Sunday, February 15, 2009

What does it mean to be a Christian?

William Cody Bateman left the following comment on my last blog post:

You cannot be an "ex-Christian" because, in order to [be] a "Christian" in the first place, you must have been "born of the Spirit."

I gave my heart to Jesus when I was a boy; recommitted my life to him when I was 14. I was involved in the church, evangelizing to others through drama and music. I believed Christianity was true, and that I was in a relationship with the creator of the universe. I earnestly sought God's will through prayer and the Bible, and I even had spiritual experiences. I tried my best to live a Christian life.


The argument that ex-Christians were not really Christians to begin with is problematic because it unwittingly removes any meaning from those attributes that we normally use to identify a person as being 'Christian'. All the characteristics in the above paragraph describe me before I left the faith. If these characteristics cannot be used to determine if someone is a Christian, then what can?

William argues that being 'born of the Spirit' makes one a Christian. But if I, as a Christian, was certain that I was 'born of the Spirit', but in fact was not (because I would later left the faith), then how can current Christians be so sure that they are in fact saved?

As I've written before on this blog, I think there are two reasons why some continuously advocate the "you were never a Christian to begin with" argument:
  • When a person regards Christianity as absolute truth, they cannot accept the possibility that they could be wrong. When they observe others leaving the faith, they naturally place the fault on the person who is leaving, instead of considering the possibility that Christianity itself could be at fault.
  • This argument acts as a type of psychological shield against a real fear: that if someone else can loose her faith, then it's possible that it can also happen to you too! To safeguard against this fear, all you need to do is believe that you are a true believer, who can never possibly backslide into unbelief, and that the ex-Christian was not really a Christian to begin with.
If you are someone who believes that I was never a Christian, I would like to ask two questions:
  • What makes a Christian a Christian; what are the criteria?
  • If I met all these criteria but you still believe I wasn't a Christian, then how can you be so sure that you are really a Christian yourself?

39 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Excellent riposte.

Anonymous said...

God will be the judge of who is and who isn't a Christian.

Why turn away from Him?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I believe you hit the nail on the head.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Anonymous, I can only speak for myself. I turned away from no one. I simply stopped talking to nothing and listening to silence in response.

Anonymous said...

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Who's trying to hide something?

Mark Lefers said...

Kevin,
Good post. I heard of this "you weren't really a Christian to begin with" before, but it didn't really register till someone said it to me too. It kind of stings, because it is kind of calling ex-Christians liars.

CyberKitten said...

Ain't it *always* the Anonymous ones......? Weird that.... [laughs]

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"Ain't it *always* the Anonymous ones......? Weird that.... [laughs]"

Yeah, I guess they are too ashamed of their lord and savior to even use an alias.

Sarge said...

I have found that when someone talks about "real christian(s)" they refer to the people in the same building with them on a Sunday, and most particularly the person they see in the mirror.

Nikeyo said...

You wrote well on this topic. I also encounter this hateful opinion held by Christians, that of the "apostasy of the backslider." It can be extremely hurtful, especially for those who do not go directly to Atheism, but take the middle road of questioning and doubt before taking a side as "truth" or closest to. Their hate practically drives such people to Atheism. It's sad.

Another assumption I find held by such Christians is that once fallen, they can not come back. I other words, 'back-slidding' is blasphemy and apostasy, it's 're-crucifying Christ' and is therefore unforgivable.

I disagree with this viewpoint. I also try to stay far from Christians who share it. My home church has always been loving, and after a confession of doubt and even hatred of all things Christian, all I got was a smile and soft words "no matter what, the Holy Spirit will never leave you nor forsake you." I was taken aback actually. Rather than a exorcism, or some impassioned prayer to return to faith, that's the response I received.

Not sure where to go with that, but perhaps to say that even in this, not all Christians share the same view. Some even think that once saved, always saved, or always can be saved.

Sarge said...

Nikeyo, I think there is some biblical reference about it.

From where I sit I can ride for an hour and fifteen minutes in any direction and pass any number of churches of all different stripes, many split from the one down the road because of some scriptural dispute. This includes two Friends Meetings, two Hutterite Communes (one is Schmied Leute, the other is Lehrer Leute), any number of small-case fundamentalist congregations, and Mennonites and Amish in varying degrees of strictness.

