When pagans believe they’re Christian.

’Cause they like Jesus. So doesn’t that make ’em Christian?

In the United States, roughly seven out of 10 people believe they’re Christian. I live in California, where it’s six out of 10. (I’m not just pulling these numbers out of my bum; the national stats and state stats from a 2014 Pew Forum study.)

Which matches my experience. When I share Jesus with strangers, about two out of three tell me they’re Christian already. They don’t necessarily go to church; that’s another issue. But they do figure they’re Christian. For all sorts of reasons:

  • Actual individual experience with Jesus.
  • Said the sinner’s prayer once.
  • They’re a regular at their church. (How regular varies. Twice a year, they figure, counts.)
  • Got baptized.
  • Raised Christian, or their family’s Christian.
  • They consider themselves spiritual. And when they contemplate spiritual matters, Jesus is in the mix somewhere.

Now, let’s explode that last definition: They’re “spiritual,” by which they nearly always mean they believe in the supernatural, and have happy thoughts about it. And Jesus is included in their spirituality.

But once we analyze their spiritual beliefs, we’ll find what they really believe looks more like this:

  • There’s a God. Jesus is his son (but not God though, nor God’s only son) and the holy spirit (note the lowercase) is God’s power (but not God though).
  • God loves everybody and wants us to be nice to one another.
  • Death means we go to heaven, and probably watch over the living somehow.
  • Organized religion is unnecessary, and just confuses things.

Basically it’s what pagans believe. It’s popular culture. Not Christianity. These folks aren’t Christians; they’re Christianists. They’re a subcategory I call incognito pagans: They honestly think they’re Christian, because they take their cues from how popular culture defines Christianity. But they have no Holy Spirit within them, so they produce none of his fruit. And as far as their knowledge about Christ is concerned, they couldn’t tell a Jesus quote from a Benjamin Franklin proverb. They’re saved, so why bother to learn about the Savior? That’s for the clergy to worry about. Theologians. Academics and experts. They have other concerns.

Well, speaking as one of these experts, they’re not Christian. And that’s the one area they won’t concede to experts. If a pastor, professor, bishop, or pope told them they’re not Christian, they’d come back with “Who are you to tell me I’m no Christian?” Y’see, they get to define what “Christian” means. Not fruit, not orthodoxy, nor even Christ Jesus and the scriptures. They. Nobody can tell them different.

Which is simply another indicator they’re pagans. Christians recognize we don’t define what a Christian is. Jesus does. That’s why we look for fruit and orthodoxy. Simple combo. Heretics will let the orthodoxy slide, and hypocrites and cultists will let the fruit slide. But the rest of us realize we can’t just claim the title without the faith and works: We gotta actually follow Jesus. Pagans don’t realize this, and think all they gotta do is name it and claim it to be Christian.

As a result, there are a lot of the people showing up on surveys as “Christian” who aren’t really. It’s only how they self-identify. Not how Christ identifies those who are truly his.

Sharing Jesus with them despite this.

It used to really bug me when I encountered incognito pagans. Part of it was my old Fundamentalism, which is really anal about affixing the correct label to everything. That’s why Fundies have all those extra fundamentals.

But there are valid reasons to be concerned about ’em. Sometimes they want to work with us. They wanna support the cause. But because they’re still pagan, we have entirely different causes. Different standards, different reasoning, different priorities, different spirits: We have the Holy Spirit, and they’re still following their own spirit. (Or, in the worst cases, other spirits. Unclean ones.)

Hence in a thousand different ways, they’re just plain wrong. Be fair; so are we. But they’re wrong about really basic Christian stuff.

  • They get to define sin. Not God. If they don’t think it’s sin, but the scriptures describe it as such… well the scriptures are wrong, or out-of-date. Hence their lifestyles are exactly the same as that of any other pagan.
  • They’ll correctly understand we’re saved by God’s grace. But they’ll incorrectly insist this means God doesn’t care what we do or think: He’ll save everybody regardless. (Theologians call this universalism). Well, everybody but Adolf Hitler. And anyone else they hate.
  • The bible? Oh, they like the bible. Until we quote a verse which dares to correct their behavior. Then once again: Wrong, or out-of-date.
  • They have no trouble with any the paranormal stuff God forbade: Psychics, tarot-readers, astrologers, spiritualists, false prophets, and even the spirits they themselves conjure up. All these frauds are totally valid sources of information. God’s just another arrow in their spiritual quiver.

They do have this going for them: They’re not often hypocrites. They don’t bother to pretend to be like all the other Christians. They are what they are. But when people object, they want ’em to shut up and not judge them. Mt 7.1 (That scripture, they love.)

Now there are exceptions. Fr’instance most pagans recognize the average Christians can’t approve of promiscuous lifestyles. If they banged four different girls last week, they know better than to brag about it to their devout friends. But it’s not because they think promiscuity is sin—or is at least self-serving, impatient, unloving, and exploitative. They conceal it ’cause they’re dodging disapproval. They suspect Christians might lecture them about it, and they don’t care to listen. It’s not hypocrisy so much as omission and avoidance.

Okay, so dealing with them. First of all don’t cater to their misconception: Don’t treat them as if they’re Christian. They’re not. They’re pagans.

