Who’s not a Christian?

I can recall growing up as the son of Evangelical Protestant missionaries being taught that Roman Catholics were certainly not Christians. I’m not sure whether my parents ever said that to me, but it was a marked theme in some of the preaching I heard in the various low-church Baptist and small non-denominational churches that marked my growing up years. After all, how could the Whore of Babylon be Christian? I even once recall strolling the hallways of the mission headquarters my parents worked for, overhearing one of the staff giving a tour to some visitors, describing in glowing terms how the mission was “broadcasting Christianity into a Catholic country.” I honestly do not remember the Orthodox ever being mentioned during my childhood.

When I did eventually choose to be received into the Orthodox Church during my college years, I remember being questioned by one of my Evangelical relatives: Do you still believe that Jesus is God? (Yes, of course.) Do you still believe that Jesus is the only way to be saved? (Well, yeah.) Do you have the Bible? (We came up with that!) And so on.

Perhaps one of the more vexing questions in discussions between the members of various Christian communions is the question of mutual recognition. One of the barbs occasionally thrown by those fighting the rearguard in certain sectors of Protestantism, dismayed that a handful of their former co-religionists are swimming either the Bosphorus or the Tiber, is that those converting either to Orthodoxy or Rome were now required to look upon their friends and family who remained behind as no longer Christians, second-class Christians, deficient Christians, etc. That is, this is an argument from meanness, i.e., it would just be plain mean for you to be joined with that communion, because doing so is implicitly leveling judgment on those who do not join you. (Never mind the question of whether you believe your new communion is actually true.)

But I have been led to wonder lately what exactly is the point of this desire for mutual recognition. Why exactly would, for instance, a Lutheran want me to recognize him as a Christian? Or why would a Baptist bother to wonder whether a Roman Catholic is a Christian? Why this drive for defining a communion as Christian that is, by its nature, not Christian in the way that one’s own communion is Christian?

I have been asked, for instance, whether I would consider a Baptist as a Christian. But why? Is it so he feels good? (So?) Is it so I’ll give him communion? (I can’t.) Is it so we can join together in humanitarian work? (I can do that with a Muslim.) Is it because he wants me to affirm that he believes in Jesus? (I believe someone when he says he believes in Jesus, but I don’t have to give a label to do that.) Is it because he wants me to say that he’s “saved”? (There’s a can of worms; I don’t know the answer, though, however one defines salvation.) Is it because he wants me to approve of his church? (How could I? If I really approved of his church, I would join it.) Is it because he wants to marry my daughter? (Maybe I should be rethinking gun ownership.)

Underneath all this, it seems to me, is actually a cryptic expectation that I will accept the anti-ecclesiology, that there is no one, true Church. In other words, what I am actually being asked for is an approval of a certain kind of orthodoxy, a recognition that the other guy is “in” something along with me, even though we do not commune together, do not worship together, do not have the same doctrine, and do not practice the same day-to-day spiritual life.

That said, I probably share a good bit of doctrine with those who would seem to want this mutual recognition. Most Christians in America at least formally believe in the core doctrines of Christian tradition—traditional Triadology and Christology. Our Bibles are even mostly the same. But even though I can agree with many such people on these essentials, I would not agree that they are the only essentials, nor even that doctrines and practices that are not so near the core are non-essentials.

It seems to me that the real reason why I am supposed to accept as Christian those who believe certain things is actually that I am supposed to accept the anti-ecclesiology of denominationalism, the idea that there can be multiple “denominations” (including the non-denominational denomination) of Christianity who have conflicting doctrine and practice and yet are somehow all legitimately the Body of Christ, the Church. But I don’t believe that. That presupposition is antithetical to my faith. I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, not myriad, conflicting, fragmented and innovative denominations. I do not accept that there are different “brands” of Christianity. There is only the Church, and as an Orthodox Christian, I believe that that one Church is the Orthodox Church.

I also note that this sub-orthodoxy (for that is what it is) only seems to include dogmatic affirmations. Churchly practice never enters into the question. Such things are “non-essentials,” I suppose. But how could whether baptism actually contributes to salvation or merely symbolizes something, whether the Eucharist is actually the very Body and Blood of the God-man or is just a nice memorial with crackers and juice, whether worship is ordained by God to be liturgical or can be made up by some bright-idea “worship leader,” whether asceticism is training for love and humility or Pharisaical “works righteousness,” et cetera, ad nauseam, ever be “non-essential”? Since when is a caste system of the elements of Christian faith and life even hinted at in the Scripture?

In the end, I think the only purpose in defining someone else’s group as Christian is really just as a kind of shorthand, a method of grouping various communions together intellectually and as a starting point for dialogue and cooperation. I tend to use the affirmation of traditional Triadology and Christology as my touchstone in this regard, but it can’t amount to any sort of “recognition.” How could it? Doesn’t every serious Christian actually believe that the communion to which he belongs is the right one, the one that truly (or at least, best) represents what Jesus came here to teach us to live? If so, why would he want to give some sort of stamp of approval to something that is less than that, or (more likely) contradicts that? To what end?

I can affirm what I believe is true, wherever I see it. Do I have a relationship with those who confess Christ (however they do it) that is different from those who do not? Of course. But I don’t really see the point in defining out a sub-orthodoxy that makes one (officially?) “Christian,” even while I believe that true Christianity is something else, or at least, something more.

So, yes, I do think that most people who call themselves Christians are Christians. But most of them are not Orthodox Christians, which means that I believe that most of them are not believing and practicing Christianity the way that Christ gave it to His Apostles. And I fully expect that they would see me in exactly the same way, that I am not doing Christianity in the truly right way. I would not blame them if they declared I wasn’t a Christian as a result.

It all just shows that everyone draws the line somewhere. Everyone has an ecclesiology, even if it’s just the sub-orthodoxy of the anti-ecclesiology.


  1. says

    The good news is that more and more protestants are ceasing to self-identify as ‘Christian’ and are opting instead for terms like ‘Christ Follower’, ‘Sojourner’ and the like.

    With any luck, in a generation or two, this problem will resolve itself!

  2. says

    Good article Fr.
    I think you are correct in your analysis. There is a similar shorthand with the question, are you saved? and a knee-jerk reaction to any statement that seems to get too far away from “we are saved by faith alone”, which is part of the Protestant lexicon at a dna level, despite its lack of Biblical backing. The hackles are raised to an alarming level when one has the temerity to suggest we are judged by our works.

    When preachers repeat the same thing for decades it becomes orthodox, even if Luther needs to amend certain texts and omit certain books entirely. Amazing that these same people see themselves as bibliophiles. Oi vey!

  3. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am a recent convert and a former Anglican priest who discovered Orthodoxy one day while researching a sermon. Not that I did not know about Orthodoxy, I did. However, what I knew had little to do with it as it truly is. All I really knew about it is that it was mystical, ancient, and Greek or Russian, very Greek or very Russian. I also knew that the Orthodox perceived themselves to be the one true church. That bothered me. Why? Because, it meant that if they were right, then my status in Christ was somehow less than it should be. I knew that I believed in Christ, that I trusted the Lord, and yet I also knew that my expression of Christianity (Anglicanism) had many flaws in it, and that claim of the Orthodox rocked my boat.

    It is here that the rubber hits the road. It seems that one of the reasons that every Christian wants every other Christian to affirm their Christianity is so that they can be comforted in the midst of the heresy, schism, and general mayhem that exists in their denomination. A nod of acceptability calms the worries caused by the concerns brought about by the obvious.

    Carlos M.