I have played for many of these establishments and they can tell you to a nicety why they are "right" and "real" christians and the others are just shamming.

The Spear said...

You know what I find funny? Comments like "Why turn away from him?" or "...born from the spirit."

How can one turn away from something that doesn't exist or be born from your own delusions?

atimetorend said...

I agree with your summations of emotional reasons why a christian would come to the conclusion you were never really a christian. I think a literalistic interpretation of the bible leads one that way as well, attempting to meld a number of different teachings found into the bible into some homogeneous whole teaching.

The bible is really not as as people want to make it. From what I've read, early Christianity was much more varied in practice (and in texts they used). And they didn't even have the "New Testament" to define who was and was not a Christian! I am willing to bet they didn't care so much, didn't think in such literalistic terms. Maybe Jesus' saying, "He who isn't against us is for us." (terrible paraphrase I know), makes more sense in this light. I wonder if practice was much more important to them rather than labeling of belief.

Melinda - USA said...

I found this recent post of yours after posting a reply to your original post, so I am copying a portion of my reply to that post here as well...

Christianity isn't merely believing God exists. Many people who believe God exists are not Christians. Christianity is about having a personal "relationship" with God - actually "knowing" Him. If you have a relationship with someone you could never deny their existence. For example, I have friends who live in China, some in Chile, and other far off places. Even though I haven't communicated with some of them in a while I do not deny their existence. I met them, and then our relationship grew to friendship. I "know" them and know they exist even though I haven't seen them in a while. I would have to be crazy to say that since I haven't seen them in a while that they do not exist and have never existed. So technically you would not have been a "Christian" if you didn't have a personal relationship with God (met Him and grew to have a friendship with Him). Conversely, if you really had a relationship with him you could not later deny His existence altogether.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Melinda - USA, that is the exact same argument I make in favor atheism. You are real, you respond to things in a tangible way, God does not.

atimetorend said...

If someone I trusted told me they had visited China or Chile, and it turns out my friend there didn't actually exist, it was really some person who was pretending to be my friend, an imposter, I would change my beliefs. It would be delusional to say, "No, I don't care what evidence there is that person does not exist, I am still going to believe in them."

So yes, you could deny their existence. It would be a changed in belief based on new information you received. And you would you the faculties of your mind to determine if the evidence was adequate for you to maintain or change your belief. It is a characteristic of any fundamentalism to cling to a belief despite learning of information to the contrary. Fundamentalism is delusional. There, I've said it!

Sarge said...

From my experience what makes a "real xian" is sort of like the old joke about what makes a "real yankee".

I think a very big part of it is actually an acculturation. "We" do, think, thusly, our credo is this, our rituals are that. Others are outside the pale.

I stopped any belief in any deities when I was five years old, but if asked, said, "We're baptist". In a way, it was true, it was the way my family lived and associated with others, and I was included in it whether I agreed or not. When I got old enough to leave, though...

Melinda - USA said...

atimetorend,

Maybe I need to clarify...
My argument about friends who live in far off places is about friends who I actually know. They have been to my house. I have been to their houses. I have had dinner with them, and our kids have played together. I am certain they exist because we have a relationship-even though they are not always in my immediate thoughts and I don’t see them every day.

I cannot ever convince myself they do not exist and have never existed. Even if someone tried to find them and couldn't, that wouldn't in any way convince me that they don't exist. I KNOW them and no one can convince me they do not exist simply because they do not believe they exist.

On the other hand, I don't know you. You may not be who you say you are. You may be a "character" invented by someone. Why should I believe that you - as the person you claim to be - actually exist. You could even have people come to me on your behalf and try to convince me that you exist, but that doesn't mean I'll believe them. But if you personally came to my house and I spoke with you and heard you speak to me, I could not deny that you exist. Then I could possibly get to know you and if you proved yourself trustworthy over time, I could choose to become friends with you. And that would be different than just acknowledging you exist. That's the kind of relationship I have with God…(and that's what He wants with everyone.) That’s what being a Christian is – being in a relationship with God. It’s not about rules or some litmus test.

Listen, I certainly don’t want anyone to simply believe God exists because they choose to believe something that I say or because of any argument that any other person gives. I want everyone to find out for themselves. You can’t trust me – you don’t even know me and will likely never meet me. But you can trust God - ask Him to let you know Him. Do you dare to be that open-minded? To speak to a God you do not even believe exists and ask Him to reveal Himself to you? And would He do it even if He does exist?

