If you haven’t had a chance to read Alan Noble’s piece over at Christ and Pop Culture about Todd Starnes’ less than dishonest reporting, you should really go over and read it first. He makes a very good point that while restrictions on religious liberty within America could exist, we cannot tell half-truths or outright lies in order to prove our point. Such actions are dishonest, shut down legitimate and needed discussions, and accomplish little to nothing. Christians in America have a huge persecution complex, but we seem to forget that complex when it comes to actual persecution of Christians across the globe.
Now, one can legitimately disagree with Alan’s claims and argue that while Starnes didn’t tell the whole truth, the whole truth is still problematic and troubling. That ends up being a matter of perspective (a false one I would argue), but so be it. Instead, some – such as KMCR Radio’s Kevin McCullough – decided to skip the whole rational response and just claim that Alan wasn’t an “actual” Christian.
Now, rather than launch into defending Noble’s character (which doesn’t need defending) or attacking McCullough’s character (which accomplishes nothing), perhaps it’s best to leave a very simple plea: Stop it. Stop robbing people of their salvation. Stop waiving a hand and saying, “Well, (s)he’s probably not saved” or “well, he isn’t a Christian.” Don’t do what Dave Ramsey does and put “Christian” for all those who disagree. Stop questioning people’s salvations over disagreements, even major disagreements that matter.
“Oh, you’re a Mormon and thus deny the deity of Christ? How about you enjoy Hell while I enjoy this nice can of soda?”
“Oh, you’re a Catholic and thus deny [our interpretation] of the Gospel? See if Mary can hear your prayers from Hell, papist!”
“Oh, you vote Democrat? How’s your father, the Devil, doing?”
While Heaven and Hell are realities that we must face, while salvation and walking with God are actual things in the Christian life, our worries about them ought to apply to ourselves primarily, and only to our neighbors out of concern and not out of judgement. The problem is we create these nice little compartments of salvation, wherein if you do and say all the right things, you’re “in.” But God help you if you disagree on anything within those compartments (and this type of thinking exists across the board, from conservatives to liberals).
Don’t get me wrong, doctrine is important. One of my heroes is St. Athanasius, who faced persecution over the doctrine of the Incarnation and Trinity. These beliefs are worth dying over. But we do not condemn to Hell those who disagree with us; rather we recognize that doctrine is not meant to save us, but aid us in our knowledge of our Savior, who alone saves us. The more incorrect doctrine we hold onto, the harder it is to recognize Christ, but who are we to say that this human failure prohibits Divine mercy?
I think of St. John Chrysostom who, after fighting for a certain doctrine, was vindicated by a Church Council. Those who disagreed were labeled heretics, yet they were still present in St. John’s church! In his homilies addressed to the danger of their heresy, he speaks to them, not about them. And he does so in a way to acknowledge that they have their own sickness that they must struggle through, just as we all have our own sicknesses that we must each struggle through. While I ardently believe that heresy and false beliefs can harm a relationship with God, I am not bold enough to claim that such a harm holds enough power to block God’s mercy.
See, we aren’t saved by some set of rules. While everyone from Roman Catholics to Pentecostals to Baptists all say this, few practice it. We tend to say, “Well, works don’t save you” but then proceed to condemn anyone and everyone who sins in a way that we find repugnant and in which we do not sin. We condemn those who disagree with us on minor political points of view. In the end, the Gospel is treated as a litmus test for whether or not we’ll accept someone into our tribe than as the life-saving Truth that it is. When the Gospel becomes a barometer to measure someone else rather than ourselves, we’ve missed the point of the Gospel.
I am a hypocrite and a sinner. I fully admit that if we are saved by works, then I am going to Hell because I’ve never in a single day performed enough works to save me. On days where I have been selfless and holy, my sins have still outweighed any positive thing I’ve done. I fully admit that if we are saved by faith, even by faith alone, then I am still destined for Hell. My faith fluctuates and, honestly, there are days where I’m not even sure it’s there. If a litmus test exists for salvation then I know that I’ll fail it. We can talk about the fruits of the Spirit and how that serves as a way of knowing if someone is saved, but when applied to my own life I fear that I don’t meet any of the fruits; how can I properly apply it to someone else’s life when I can’t know the person’s heart or mind? Sure, I show signs of the fruit, but what does it really mean to live a Godly life? If we measure it to the life of Christ, then I’m failing on a consistent basis.
Thankfully, we are not saved by works, nor are we saved by faith. We are instead saved by God’s mercy. It is why we consistently pray, “Lord, have mercy.” We ask for mercy because in the end, God’s mercy is all we have. No amount of faith is enough to earn God’s favor, no work is so big that it can overcome the weight of our sin; only God’s mercy can save us, and that’s a humbling thought.
If only God’s mercy can save us and each of us are on a different stage in our walk with Christ, perhaps it’s best not to speak of “ACTUAL” Christians. Perhaps McCullough could recognize that Alan and he disagree, but that it’s no reason to call Alan’s salvation into question. Perhaps we could agree that while disagreements exist and we ought to work through them, we’re never in a position to question someone’s salvation when their salvation belongs to the Almighty and Infinite One. Perhaps it would be best, as with all things, to leave the questioning to God.