Do Your Own Theology — Are you a Christian? 4 Types of Christianity

Today I’d like to address the question ” Just who is a Christian  and how do you know?”. I suspect I have friends that I’d call Christian that others don’t, and I know people  that would consider themselves a Christian that I wouldn’t. This is a big deal in the world today, especially in political and social circles — a kind of “who’s in, who’s out” litmus test — and I am convinced that there are going to be some surprises when Jesus gets to determine who really is in or out.  (Jesus said, according to the Bible, “Many will say Lord, Lord…but I will say I never knew you”. Others will say “when did we see you and help you” and Jesus will “welcome them into the kingdom of heaven”, just in case you think I’m making this up). This is good news for my friends, and bad news for some of my enemies, I think.

So, here’s my first category — the group a girl I dated once surprised me about — “Oh, you mean Jesus? I like him, but I don’t like what people have done with him”.   This group is people who want to act like Jesus said to act — people who try to live out the Beatitudes and the social ideals that Jesus taught.  These people don’t necessarily believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but they think he’s got something right about the way the world should be.  So, this form of Christian is “follower of Jesus” or “someone who acts like Jesus would”.  Most people I know (or want to know) act like this, even if they wouldn’t claim the title.  I’m not sure what to say about that part, but Jesus seems to indicate that he likes them as well, even if they don’t make a big deal about him.

Group 2 are people that are people that believe that Jesus is their “Lord and Savior”. These are people that met Jesus through salvation.  These people are people that think of Jesus as the Christ (the savior). These folks have come to Christ because they realized that something was wrong with them and the only thing that could fix them was One who could forgive them. These people have their life changed and start all over again in the sight of God.  My problem with these people (some of them, anyway) is that they don’t go back and ask for forgiveness from the people they hurt.  12-Step people, by contrast, do the “amends to others” part.  This makes them among the coolest people I know — they’re genuine, humble and non-judgmental and they straighten things out when they can.  This is better than many people in society.

Group 3 are people that concentrate on the Jesus is “Lord” part — that is, pastors and other such folks who follow Christ not because they’re good, or holy, but because he’s their “boss”, because he called them and they followed.  This, according to Frederick Buechner, is what the disciples were like. At least to start, they’re not great people, not above being petty or jealous.  These people try to do what’s right. I distinguish these folks from Group 1 because they’re not so heady and philosophical. They don’t like philosophy in general and like this one best. These folks seem to be more practical, more involved in life, in doing the right thing, rather than being the right thing.  As I  type this, I am aware that many ministers are good people.  They’re nice, polite, know when to hold their tongues and how to talk to the aged woman who can’t hear but wants her tea cups held the right way.  They have morals and they’re obviously “good”.

Still, this is the category I grew up to be in. I do not do those things and am not particularly interested in learning, thus the pastorate doesn’t always “fit” for me, nor I for it.   I have morals, and ethics, but I’m not always polite. Still, I always try to do what I think God asks of me.  I have added, in the past few years, the salvation part (see above) and thus can say “Jesus is my Lord and Savior”, because I don’t want to be connected with the (unfortunately) very public idiots in the faith. If you ask me, I’ll tell you so, without a moment’s hesitation.  But the answer to “what’s wrong with your car, John?” is not “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior” with a scripture quote attached like some kind of code.

Lastly, there are people who are all of those things. They like what Jesus taught, the follow and they are saved.  These people are deeply spiritual and you can tell when they walk into the room.  In this category, you find people like Gordon Sherman who ran a retreat center in New Hampshire for years; the rev. Todd Farnsworth who just shines when he moves into a new town and attracts people to him; I suspect my own pastor, George, is one of these, but I don’t know his salvation story.  Char Corbett is one of these, it seems to me. Jesse Jackson might be one of these, I suspect, and Martin Luther King is the epitome of this, but they don’t make ’em like King anymore.  With the exception of, who?, Jimmy Carter, there are no great protestant leaders that everybody knows about and respects in today’s world.  Bono might come in a close second.