-------------
Mike aka MonolithTMA,

How do you know I'm real? You assume I am real but you do not personally know whether I am or not...
So how do you really know God is not real – isn’t that just another assumption?

You say that I respond in a tangible way and that God does not. But how do you know He does not? Just because you don’t believe you have experienced Him? That would be saying that nothing that you have not experienced or cannot understand does not exist. That’s ridiculously arrogant, don’t you think? I’m sure you don’t really believe that.
What if I said I don’t believe that things are made up of atoms because I can’t see them and don’t understand that concept completely? What if I said that I have never experienced atoms? You would say “You idiot!” (and I would be one). Obviously, I have experienced atoms because I live on this planet. But maybe I don’t understand them and so I refuse to believe that atoms are what I am experiencing. I could just attribute everything I experience to some other source.

Maybe you have not experienced God in a tangible way (yet), but you can’t rule out His existence on that basis. You may choose not to acknowledge His existence but that doesn’t mean that He does not exist. You may believe that even if He does exist there is no way for people to know Him. Again, just because you personally haven’t experienced Him (or just haven’t realized that you have experienced Him) doesn’t mean that no one has.

We could go on trying to poke holes in each other's arguments for years - and many people do. That’s why I keep saying to go to God himself. Ask Him, even though you may feel really silly, to show you Himself in some way that is meaningful to you. And then wait and watch for the answer. Debating and arguing with other people is like choosing to go to a janitor of a company to find out whether you should invest in the company when you had the opportunity ask the CEO himself. If you really want the truth, go to the source… If you really are seeking truth, why would you choose not to do this crazy experiment?

atimetorend said...

Melinda, thanks for the follow up. I appreciate what you're saying, and I'm sorry if I was misunderstanding and mis-characterizing what you said. I think I made a valid point, but it probably did not address your comment at all.

Yes, we should be open-hearted about God. My experience is like Kevin's in that I thought I had a real relationship with God, but changed my mind over a long time based on a re-interpretation of observations and information. At the end of the day we can only go on the information we have to make the most informed decisions we can. If there is something called the holy spirit that makes us see a certain thing on some level that is beyond reason, so be it, other than trying to be open-hearted, that is nothing I can control, and it doesn't speak to me that way now.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Melinda,

I apologize, I should have phrased my sentence correctly.

It should have read (I thought I was implying it) "You are real to me, you respond to things I say in a tangible way, God does not respond to things I say in a tangible way.

I did not say "God does not exist". I'm not omniscient, how could I possibly know if God exists or not? I just simply haven't experienced him. Sure, I had some warm fuzzy feelings, some trials and tribulations, and some serendipitous moments, but nothing that couldn't be attributed to random chance. At the time they seemed incredibly profound and moving, and I was certain that God existed. All my friends who are still Christians experienced him in a similar manner, so that's how we were supposed to experience God, right? He doesn't speak in actual words, but he certainly did in biblical times, and more recently to Neale Donald Walsch if we are to believe him.

You may be a construct, certainly it's happened before (Google Poe's Law), but even if you are false, you are talking directly to me, using words. God has never done that for me, he seemed to do it quite a bit in the Bible.

I've been told, and I would agree, that what I mainly reject is conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity and that God is deeper and more profound than all that and I am experiencing him all the time, that God isn't an old man in the sky (never said he was) and that he is, as I believe Tillich called him, the very ground of being.

Melinda, you clearly don't know me, or anything about me. For the last six months or so of my twenty years as a Christian, I prostrated myself at the foot of the cross daily begging for God to make himself real to me. It's been nearly a year now since I declared myself an atheist and to this day I still ask God if he's there. If he is, I want to know.

The janitor would be much more honest about the state of the company than the CEO, at least in all the corporations I've worked for. The CEO wants you to invest and doesn't care why you do it. I hope that's not a good analogy for God.

Melinda - USA said...

atimetorend and Mike aka MonolithTMA,

I am so sorry that you have been disappointed with your relationship with God. (Your replies actually made tears come to my eyes.) I have such a wonderful experience with Him in my life and want everyone else to experience that as well. I will pray that God will somehow show you both that He is real and that He loves you and wants nothing more than for you to know and understand and feel His love.

