pass judgment on another. Like Peter in the John 21 passage, we are not to judge what God is up to in the life of another. Like Peter we’ve got our hands full keeping our own selves faithful. Luther and Calvin both urge caution. Luther reminding us that we can only know for certain about our own destiny. Calvin encourages us to have a good hope for all. The question of who is saved, who is a Christian, is God’s to decide. Not yours and not mine.
2. But we might ask, can’t we tell who is a Christian by the way they act? Surely Christians are known by what we say and do. This is true, up to a point. However, speaking for myself, all I have to do is examine my own life to prove that Christians do not always act and speak in ways that are recognizably Christian. I find it comforting that Paul had the same problem,
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Rom 7:15-25)
We simply do not know what struggles another person has. What seems to us to be an easy or simple error to avoid, may have been the cause of great distress and anguish for another. We cannot truly know the situation of another person. When someone sins, we cannot know how difficult their struggle against sin has been.
3. The media really ought to stop asking this question and Christians ought to stop answering it. No good comes from answering. It is a question designed to provoke people – akin to asking ,”Do you think A is faithful to A’s spouse?” or “Do you think B is a closet alcoholic?”. Just not helpful. Doesn’t contribute to civil discourse. Doesn’t clarify issues. Much more like gossip than journalism.
For what it is worth, my working assumption is if someone says they are a Christian that is good enough for me. I assume people who claim to be Christian are doing their best to live as a Christian. None of us are trying to be wrong in our beliefs and actions. Yet all of us are at some point hypocrites. At some point all of us say one thing and do another. All of us are wrong about at least some of what we do and believe.
This stance doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with each other. We ought to help each other, encourage each other, talk openly about our disagreements with the goal that both of us grow in love and understanding. But just because we disagree about something- or several things- doesn’t mean one of us isn’t a Christian.
This stance doesn’t mean we can’t correct each others behavior. If we notice another Christian acting in immoral or self-destructive ways, we ought to speak up. But we also need to ask ourselves, are we speaking out of judgment or are we speaking out of love. A moments reflection is advised before we point out the log in our neighbor’s eye.
I suspect that most of the people who read this blog aren’t interviewed by the media. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t asked and answered the question, “Do you think X is a Christian?”. We are not exempt from the temptation to speculate and gossip about others. But honestly, don’t we have more important things to do?
Update to this story: Franklin Graham issues an apology for his remarks. You can read it here.
Here is the White House response to Graham’s apology.