So, my point here is this: depending on what you believe there are either more Christians than is first apparent, or less. I like all people that are in category one, some in category 2, all in category 3, and wish there were more in category 4.  But, again, that’s just me.

I’d love to know what you think.




10 thoughts on “Do Your Own Theology — Are you a Christian? 4 Types of Christianity

  1. “With the exception of, who, Jimmy Carter, there are no great protestant leaders that everybody knows about and respects in today’s world.”

    How about Desmond Tutu? An Anglican. (OK, some Protestants might find him a bit high church, but surely he counts.)

    I know plenty of others I respect, of course. But perhaps the “everybody knows about and respects” criterion is faulty? Jesus would not have passed muster on that score, when you think about it.

    • Cathi:

      I thought about Mandela, then Tutu later. Yes, Desmond Tutu qualifies as a well-known and respected Christian.
      I was just bemoaning the fact that there are no Christian movement leaders and really haven’t been for years. Anti-war? Anti-racism? Anti-poverty? King was all of those. Those were the glory days of my youth, and I miss them. Carter sort of is, but he couldn’t give it away as president. I guess Tutu is as well. Oops, my America-centrism is coming through again. Long and short of it — you’re right, but now you get what I meant sort of…



  2. One of the great things about being Quaker is knowing a great many people who are active in all the areas you mention. Of course, not all are Christian… though non-Christian Friends like me are definitely the exception and not the rule, even in the most liberal meetings of Friends.

    They aren’t very famous, and they rarely make the 6:00 news. But I find that knowing personally many, many people who have dedicated a lot of their time and energy to fighting war, racism, or poverty makes a real difference in how I feel about my life. I know people who have lived below the poverty line intentionally for years, to avoid paying war taxes, or to be free to be jailed at any time for their acts of civil disobedience… People who wash their laundry by hand rather than contribute to global warming… People who work only part-time, in order to have enough time for ministry and activism.

    It is exciting how much more possible it makes the whole notion of being faithful to the promptings of what, for want of a better term, I might as well call God. I am more hopeful, and I think more peaceful and kinder, because I am active in a religious community where there is so much attention given to really living out the core messages of a religious path.

    Works for me, anyway. *smile*

    • Cathi:

      A beautifully written note that shows your spirituality and gifts to others as well as community. Thanks.



  3. John, I like your analysis as far as it goes. I want to suggest two additional categories for consideration.

    In an earlier post, you expressed a great deal of frustration about the invisibility of Christians with liberal humanitarian values. “I’M A CHRISTIAN! AND A DEMOCRAT!!! (Closer to socialist sometimes, closer to Republican others). I FOLLOW JESUS. I READ THE BIBLE AND I’M NOT AN IDIOT ABOUT IT!!!”

    I am a Quaker but not a Christian. I do not accept Christ as my Lord and Savior. I think Rabbi Jesus had many good things to say, but he had his limitations and was far from perfect. Yet as a Quaker, I am worshiping alongside Christians and tapping into a Spirit which we can all feel in a covered meeting and which is palpably the same Spirit that my Christian brothers and sisters are calling Jesus. This gives me an unusual perspective in considering the whole “Just who is a Christian?” question.

    And I strongly feel that some deep corporate discernment among all Christians around the question of what defines a Christian would do a world of good for all of us—for you folks, who consider yourselves to be within the circle (“But you’re Christian. What do you mean you’re not a right-wing Republican?”) and for us standing outside it (“But you’re a good and deeply spiritual person. What do you mean you’re not Christian?”). So I applaud your efforts here, and I hope that you put these questions out not just in the blogosphere but in your—what do they call it?—your synod or whatever.

    So here are my two additional categories:

    Group 5. It’s considered impolite to mention this in mixed company, but there really are Christians in the world like Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, and Fred Phelps. I’ve picked a few fairly extreme names to illustrate the category, but there are millions of Christians out there who feel about being Christian the way they feel about being American and white and English speaking. “If the damn foreigners want equality, why don’t they learn to act like regular people and speak English and go to church?”