Here is a link to a great little video http://www.juststopandthink.com/. It’s very thought-provoking. The guy in the video, named Francis Chan, now has a great book called CrazyLove. (Really, it’s excellent - I would not recommend just any book to you). He also has podcasts from his church in California at http://www.cornerstonesimi.com/. The sermons are not like any other I have ever heard. They are profoundly simple and to the point. No pretense or tradition. (Not all the “churchy” junk that goes along with so many other churches.) I believe you may find them helpful, and I hope you will at least give them a try.

(I would like to know what you think if you do watch any of it or read the book.)

P.S. Mike, yes – that is a really stinky analogy for who God is…

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Thanks Melinda, I'll check him out. Two books that inspired me when I was a Christian were Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby, and Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, also just about anything by Max Lucado.

Lorena said...

Ha! We were never Christians. Yeah, right. Christians can keep telling themselves that. It is easier than admitting that there is a chance we may be right.

It is a cliche, like all the other cliches Christians recite and call it wisdom.

Zoe said...

For every person that comes along and says "You were never a Christian" I often wonder, do they think they are the first one to tell us that? I always get the sense that they think we haven't heard that before or that we ourselves wouldn't have said the same thing, once upon a time. Been there, done that.

As long as there are ex-Christians writing about their former beliefs, there will be Christians telling them, they were never Christian in the first place. Goes with the territory. :-)

I've actually seen atheists same the same thing about atheists turned Christians. How easily we humans dismiss the truth of one another's lives.

Kevin, I've been waxing nostalgic lately...and remembering a time when I found your blog a few years back and thinking, "Oh look, there's another one out here." LOL! Then gradually over the years, I've watched the number of ex-Christian blogs explode on the blogosphere and it's amazing to continue to read everyone's personal stories.

Anyway, just wanted to share that, I've always enjoyed your approach here and I love how you and Cori put yourselves out there openly and lovingly. :-)

Kevin Parry said...

Hi all

Just want to say thank you for all your comments regarding this issue. Welcome Melinda! You have spurred some interesting discussion, and I hope you will post here more often.

Zoe: thank you for your kind words. You have been one of the regular readers on my blog since it started way back in 2005, and I'm always thankful for your balanced view on things. I guess at the end of the day we are all sharing our stories.

mithrandi said...

"When a person regards Christianity as absolute truth, they cannot accept the possibility that they could be wrong."

This is the critical mistake; once you start building upon this flawed base, you start painting yourself into a smaller and smaller corner until there's nowhere to stand. This particular issue is just one of many problems that arise...

Ultimately, nobody is a "True Christian", for the simple reason that no such thing exists. This is a label we have invented and designed to describe ourselves, not some kind of theistic mandate that has been passed down from God Himself.

Incidentally, as a practising Christian, I've found your blog to be a refreshing change from some of the vitriol I often seem to encounter from those of a more scientific bent; please, keep up the good work!

William Cody Bateman said...

You said,"I gave my heart to Jesus when I was a boy; recommitted my life to him when I was 14. I was involved in the church, evangelizing to others through drama and music. I believed Christianity was true, and that I was in a relationship with the creator of the universe. I earnestly sought God's will through prayer and the Bible, and I even had spiritual experiences. I tried my best to live a Christian life.

The argument that ex-Christians were not really Christians to begin with is problematic because it unwittingly removes any meaning from those attributes that we normally use to identify a person as being 'Christian'. All the characteristics in the above paragraph describe me before I left the faith. If these characteristics cannot be used to determine if someone is a Christian, then what can?

William argues that being 'born of the Spirit' makes one a Christian. But if I, as a Christian, was certain that I was 'born of the Spirit', but in fact was not (because I would later left the faith), then how can current Christians be so sure that they are in fact saved?"

What God requires is NOT your heart but "fruits of repentance."

What God declares is your works of righteousness as "filthy rags" to Him - because the only acceptable "work" God the Father accepts is God the Son's finished "work" on Calvary.

Your rejecting the salvation offered once and for all by Jesus Christ is why you KNOW you are not born of the Spirit! How then, can Christians know? Because, we will NEVER reject Jesus Christ as God - even when faced with persecution, silence, death or silence - for we walk by faith. And, where does this come from?

