How Might We Identify the True Christian?

man praying

If you have ever talked with a Christian about immoral acts committed by another Christian, you have undoubtedly heard something like, "Well, I guess he/she wasn't a true Christian" after all. Most atheists immediately recognize this for the fallacy that it is, but this certainly hasn't stopped Christians from using it whenever it benefits them to do so. And the behavior of Christians guarantees that they will have plenty of opportunities!

On the surface, the task of identifying a true Christian should be fairly straightforward. Christianity is an organized religion, rooted in a particular set of scriptures, which involves an identifiable dogma. People who believe this dogma are Christians, right? If only it were that simple!

The definitional problem begins with the observation that Christians themselves cannot agree on how their dogma should be interpreted. Two examples come to mind. First, prominent Christians never seem to tire questioning how their god is to be defined. This seems so fundamental to a monotheistic religion such as Christianity that I wonder how "Christian" can even be a meaningful concept with a shared understanding of their god. Second, we often see Christians questioning whether belief in the virgin birth is a necessary component of their religion. Now we begin to grasp the scope of this problem. If Christians cannot agree on what they believe, how can they possibly differentiate between Christians and non-Christians?

Most Christians seem content to live with their individual understanding of their religion without awareness or concern that it is unlikely to be shared by a majority of other Christians. What is more likely to bother them and where the true Christian claim is most likely to appear are the cases where they see someone behaving in a manner they consider to be inconsistent with their personal beliefs. I would argue that the heart of the true Christian claim amounts to something like this: "That person is not behaving in a manner consistent with how I personally define Christianity, and therefore, he/she is not a real Christian." Implicit in this statement is that the speaker defines Christianity for himself/herself and that this personal definition, even though it is not necessarily shared by others, is sufficient to permit the application of moral condemnation to persons who violate it.

What of biblical literalism? Whatever else can be said about Christianity, it is difficult to deny that it is rooted in scripture. I think the biblical literalists are right about one thing: If one believes that the Christian bible was inspired (directly or indirectly) through a god which has the attributes described in this same bible, a literal reading is the only viable option. To think that a human has any business interpreting the Christian bible is the height of arrogance. The words are there for all to read and to follow. To engage in even the slightest distortion through interpretation, especially symbolic interpretation which often departs significantly from the written words, is unjustifiable. Even if interpretation was somehow necessary, how can anyone seriously think that humans are competent to provide it?

Christians who read their bibles literally, truly believe the dogma therein, and make an honest effort to live in accordance with its contents (including handling serpents, stoning persons who commit adultery, etc.) can certainly be called true Christians. I'm not sure that anyone else qualifies. If you disagree (and I expect most of you will), then you'll need a compelling rationale for ignoring or reinterpreting the many parts of the bible of which you disapprove. More importantly, you need to come up with a defensible way of evaluating various reinterpretations (i.e., determining how you know you are correct in your reinterpretation). Without that, I'm not sure anybody will be able to determine who the true Christians are.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and updated in 2021.