Zach and I banter about what he calls the “No True Scotsman” defense for Christianity on account of appalling behavior by those claiming to be Christians. It goes like this: That mass-murderer calls himself a Christian, but he probably isn’t a Christian since a true Christian would not do that.
Like most issues we discuss, this has multiple layers. On the face of it, it is true that people who say they follow Jesus often do stupid, mean, or outright horrible things to other people.
How do we distinguish between those who merely call themselves Christians and those who really are Christians? In one sense, we can’t. We aren’t God so we can’t know for certain who really belongs to Christ and who doesn’t. In another sense, we can observe people’s behavior and have a fairly good idea of whether or not they are following Jesus as they ought.
The biggest indicator is repentance. Does the person have any remorse over their sin? Is it something they wrestle with and have simply lost this battle but are resolved to overcome it? Is it a sin that they are justifying? A mass-murderer is simply not someone who is following Jesus. A mass-murderer also is not in a state of overcoming their temptation and trying to not sin—by definition they are on a spree.
Usually, however, saying that someone is not a Christian comes into play when considering something like the Crusades. Anyone can take a set of Scriptures and twist it to fit whatever purpose they want. It isn’t about what the “Christian” thing to do is at that point; it’s about finding popular support for one’s ambitions—if it can be made to seem Christian enough and if the “enemy” can be portrayed as enough of a threat to God’s Kingdom, then justification and rationalization win.
I think this discussion can be more fruitful if we don’t set the goal as determining who is or is not a Christian. Since Jesus is the “author and perfecter,” we are better equipped to determine what does or does not constitute Jesus-like behavior, and leave it to God to say who belongs to Him or not.
While cliche and over-merchandized, the acronym “WWJD” is still a good question when discussing things like murderous cults and child molesters. Would Jesus murder a bunch of innocent people? Probably not. Would Jesus molest children? Definitely no. So if this or that person does things Jesus wouldn’t ever do, we can safely say that—at least at that time—they are not following Jesus. We can also safely say that a group of people acting under selfish consensus and misusing Scripture to justify horrible things is a group of people not acting Christianly. Moreover, since the Spirit works to unify believers to be more like Jesus together, then a group of people consciously acting contrary to how Jesus would act is not a group of people attentive to the Spirit’s work of unity for the purpose of being a light to the world.
So, we can stack all the cards we want against a person or a group of people, but the real point is that anyone who says they are following Jesus and acts in a way He wouldn’t is someone who—at least at that point in time—is not following Jesus.