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls." I Peter 1:3-9

Until you draw your last breath my friend, there is still time and hope too!

William Cody Bateman

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Ugh..my patience runs thin sometimes. I'm afraid I'm going to end up one of those bitter atheists that shreds every fundamentalist Christian he meets.

No True Scotsman again, and again, and again, and again.

There is no certainty that one won't deny Christ. Peter knew him personally and denied him. The only certainties in life are death and taxes.

This smug "I'll never deny Christ because I'm a true Christian" schtick gets really old.

Especially because all of us ex-Christians said that too.

Karla said...

As a Christian, when speaking to anyone who says the are an "ex-Christian" I try to be very careful never to invalidate their previous Christianity. However, I thought maybe I could offer a different explanation of why some Christians will question that assertion. You see, we see being a Christian as not just believing we are in relationship with Jesus, but knowing we have relationship with Jesus. It isn't something merely adhered to intellectually, but something experienced. To us it is like saying you had relationship with your spouse and now are not sure your spouse even existed, but you don't want anyone to tell you you didn't have a real relationship with this non-existent spouse. Do you see how this creates a problem? Being a Christian isn't merely about believing and serving, but about belonging and being in relationship with Jesus. I firmly believe some atheists did indeed have a real relationship with Jesus, but somewhere along the way became convinced it was all a lie and left the faith. This is why I do not like to make any assertions of whether someone's walk was authentic at the time or not. It is not my place to do so.

I know there are a lot of arguments against the truth claims of the Bible and that those arguments need to be taken seriously and answered respectfully. If the Bible is true, it can stand up against the questions. I'm not afraid to face these questions and think about them and see what people from both sides say about them.

Anyway, I hope that helps you see that Christians who say such things are not necessarily trying to be critical and condescending toward atheists, but we are genuinely baffled at times by the apparent paradox. Also, many Christians regrettably, have not encountered many people who don't think like they do and they are ill equipped to respond in a meaningful way. I apologize for this on their behalf and I work diligently to correct this situation.

You are welcome to visit my blog where I discuss many of the questions I have encountered from atheists.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"As a Christian, when speaking to anyone who says the are an 'ex-Christian' I try to be very careful never to invalidate their previous Christianity"

This is true, I never felt that you were trying to invalidate mu experiences, in fact, just the opposite, you were one of the few Christians who didn't try to tell me I was doing the whole God thing wrong for 20 years.

Karla said...

Mike you always have an A+ with God.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Good to know. Now, if only I always had A pluses in school!

CyberKitten said...

Does that mean that Santa thinks we're *all* good boys & girls?

[laughs]

atimetorend said...

Santa knows better. He wants us to all be good boys and girls, but he knows we're not. That's pretty clear in the song about him, you might not be listening to it the right way.

(no disrespect Karla, I've appreciated your posts and your perspectives)

Karla said...

Cyber, God doesn't base our goodness on our actions. We can't earn goodness. We are given Himself and thereby are made good without respect to actions good or bad.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: We are given Himself and thereby are made good without respect to actions good or bad.

So... we can do whatever we like and He'll still love us?

mithrandi said...

Yes. God's love is an aspect of God, not an aspect of us as individuals.

KenV (frmrly 3GK) said...

CyberKitten:

Yes. God loves everyone, no matter what their actions. But just because He loves everyone doesn't mean that he'll bring everyone into His kingdom. Consider a father-son relationship. If the son has no desire to know his dad and has every desire to leave, and does things to try and break that relationship, at some point the dad is going to have to give his son what he wants and let him go. But if the son comes back and asks his dad for forgiveness and to be accepted back, knowing his dad loves him, he'll be accepted back wholeheartedly, no matter what his son did in the past.

As for Kevin's original post...

I've been learning a lot lately about what it means to have God in me. I believe I have felt and seen God working directly in me. It took a crisis that forced me to depend solely on Him. Before that crisis and His work in me, I didn't really know what it meant. I'd been attending church for 29 years before that crisis and no amount of Bible knowledge or 'spiritual experiences' prepared me to deal with it. It took Him taking me and living in me to realize what 'believing' actually meant. Just before that crisis, I would have said I was a Christian. But after truly experiencing His grace through that crisis, now I don't think that I was a believer before.

And I'm impressed with the level of maturity in these comments. Very refreshing.