Bad Christian or non-Christian?

by K.W. Leslie, 30 January 2024

Yep, it’s time to play everybody’s least-favorite game, “Bad Christian or non-Christian?”—the game in which we’re trying to discern whether or not a person’s saved.

I say “least-favorite” because I’ve been rebuked multiple times for playing this game. How dare I try to discern whether someone’s Christian or not. How dare I not take their word for it—if they call themselves Christian, why, that’s what they are!

…Well, unless they’re not Evangelical. Unless they’re Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or Mormon, or mainliner. Unless they’re members of the opposition party. Unless they’re woke. Unless they’re gay. Unless they’ve trespassed in a way that, to these people’s minds, undermines or undoes their salvation.

…Yeah, the people who rebuke me are nearly always playing “Bad Christian or non-Christian?” themselves. The only difference between them and me: Different metrics. They base it on whether these people claim to be a member of our religious tribe, whether they’ve recited the sinner’s prayer, and whether they’ve otherwise not trespassed against their personal peeves.

Me, I base it on the two requirements Jesus laid out in his Sermon on the Mount: Fruit and obedience.

Matthew 7.15-23 NET
15“Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ ”

Are they at the very least trying to exhibit the Spirit’s fruittrying to be more gracious, compassionate, empathetic, kind, patient, devout, peacemaking, humble? Are they at the very least trying to follow Jesus, not in a way which conforms to the crowd, but every once in a while opposes the crowd, because they recognize they have to abide by Christ Jesus’s higher standard?

I mean, if they’re not even trying—if instead they’re reveling in being dicks—we’re not just dealing with a bad Christian, a person who’s following Jesus but doing a poor job of it. We’re dealing with someone who knows Jesus teaches otherwise, but doesn’t give a rip; it’s more fun, and gets ’em more praise, to be evil. Jesus is in no way their Lord. They’re not Christian. They quit.

“But they were Christian!”

Years ago I knew a certain non-Christian. She quit Jesus when she moved out of the house. My roommate tried to share Jesus with her, but she wasn’t having it: She grew up Christian but didn’t really believe, and now that she was out from under her parents’ thumbs she didn’t have to pretend anymore. She was perfectly happy to be pagan.

She died the next year. We attended her funeral. It was at her parents’ church. It was depressing as hell. Because all sorts of people from her church got up and shared stories about what a wonderful devout Christian she was, so now she’s gotta be with Jesus.

And I hope to goodness she is with Jesus; that he chose to forgive her skepticism, take what little, mustard-seed-sized faith she had—which I hope she had in her, somewhere—and use it to justify saving her. That’d be awesome, and I do believe Jesus is gracious like that.

But I don’t know that she is with Jesus. ’Cause if she seriously wanted nothing to do with him, that’s that.

And this is why Jesus bothers to warn us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Some people are only doing an outstanding job of hypocrisy. Of trusting and following Jesus?—well they don’t trust and follow Jesus. They don’t take him seriously enough to ditch the hypocrisy. They don’t care what he thinks about their behavior. He’s dead, for all they reckon.

The family and former church of my non-Christian acquaintance, didn’t really know her; and didn’t really measure her Christianity by Jesus’s yardstick anyway. She was nice; she was great with kids. Maybe that niceness came from the Holy Spirit’s fruit of kindness, but I dunno; I’ve known plenty of kind pagans who are nice because they recognize niceness’s value in society, and hope people reciprocate. Give back a little of that good karma they’re releasing into the universe.

Does it make her Christian? Christian enough? If I didn’t know her, I’d hope so. Problem is, I’d heard her testimony: She wasn’t Christian.

Like I said, depressing as hell. It made my roommate worry a little bit about his own salvation: What if you only look Christian, but aren’t really? I pointed out he was obviously trying to produce good fruit, and the fact he seriously cares what Jesus thinks, is really good evidence Jesus is his Lord. And yeah, in case you think I’m claiming we’re saved by how devout we are, no I’m not; we’re saved by how gracious God is. But God wants to save people who trust Jesus. Not people who prioritize their own wealth, status, comfort, power, and preferences far above Jesus.

And what you were at some point—an enthusiastic child in Sunday school, a zealous newbie in the new believers’ class, a regular attendee in every meeting your church held, an active participant in Christian charities—is nice, but what are you now? Still following Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or did you swap loyalties in 2016, and now fly the flags of some antichrist outside your house, and you’re trying to ignore the anger, bitterness, and hatred towards your neighbors that’s been growing in your heart ever since?

Because plenty of people are quietly, subtly changing from bad Christian to ex-Christian, and it’s never occurred to them they’ve gone apostate. It just happened. One day they loved their neighbors; the next, they were apathetic towards their neighbors; the next, they hated their neighbors. One day they tried to love their enemies; the next, they gave up on trying, because the enemies “are ruining our country”; the next, they wouldn’t mind if those enemies were rounded up into internment camps and deported. Or shot.

Apostasy isn’t always like flipping a switch, y’know. Sometimes it is; sometimes people get frustrated at Jesus, so they quit. But for a lot of people it’s a thousand little lapses in devotion, and the end result is still an ex-Christian.

Although we might still have a Christian here! Just a very bad one. Someone who still loves Jesus, still cares what Jesus wants and thinks, still wants to be closer to him, better friends with him, and a better follower. Balls were dropped, but can still be picked back up—if they repent.

How can we tell? Same as before: Fruit and obedience. Are they in any way fruity? Are they still making efforts, even little ones, to follow Jesus? Is the fire in ’em not yet dead? ’Cause the Holy Spirit can work with that.

The others—well, the Spirit can work on ’em too. Prodigal sons can always come home. But if they’re not Christian, let’s not naïvely pretend they are, and treat them like they’re fellow disciples when they’re actually antichrists now. Think of ’em like bleach: Just because it’s poisonous doesn’t mean you throw it out. Just, y’know, be aware that bleach can easily destroy stuff when we’re not careful. Them too.