    I sometimes hear these people dismissed as non-Christians who wrap themselves in the cross, but they use enough Christian language and have enough grounding in Christian tradition to claim the label with as much validity—perhaps more validity—than liberals like you. And there are many liberal Christians with whom I would love to enter into spiritual dialogue, who will refuse to talk to me or hear me because I won’t say Jesusismylordandsavior but will sit down and seriously consider the spiritual perspectives of extreme right-wing Christians because, though their politics may be odious, they frame their thoughts using the same religious metaphors.

    And Group 6. If Jesus really was tapped into the real G*d stuff, and if G*d really is eternal and omnipresent, and if there really is that of G*d within each of us, then anyone anywhere from any tradition who forms a real connection with the Divine could be considered “Christian.”

    I used to believe in this category, back in the day when I was Christian. Back then, I was a little disconcerted at how offensive my Jewish friends found this concept. Today, as a Pagan Quaker, I find it offensive myself. The assumption that all good people are Christian under the skin is exasperating in its chauvinism, but the perspective exists and liberal Christians should take it up, examine it, and reject it on its own terms.

    Just FWIW.

    Peter Bishop

    • OM-G Peter!!!!

      Sorry to jump on your opinion, but *many several barfing noises*. The people that you name — particularly Fred Phelps — are NOT Christians, in the same way that abusers are NOT loving people. Abusers twist other people’s metaphors in a snarky, ugly way and call it love. Their use of the metaphors does not make them feminists, pro homosexual, racially sensitive, etc. Fred Phelps does it and says (via his title) “I’m abusing you and I’m Jesus!”. He is living an entire life of “using the Lord’s name in vain”!
      The idea that he can make a more valid claim for Christianity than liberals like myself literally makes me want to throw up. It is the reason that I began blogging in the first place. I think that (using my understanding of Jesus’ words) Fred Phelps had better get used to warmth, because he’ll be spending a long time with it!
      I should pray for them, as my friend Gordon would, and when I calm down I might. I pray that they might get better, but the fact is that if they don’t change, they’re straight out evil and deserve the promised justice.

      I re-read your comment and if you mean “people who go to church” are the average person, I can accept that. Mid-western “normal” Christians or something like that. OK. Fred Phelps. No.

      Re: offending non-Christians by saying they’re “really” Christians underneath. You/they have the right to call yourself whatever you want and be respected for it. Raimundo Panakar, in a book called “The Unknown Christ of Hinduism” says that Hindus would easily accept Christians as one more way to Nirvana, and thus as Hindus. People got offended, but I didn’t. I see Gandhi as eminently Christian and would love to say that he and I see things the same way. I also like the Tao as metaphor for the Christian way of life. I understand that that belief isn’t mainstream — or at least I think it’s not. (You never know what people really think til you ask them). While Christians should be loving, generally nice people, not all loving, generally nice people are Christians. They might be close to God, or they might even call God something different, but I would say close to God, The Way, The Truth, The Life, Nirvana, something… They’re holy in some way or another.
      In any case if somebody who’s nice wants to be accepted as a “sort-of Christian”, I’m OK with that. If they don’t, that’s cool, too.


