When pagans believe they’re Christian.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 October

In the United States, roughly seven out of 10 people believe they’re Christian. I live in California, where it’s six of 10. (I’m not just pulling these numbers out of my bum; the national stats and state stats are from the 2019 Pew Forum study.)

Which matches my experience. Whenever 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:

  • Personal experiences with Jesus. Even personal appearances.
  • Said the sinner’s prayer once.
  • They’re a regular at their church. (How regular varies. Many figure twice a year 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 typically believe. Of course there are exceptions, but generally that’s it. It’s the belief system of popular culture. It’s 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 that’s how popular culture loosely defines Christianity. They believe Jesus is a good guy; they like him; they have their weddings and funerals at churches; if you deny Jesus it’ll actually offend them. If their kids decide to become Muslim or Hindu (or tell ’em they’re gay) suddenly they get super Christian—usually to the surprise of their kids.

But no they’re not. They have no Holy Spirit within them. That’s why they produce none of his fruit. As far as their knowledge about Christ is concerned, they couldn’t tell a Jesus quote from a Benjamin Franklin proverb. They’re saved, they reckon; so why bother to learn about their Savior? That’s for clergy to worry about. Theologians. Academics and experts. Meanwhile they have bigger things to worry about.

Well speaking as one of these experts, no they’re not Christian. Our religion has to have a living and active relationship with Christ Jesus at its core, and they don’t have that. At all. So they’re pagan.

Which they don’t realize—and totally object to, when you call ’em on it. (It’s the one area of knowledge they refuse to concede to the clergy and experts.) Tell ’em they’re not Christian, and they’ll loudly insist they are so: “Who are you to tell me I’m no Christian?” Doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, professor, bishop, or pope: Suddenly they get to define what “Christian” means. And it’s not based on fruit, nor orthodoxy, nor even Christ Jesus and the scriptures. It’s based on their best judgment.

Which is simply more proof 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 let the orthodoxy slide, and hypocrites and cultists let the fruit slide. 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 it takes to be Christian, is they gotta name it and claim it.

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 Fundamentalist upbringing. Fundies get really anal about affixing the correct label to everything. Hence all those extra fundamentals.

But there are valid reasons to be concerned about incognito pagans. Y’see, I’ve worked at Christian charities, and we regularly had pagans who wanted to join in. They wanted to support the cause. They wanted to do good deeds—and good for them! But because they’re pagan, we have very different motives, standards, reasons, priorities, and ethics. Different spirits, too: We have the Holy Spirit, and they’re still following their own spirits. (Or, in the worst cases, evil spirits.)

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 feel they get to define sin. Not God. So if the scriptures say something’s sin, and they don’t agree… well the scriptures are wrong, or out-of-date. Hence their lifestyles are exactly the same as that of any other pagan.
  • They correctly understand we’re saved by God’s grace. But they incorrectly insist this means God doesn’t care what we do or think: He’ll save everybody regardless. (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, 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 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 your average Evangelical can’t approve of promiscuous lifestyles. If they banged four different girls last weekend, 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 of course this doesn’t mean we treat them badly. If you are 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 Christian. 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 like him—or at least their idea of him, which ain’t the same thing. But they don’t know him, so 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 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 will unavoidably turn ’em Christian. I only wish that were so. But some pagans will successfully dodge Christ all their lives, and be nothing but giant disappointments and regrets to all the Christians who know ’em. (Especially when Christians marry them!)

Now when they think they’re Christian, they 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? But whereas dark Christians 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, back off there too.)

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

About those dark Christians, by the way. Yeah, they think we’re pagan. ’Cause they define Christianity more narrowly and tightly than the creeds do, than we do, and than Jesus does. Whenever people complain to me about “so-called Christians who aren’t really Christian,” most of the time they’re dark Christians complaining about people who aren’t Christian enough to suit them:

  • They go to a church, or are in a denomination, they don’t approve of.
  • They have 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.
  • They’re in a different political party. The opposition party. Which goes way beyond the pale.
  • They don’t take seriously everything they take seriously. They’re not adequately terrified of dark forces. They don’t expect evil to 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.
  • They aren’t as outraged, as worried, as outspoken, about sin as they are.

You know the type. Such people regularly claim I’m no Christian. Supposedly 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 God’s kingdom. I know a rigid Christian whose sister led him to Jesus, who’s an active churchgoer, who shows him all sorts of love and patience and gentleness and kindness. But his church believes speaking in tongues is of the evil, and he believes his church, so Sis is “going to hell.” None of her other fruit count: Tongues, and presumably God, will kick her out of paradise, all over the one abominable thing.

Or maybe rigid Christians are a little more generous than that: It takes seven abominable things to disqualify people from God’s grace. ’Tis a pity they can easily find 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 skipped that lesson.

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 being such a dick? Am I that graceless? Judgmental? Compassionless? Impatient?” Pay attention to the things which drive you off, and make sure you never behave that way towards anyone—Christians, pagans, and pagans who believe they’re Christian. 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.