Thursday, July 18, 2002


When I used to live in the DC area, I met a lot of new people. After getting to know someone a little bit, sooner or later the question, “What religion are you?” would arise, and as often as not, the answer my new friend would give was, “I’m a Christian.” Not, “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m a Baptist.” “I’m a Christian.”

Well, so am I. So why does that answer almost always cause me a secret cringe inside? After all, in one sense, their answer is a better one than mine: for me to say “I’m Roman Catholic” is to acknowledge the schism in the body of Christ—accurate to be sure, but unfortunate, because not everyone who believes in Christ is RC.

There seem to be several factors contributing to the cringe.

First is the “Free-range Christian” factor. To say, “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m a Baptist” (never mind “I’m a Roman Catholic!”) is to say “I subscribe to a specific theology with concrete and abstract precepts about God, Jesus and Salvation.” Free-range Christians, on the other hand, tend to have a few strongly-held beliefs—rooted in no specific tradition, except “the Bible”—and a rather squishy theology in many other ways. If you ask, they’ll almost always tell you that their Salvation depends not on the teachings of a Church but on their having accepted Jesus as their Personal Savior.

The second cringe-inducer is the tone of the statement often carries a notable lack of humility. Now, I don’t think anyone should or could be a Christian who would argue with the statement “Christianity is best.” The whole point of the Incarnation, Passion, Atonement, and Pentecost is that God was making it as clear as day what he expects and desires from us, and the religion that followed is the mechanism for meeting God’s expectations.

The problem comes in the leap of logic (that occurs all too often for all of us). “Christianity is best,” ergoI, a Christian, am best.” Because I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, I am now, officially, a good person, and saved to boot. Since you have not, you are not.

The logic fails, of course. Because the thing that really distinguishes Christians from everyone else is not the knowledge that we are better. It is that we are the only ones who realize who truly bad we are. But the presumptiveness is also deeply problematic. The Catholic who can get from the confessional to the car without committing at least a venial sin is a remarkable person indeed. How much more temptation, then, lies in front of the person who thinks all the hard work is done, and that the path to Salvation is clear and free of difficulty from here on out? So long as we have a pulse and some brain function, the possibility—indeed, the probability—of sin lies before us. That is the message of Christ: you are sinners. God will love you, and I will be right beside you, holding out my hand for you to take. But you will drop that hand at least as often as you hold it.

I should distinguish, as well, among Free-range Christians and other Protestants who attend various denominations in the course of their lives. My own observation, uncharitable though it may be, is that the Free-range sort have not so much accepted Jesus as their Personal Savior, as they have a charismatic form of preaching as their Personal Savior which gets mistaken for Jesus. They attend whatever Church in their community happens to have such a preacher (usually not a long-established denomination like Presbyterian or Episcopalian).

Other Protestants who vary will say “I’m a Lutheran, though I’ve been going to the Methodist Church for a while.” Most of my Protestant friends here in the Northeast seem to fall into this category. Their reasons for moving around are usually related to a marriage of mixed-denomination, or a lack of knowledge about the sometimes very substantive differences in theology between what they think of as their own denomination and the church they attend. And, just as Catholic priests have been known to water-down the theology in the face of declining attendance, many ministers do the same. They won’t highlight the difference between an Anglican Holy Communion (which really does have the True Presence, though some deny it, or conceal it with different language) and a Lutheran one, which denies it.

The other big problem is that I know sooner or later these same people will say “I’ll pray for you” in the sort of tone that says “not that it will do any good, since you’re going to hell anyway.”

(If Mark Shea or Emily Stimpson are reading this, I’d like to hear from them, as they have both spent time as Evangelicals. )

In the end, I find it upsetting because it shows the difficulty that lies before us in reconciling the various members of the Body of Christ. These days, most of my close friends are Protestant (a curious fact, and one that makes choosing godparents for children something of a challenge) and in all but a couple of cases, we have no difficulty finding the common ground of our faiths. We have our differences, to be sure, and they are not all insubstantial. But we always approach one another in a charitable spirit. The “I’m a Christian” answer puts me on the defensive, because almost always (there have been some marvelous exceptions) it means I have come across a member of the Body who will not approach me charitably—which is itself an Occasion of Sin for me, as I respond with rather less charity of my own.


Anonymous sleepswithbear said...

" My own observation, uncharitable though it may be, is that the Free-range sort have not so much accepted Jesus as their Personal Savior, as they have a charismatic form of preaching as their Personal Savior which gets mistaken for Jesus."

Au contraire. The free-range Christians I know (myself included) flee from charismatic preachers and anything else that would distract from a simple practice of open-hearted love. Such a preacher would start looking like some kind of idol to us.

3:10 PM  

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