  4. This is a deep one John! I definitely agree on the Fred Phelps and family…there is just way too much hate there. It is actually sad to see and know that there is at least a 3rd generation being brought up in that family like that. It is really a case in point of how hurt people hurt people, but that isn’t an alibi. But ultimately it isn’t up to me, is it?
    I do believe though that if we weren’t going to be so completely absorbed with being in the presence of our Heavenly Father that we might be quite surprised who will be in heaven with us in the hereafter.
    In short, Christian is a much abused word these days. If I am Christian, I should probably spend more time looking in the mirror than looking at others. But that is just were I am right now. For the sake of this discussion, there are 3, 4, 5 or 6 types for many of us and probably just 1 type if one is an atheist.
    I would give you something to consider. Less than 200 years ago we had the Civil War here in the USA. There were pastors preaching & praying in the North and the South about how their side should prevail. I believe that they each honestly believed, based on what they knew and read in the scripture, that they were on the righteous and just side. There were no doubt exceptions. History has clarified it for us, but at the time with the limited and even distorted teaching then, they each honestly believed that they were right. This scenario was actually played out right here in New Britain where there are 2 Congregational Churches because of this very subject. Does this mean that people from one area or congregation (i.e. “South”) at that point in history are “feeling the heat” now? I don’t think so solely based on that subject. Not that it wasn’t a big deal mind you. It was, it really was but things were changing and adjusting for the better. Slow and as incomplete as that change is, there are people on the wrong side of issues that are “right with God”, in my opinion. If it was so simple as to just be on the right or Godly side of an issue (i.e. LGBT’s being loved by God), then we could do whatever else we wanted after that. It is much bigger than a position on an issue that “makes or breaks” our spirituality. It is when they realize the error of their ways and they fail to get “right with God” but stay stubborn because of ego or not wanting to loose face that they risk “feeling the heat”. It is a process. We need to be steadily, even constantly, moving toward God. As soon as we stop moving we are in dangerous territory. It is a beautiful process when we submit and then commit to it.
    God doesn’t choose sides on an issue or in a war…God is on God’s own side. We should be concerned about being on God’s side, not whether or not God is on our side.
    Just one Christian’s thoughts…thanks for listening, take care and peace.

    • David (and Peter… and everyone else):

      First off, I try to not be “off the wall” with my comments. Sometimes, Peter, though I don’t always manage it. I guess I want to get a couple of things out into the world. First is that God is a much better, bigger person than all of us. I’m glad that Dave talked about slavery and the civil war and the Bible. I see homosexuality as being in the same category. I understand that well-meaning people on both sides can believe what they do and that we are in the midst of changing times. I don’t deny that the case can be made Biblically against homosexuality. I also like (and agree with) Bishop Sprong’s most recent declaration of his own faith re: the issue.

      I don’t think, however, that the Bible or the intellect is the final say-so. I think God gave us hearts to use them, as well. I have too many friends that are gay to wish them into hell and know too many nice gay people who have the right to be happy to come down on that side.

      It’s nastypeople that claim to be Christians that I have the problem with. Mr. Phelps is entitled to his opinion. It’s the willingness to drive cross-country to yell at somebody’s funeral that I see as the problem. His intent is to abuse, not convert, to punish, not dialogue, to act as though his opinion has more say than others because he gets TV coverage. If people are actually listening to me (as he knows they listen to him), it behooves me to be decent and admit my limitations. Phelps and others like him don’t. To the extent that he — or people who do the same — succeed in promoting themselves as followers of Jesus , I get seriously bent out of shape about. Associating Jesus with them is the kind of thing Jesus talked about when he said “I’ll say, ‘I don’t even know you’ “. In the same vein, I would love it if we would take Jesus seriously about hurting children and wishing they’d tie a millstone around their neck. I think that would change the world if we took it seriously.

      My Jesus — and, thus, my Christianity — is kind, healing, interested in the welfare of others, but not always nice. Just because I’m liberal doesn’t mean I’m “mamby-pamby”. Jesus, I believe, and my theology has his (it’s) limits. When I’m more sane/calm, I don’t say that I want Phelps (or anybody) to go to hell, but that I believe their own actions will get them there.



      • Yow. OK, mentioning Phelps was too incendiary. He’s too extreme to exemplify the type I was trying to describe, and throwing his name into the list overshadowed Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms, who (I think) really do exemplify what I was trying to describe. Jerry Falwell would have been a better third example.

      • Peter:

        I don’t like them either — or Pat Robertson, but I’ll give them (not Falwell, either — he travels to be a jerk) that other category you’re talking about. For those guys, (Gingrich and Helms), I really disagree with their politics, but so what. That’s where David is right. God doesn’t pick a side, we pick a side. OK, so — by my reckoning — in the fantasy theology league, Helms and Gingrich, Heaven, probably… Phelps, Hell… Falwell, Robertson, I say, “Hell”; you two say “wait a minute!”. (I liked the Mets this year, too. With the Red Sox next. What does THAT say about my judgement?).

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