“Pre-Christians” and religious bigotry.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 August 2018

About 25 years ago, my pastor talked about how he was no longer gonna refer to pagans as “non-Christians.” (He never did refer to them as pagans. That’s a practice which varies from church to church. Anyway.) From now on he was gonna call them “pre-Christians.” Because, he explained, he was gonna hope in favor of them becoming Christian eventually. It’s based on optimism.

It also addresses a rather common problem we find in Christendom, particularly in the Bible Belt. It’s a certain degree of negativity Christians can have towards pagans. Bluntly, it’s religious bigotry: The attitude that if you’ve not chosen Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must be sinful, stupid, or otherwise morally or mentally deficient.

My pastor explained none of this thinking is proper, nor even correct. Pagans are simply people who’ve not chosen Jesus yet. He hopes they yet will.

And Christians have no leg to stand on when it comes to religious bigotry. God loves the world, Jn 3.16 which includes all the pagans in it. Jesus died for them, same as he did for us. 1Jn 2.1 God wants pagans to be saved and learn truth, same as Christians. 1Ti 2.4 God forbid our rotten attitudes get in the way of them coming to truth, and to this relationship with God.

Religious bigotry is a very old problem. Jesus had to address it more than once. Like when the Pharisees objected to him taking his meals with taxmen and sinners. By “sinners” Pharisees meant non-Pharisees. Didn’t matter if these non-Pharisees did try to follow God; if they weren’t doing it the way Pharisees did, didn’t participate in Pharisee synagogues, didn’t hew to Pharisee customs, or otherwise weren’t religious enough for Pharisee tastes, they got called “sinners.” Same as certain Christians will get about someone whose sins are more obvious than usual. Nevermind the sin of gossip.

The Pharisees wanted to know why on earth the rabbi ate with sinners. Jesus’s response was he didn’t come to cure the well, but the sick. MK 2.17 An entirely reasonable answer, and one which should be duplicated in our own attitudes towards pagans: We’re here to help! But too often we duplicate the Pharisee attitudes, and worry, “If we interact with pagans too much, they’ll rub off on us. They’ll corrupt us.” So we shun them.

It’s a valid concern if we suck at resisting temptation. But more often that’s a copout. It’s not the real problem. Either their sins offend us, and we can’t get over our hangups and love them anyway; or we wanna look like their sins offend us, ’cause we’re hypocrites.

Fact is, pagans are gonna sin. ’Cause they don’t know any better. And even when they do know better, it’s all the same sins we Christians commit. But they’re never gonna learn better—nor how to resist temptation—till they meet Jesus. And they’re never gonna meet Jesus till we Christians properly introduce them to him. And we’re never gonna do that if we shun them!

Prodigal children.

We shouldn’t have to resort to calling pagans “pre-Christian” to remind ourselves to treat them right. We should remember Jesus’s orders to love our neighbors, love our enemies, love everyone. And not in any passive-aggressive tough-love hatred disguised as love either: Actually love them. Don’t be jerks towards them. Don’t isolate ourselves from ’em; don’t treat ’em as inferior or second-class or any other way than as God’s prodigal children.

’Cause the problem with many a religious bigot is they don’t believe pagans are God’s prodigal children. They’ll argue pagans aren’t God’s children at all.

If you believe in limited atonement, as Calvinists do, most pagans aren’t pre-Christian at all: They’re reprobate, meaning they’re predestined for destruction. They’re not saved and never will be. God made them specifically so he could destroy them, and be righteous for punishing the wicked. Now, many Calvinists recognize they’re hardly omniscient, and have no idea which pagans are gonna turn to Jesus someday, and which pagans are doomed—so the proper course of action is to treat them all the same, share Jesus with everyone, and love everyone. But there are still a number of Calvinists, or Calvinist-leaning dark Christians, who imagine most pagans are reprobate, and there’s little point in wasting their time with hellfodder. It’s a rotten, godless attitude, but it’s all too common.

True, there are bible verses which suggest pagans don’t belong to God. They haven’t turned to God for salvation; he hasn’t adopted them into his family; they don’t belong to Christ Jesus; Ro 8.9 they’re still slaves to sin. Their relationship with God is fractured. But >the first-century idea of adoption means a person might be someone’s biological child, but they still gotta be formally declared one’s child. God is everyone’s father, Ep 4.6 and so long that pagans resist that relationship, they’re not gonna be declared his. But when they do call out to their father in repentance, he makes them his kids. Jn 1.12

Religious bigotry insists there are certain individuals who are beyond the pale: They’re so deep into their sins, so deep into some other religion, they’re never coming out. Nothing we do or say is gonna reach them. And y’know, they might certainly be beyond our reach, but never the Holly Spirit’s. He can crack the hardest nuts. We can’t ever rule anyone out, because nothing’s impossible for God.

Naming and claiming pagans.

I get why referring to pagans as “pre-Christian” is a useful way to fight any religious prejudices we might have. But I’m still not in the habit of using that term. Here’s why.

I’m Pentecostal. We Pentecostals believe in miracles, y’know. We can ask God for stuff and he’ll deliver. We can ask for impossible stuff which would have to take a miracle, and God’ll come through for us. You want someone to be cured of cancer? God can, and sometimes does, totally cure that cancer. It helps when we ask in faith, and banish doubt from our minds: God wants us to not only trust that he can do such things, but that he wants to.

Thing is, some Pentecostals have got it into their heads that if we do banish doubt from our minds, and believe really hard God’ll do as he ask, he’s really will. Guaranteed. Every instance. So if we seriously want these “pre-Christians” to become Christian, we just gotta believe with all our might, and God is obliged to respond to our faith by making ’em Christian.

Okay. Obviously God has free will: He can do whatever he wants, and usually will do as he wants. This being the case, we’re not gonna override God’s free will by believing really hard, forcing God to reward our wishes. If I believe really hard my bank account will grow tenfold, God’s not obligated to play along whatsoever. Especially when it doesn’t suit his purposes: He knows I’m gonna blow that extra money on frivolous toys, or knows it’ll distract me away from him.

God wants to save pagans. Of course. But in his way, in his timing; not ours. Following his will, not ours: If he figures it’s not the right time, he won’t act. If he doesn’t want them when they’re this resistant, he won’t force them. Yes he can override their plans; don’t forget when he got through to Paul. But if people prefer hell to God’s salvation, for the most part he usually leaves them be. Sucks to be them, but he did warn them.

So if we think calling pagans “pre-Christian” means we’ve called dibs on them for God, or have magically given them a destiny they can’t break away from… well, that’s not at all how prayer requests work. And since I know way too many Christians who think naming-and-claiming is how you make Christians, I don’t wanna encourage this behavior. Pagans turn to Jesus, not because you declared they will turn to Jesus, but because you’ve successfully shown them Jesus and he’s awesome. Do that. Keep doing that.