Who Is a True Christian?
This was Ralph Winter's last "writing," dictated to his assistant a few weeks before his death on May 20, 2009.
Evangelicals have a hard time figuring out who is and who is not a true Christian, in the sense of a born-again member of God’s Kingdom. We are especially troubled about those who don’t call themselves Christians. We tend to reject the faith of Gentiles in the Bible who had a relationship with God, such as Abimelech. On the other hand, we turn a blind eye to a billion Christians who may have no spiritual credentials at all. And even church fathers like Justin Martyr and Tertullian, who disagreed with each other on practically everything, and whose views would not pass muster with our present day doctrine of substitutionary atonement, are viewed as true Christians by most Evangelicals today.
Down through history our criterion for what a Christian is has tended to be intellectual. As late as 1524, long after the Constantinian period, a scholarly Lutheran professor began to doubt whether the body and blood of Christ appeared in the eucharist. She was executed. A few years later a man turned up in Geneva with a slightly different interpretation of the trinity and Calvin executed him. As Christianity invaded the Dutch, two versions of Calvinism were popular. One version was totally unacceptable to the other side and street riots led to people on the other side having their arms and legs torn off.
Eventually the Evangelical Awakening appeared with its emphasis that experience, not knowledge, is what is necessary to be converted: being born again, the filling of the Spirit, and other experiences. However, Evangelicalism has experienced a relapse, and we are back to emphasizing creeds, which seem less demanding. Across the United States we have innumerable creeds.
Thus to sum up, it seems to make little difference to most Evangelicals what a Christian needs to be and to do if they call themselves a Christian. But if they don’t call themselves Christians, such as Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, all of our powerful criteria are brought to bear and we tend to throw them out, no matter how seriously they seek God.
It seems to me, however, that no form of Evangelicalism nor any other definition can be adequate as a criterion of acceptability to God. We need to realize God does not intend for us to decide who is a spiritual Christian [OR: who is in his Kingdom] and who is not. That means the spiritual status of a lot of people is in doubt, and that’s the way it should be. Embarrassingly, a huge amount of God’s will is being performed every day by people who do not call themselves “Christian.” Jesus’ expectations that the will of God would be enacted in this life is actually happening before our eyes. This also means that Kingdom mission is in many cases a joint operation with “Christians” and non-“Christians” whose status with God is ambiguous or unfinished.