No this doesn’t mean we treat them badly. (If you’re treating pagans badly, stop it!) We treat ’em with grace, love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and especially patience. We can include ’em in our religious activities, same as we can include other non-Christian guests. But only up to a point, because we recognize:

  • They’re not Christians. We can’t hold them to Christian standards. (They won’t hold to them anyway.) We can’t expect ’em to act Christian. We shouldn’t be surprised when they produce no fruit. Of course they produce no fruit.
  • We can’t appeal to our shared love for Jesus: They don’t love Jesus. They don’t know him. We can’t appeal to their relationship with Jesus; they have no such thing. We can’t expect the Holy Spirit to straighten them out; they’re not listening. (If they were, they’d be Christian; problem solved.)
  • We mustn’t take them into our confidences about spiritual matters. Nor seek their spiritual advice (no matter how much they’d like to offer it). Nor put them in positions of responsibility or leadership in our churches. Nor in our families: Don’t marry a pagan!
  • We can’t assume they know what we’re talking about—or even care—when we share the things of God with them. Doesn’t mean stop; just means don’t be surprised when our words fall on rocky soil.

Basic stuff, right? Well you’d think so. I know far too many Christians who figure they can bend the rules with incognito Christians—“because they’re pre-Christian.” In other words, they assume these pagans’ interest in Jesus means they’ll unavoidably become Christians. I only wish that were so. But some of ’em will successfully avoid Christ all their lives. And be nothing but giant disappointments and regrets to all the Christians who know ’em.

Now when they think they’re Christian, they’ll expect us to acknowledge their “Christianity” and include them in our more personal religious activities. Won’t distancing ourselves from them in such ways offend them? You bet your Aunt Fanny it will. Doesn’t it offend you when dark Christians insist you’re no Christian because you’re not fearful and worried enough for them? But whereas dark Christians will shun us altogether, don’t cut off your pagan friends. Just don’t include them in everything, ’cause we can’t, for obvious reasons. (And if their actions lead you into temptation, you should probably back off there too.)

Oh yeah… the folks who think we’re pagan.

You recall I mentioned certain dark Christians think we’re the ones who’re pagan. ’Cause they define Christianity more narrowly than the creeds do, than we do, than Jesus does. Whenever people complain to me about so-called Christians “who aren’t really Christians,” it’s usually them.

Like the Fundamentalists (which many of them are), they define Christianity more narrowly than Christ does. To them, anyone who’s not a real Christian:

  • Goes to a church, or is in a denomination, they don’t approve of.
  • Has religious beliefs which go beyond the pale. Like not believing in the seven-year End Times tribulation, or permitting women pastors, or teaching unlimited atonement, or shrugging at different kinds of baptism.
  • Has political beliefs which go beyond the pale.
  • Doesn’t take seriously everything they take seriously. They’re not afraid of dark forces. They don’t expect evil to overcome them, and overtake the world. They don’t ban everything from their lives which has even a hint of evil or compromise. They have too much joy in their lives, of all things.
  • Isn’t as outraged, as worried, as outspoken, about sin as they are.

You know, the usual. All the reasons people claim I’m a fake Christian sometimes. When I received the Holy Spirit, I was supposed to also receive a giant bug up my ass. Since I don’t have that, I’m suspect.

I used to be as rigid. I now believe just the opposite: God counts far more people as his children than I’ll ever recognize. Heck, he probably includes some of the people whom I still call fake Christians. I may not see any fruit in their lives, but he knows better than I.

The rigid sort are much quicker to find fault than I am. It’s always their particular pet peeves which disqualify people from the kingdom. Fr’instance the sister who’s an active churchgoer, who led them to Jesus, who shows ’em all sorts of love and patience and gentleness and kindness… but Sis believes in speaking in tongues, and their church insists that’s of the devil, and so she’s “going to hell.” None of her other fruit count: They, and presumably God, will kick ’em out of paradise, all over the one abominable thing.

Or maybe they’re a little more generous than this: It takes seven abominable things to disqualify people from grace. ’Tis a pity they can easily list the seven: Wrong politics, wrong political party, and voted for the wrong candidate five elections in a row. True, when Simon Peter asked Jesus if seven times would do it, Jesus told him to multiply that by 70, Mt 18.21-22 but it seems they missed that memo.

Yet they can often overlook just as many sins, and more, in their own lives. ’Cause they’re under grace.

Well, what can we do about such narrow Christians? Not a thing. They’re gonna treat you like I advised you to treat pagans: They’re not taking religious advice from you of all people. You’re suspect. Only thing you can do is be as good a Christian around them as you can. (By Christ’s standards, not theirs. Don’t be a hypocrite.) Be fruitful. Be patient. If they’re jerks to you, don’t return the bad behavior. Same as any Christian, weigh everything they have to say, accept what’s good, dismiss what’s bad.

And use their bad example to remind you how not to behave towards pagans. Always ask yourself: “Am I that narrow-minded? Am I that graceless? Judgmental? Compassionless? Impatient?” Pay attention to the things which drive you off, and make sure you don’t behave that way towards pagans who think they’re Christian. Or even ordinary pagans. We’re trying to win whoever we can for Jesus, so we don’t wanna practice any behavior other than Jesus’s love and grace. In the end, that’s always what’s gonna win them over.