Allow me to present to you a hypothetical situation. Let’s say I’ve just finished reading The Case for Christ. There was something about Lee Strobel’s ingenious and fool-proof arguments that has miraculously convinced me that Jesus exists, God exists, the bible is true, and I ought to become a Christian. Well then, what should I do next? Join a church? Get baptized? Stop drinking alcohol? Hang bible verses up on my walls? Should I love my neighbor, or should I become homophobic perhaps? There are so many options!
For the most part, there seems to be a consensus that to be a true Christian means to, in some capacity, believe in, love, and follow Jesus. When I asked this on Twitter, some of my Christian followers kindly answered thus:
I find it noteworthy that both of their responses included not only the belief but the ensuing lifestyle as a priority. So what does this lifestyle mean?
Because they are Christians, my fiance’s grandparents never drink alcohol. Because they are Christians, my sister and her husband lead an LCMS church. For this same reason, Aaron Hartzler’s parents never allowed him to go to the movies or listen to normal music (his memoir is really good, by the way). Because they’re Christians, my old college roommates would take Sunday Sabbaths, enjoying long naps after church and brunch. This is the same reason that intelligent design apologists do what they do, and why the Westboro Baptist Church does what they do, and the reason why people go on missions trips and build houses, and why people do things like buy and wrap presents for Operation Christmas Child.
Even if we take a step back, the beliefs themselves also tend to be as scattered as the actions that result. You have your Ken Hams (literal Genesis, 6,000 years, 6 days), your Francis Collinses (theistic evolution) and your in-betweeners (Genesis but with an old earth spin; the day-age theory and the gap theory inserted into the Genesis narrative). Even with the bible, its internal and external contradictions mean that believers must choose for themselves what they see as truth, saying “Yes, I believe in Genesis, but I also acknowledge the evidence for evolution,” which can lead to cognitive dissonance and a weird acceptance of only microevolution, an awkward theistic evolution approach where they see Genesis as an allegory, or altogether deconverting to atheism or agnosticism.
As I recently learned and hope to write on extensively in the future, not even the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has an official position on the age of the earth or origins. Look at it this way: there is all of Christianity, which is massive; you zoom into the Lutheran denomination, and there are three main groups (ELCA, LCMS, and WELS), and not even at this level of Christianity—the LCMS—with its very specific set of beliefs regarding things like baptism and transubstantiation, can they agree on an interpretation of what their holy book means by “in the beginning”.
This disparity within this one sect leaves me astounded for all of the thousands of interpretations of what it means to be a Christian beyond just loving and serving Jesus. In my rhetoric class last semester, we learned about the traditions of several denominations, like Lutheran, Catholic, Calvinist, Mennonites, Presbyterian, Quakers, and more. This got me wondering: all of these people do what they think God wants them to do, but they all do wildly different things. It seems impossible to actually nail down what that is.
It could be said that all God really wants of Christians is for them to love him, love one another, and keep the commandments the best that they can. But depending on each person’s interpretation of the bible, everything else varies wildly. An easy way to visualize this for me is to consider a Christian’s stance on homosexuality. There are extreme views on this, all within Christianity. Some condemn homosexuality altogether and chant “God hates fags”, some aren’t comfortable with it because of their beliefs and would check off “regretfully decline” on an LGBT wedding invitation, some believe that there is no conflict between homosexuality and Christianity, and some are very proud to be both gay and Christian, saying that God himself made them that way in his image.
Richard Dawkins said in The God Delusion that it is not the radical Christians (and Muslims, to which this applies but isn’t really my focus) who commit terrorism in the name of their religion, it is the true Christian who is following God’s commands verbatim. This may very well be true, but you may have noticed that most Christians are not murderers. As a matter of fact, it seems that the majority of Christians are quite opposed to terrorism. Does this mean that they are not true Christians?
In my eyes, they are not. This is because there is not one true Christian. There’s not one true denomination with all the perfect instructions on pleasing God. With a book that long, and that messy, I think that there is no way that everyone will agree on what it means to be a Christian. To me, it is rendered meaningless because of this. Drink alcohol, or don’t. Get tattoos, or don’t. Go to church, or don’t. I believe that Christianity is so vague that the believer can mold it into whatever they think it is.