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Who Is a Christian?

Some of the Copts died with the name of Jesus on their lips. That doesn't mean they were Christians, say other Christians

Here is how Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist pastor who heads the church’s Washington office, responded to the murder of the 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS:

A number of Southern Baptists had similar responses. The Southern Baptist bloggers at Pulpit & Pen will have you know that this is a betrayal:

Do Southern Baptist leaders and other evangelicals really not know what a Christian is or how you become one? Is it being born into an ethnic group that denies the dual-nature of Christ in his full deity and humanity? Is it embracing a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church? Is it in aggressively denying salvation by a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ? We ask because that’s what Coptic ‘Christians’ believe. This really isn’t new, and we have to wonder why our leaders don’t know what Coptics believe and if they do, what on Earth makes them think they should be categorized as Christians.

Now, sure. In the broadest possible (and most inaccurate) sense possible, the term Christian is applied to the Coptics for the same reason it is applied to Roman Catholics by major media. To secularists, all one has to be to be considered Christian is to call themselves one. In this same sense, the press refers to cultists like the LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses as Christians as well. There should be no outrage that the press calls them such, or even their outrage representative to evangelicals, Todd Starnes. We get it; they don’t get it. But why again do our Southern Baptist leaders not grasp that?

Maybe it’s one of those “Today we are all Republicans” type things – the expression used by Ronald Reagan’s surgeon the day he was shot – and often used to express solidarity to those suffering. A few weeks ago we are all Charlie Hebdo. So maybe what they mean is, “Today, we are all Coptics.” I think we’re fine with that, in a way. But that’s a far cry from saying, “Today, Coptics are Christians.”

My first response to this is that it is repellent pedantry. Their execution video shows that some of these men called out the name of Jesus as they were having their heads chopped off by these barbarians. Yet these Baptist bloggers contend that they are not Christian because they hold to the faith as delivered to them by their ancestors (the Coptic Church was founded around the year 42 by St. Mark, author of one of the Gospels). Yet because they didn’t hold in their heads — the same heads the Muslims cut off — doctrines espoused by Southern Baptists, a church that came into existence approximately 1,900 years after the Coptic Church began, they are not Christians?


I like what Pope Francis said about the martyrs, and agree with him 100 percent:

“They only said ‘Jesus help me…’ The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian!”

I wish it were possible to dismiss the legalistic posturing of the Baptist bloggers without giving it a second thought, but the discomfiting truth is that they have a point.

What they’ve done is draw a line between who is in the Church, and who is out of it. This is historically and theologically a sound practice. This is something that has always been done in Christianity. Go to Acts 15 to learn about the Council of Jerusalem. What counts as authentically Christian, and what puts one outside the Church? It might sound silly to many of us that these Southern Baptists do not consider Catholics, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox (e.g., the Copts) — that is, most of the Christians in the world today — to be truly Christian, but few of us would deny the importance of drawing the theological line somewhere. 

In the year 451, the Pope and the other Patriarchs excommunicated the so-called Oriental Orthodox for holding a heterodox Christology. In other words, they put them outside the Church. I don’t know what the status is today among the churches.

Kyrill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent condolences to the Coptic Pope and the Egyptian president regarding the murder of the 21 Copts. Kyrill referred to the dead as “Christians,” and told the Coptic Pope that “we” Christians must stand together. I don’t know for certain how we should interpret that, but it seems clear to me that Kyrill sees the Copts as Christians, however imperfect our communion.

In the Christian past, we have murdered our own for heresy. Think of the Catholic crusade against the Albigensians. The Russian Orthodox hunted down the schismatic Archpriest Avvakum, tortured him, and burned him at the stake. Calvinists burned Michael Servetus at the stake for denying the Holy Trinity.

Was Avvakum a Christian? Were the Albigensians? Was Michael Servetus?

Whatever their theological errors, might they have been more essentially Christian than the theologically correct who murdered them for their heterodoxy?

Difficult questions. Speaking for myself alone, I believe that the fullness of truth, as it can be known to us mortals, is taught by the Orthodox Church, but that we can only say who is and is not in communion with it; we can’t say who God will or will not save. The formulation I like is, “We can say where the Church is, but we cannot say where it is not.” I would say that all Christians should be in union with Orthodoxy if they would have the fullness of the truth, but I would not say, “Therefore, those who are not Orthodox are strangers to Christ.” In fact, Jesus Himself said to us, in Matthew 25, how He will know His own:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

I’m not God, but if I were a betting man, I would place my money on Coptic Christians who called on the name of Jesus as they were about to be killed for being Christian to make it into the Kingdom before Americans who stand on doctrinal differences to deny the faithfulness of the martyrs. Note well: doctrinal issues are important! They just aren’t the most important thing. I believe I hold the correct doctrines, but I have absolutely no doubt that there will be countless Southern Baptists (and others) who go before me into the Kingdom (assuming that I will make it!) because however incorrect their doctrines, they embodied the spirit of Christ in the lives they lived.

To be a true Christian is not simply to hold all the correct propositions in your head. These legalistic American theologians have given their minds over to ideas about Christ; those Copts gave their heads for Christ.

UPDATE: I have delinked to Pulpit & Pen after receiving this e-mail from a reader:

Thanks for your most recent piece (“Who Is a Christian”). As a Southern Baptist, I found it correctly oriented and articulately worded.

One thing I want to warn you about: Pulpit and Pen. Before you give their website any future hits, you should know about their founder, JD Hall. Hall is a militant SBC pastor in Montana who until recently was infamous in Baptist culture for using his Twitter account to antagonize any and all public religious figures he dislikes. Keep in mind, this guy is a full time pastor and leads an evangelical network called Reformation Montana.

You won’t be able to find JD Hall on Twitter anymore, and here’s why: Last spring, Hall approached and bullied the son of a controversial Baptist teacher named Ergun Caner. You can read the details in this Christianity Today piece, but the sum of it is that Hall berated publicly Caner’s son and humiliated him, and a few weeks after the Twitter encounter, Caner’s son committed suicide. In fairness, it seems that the suicide was not directly connected to the online exchange, but even Hall admitted that the incident had changed and “crushed” him. That was several months ago, and though Hall has gotten rid of his twitter account, he has taken the reigns of his organization’s account and seems determined to return to his trolling ways.

This man is still a pastor and still a spiritual leader. He is addicted to wounding people with words and needs serious Christian help and prayer. You’re a smarter man than I am, Rod, but I’d think twice before sending anybody, even by accident, to that man’s website.

Unbelievable. Thanks for the tip-off, reader.



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