If being a “Christian” means not being open to embrace doubt and confusion, then I am not a Christian.
The earliest lesson I learned in my walk with Jesus was the importance of being open and honest about your doubts. I grew up in a very Christian environment. I lived and breathed youth group and worship team. But doubts started creeping in around the time I was fifteen, and I never felt safe to disclose them, to the point that they festered so much I became a “closet atheist.” It was only when God met me in my doubt and I felt freedom to be open about it that I was able to step into a vibrant faith.
We talk so much about “doubting Thomas” as though he was such a bad example, but we forget how Jesus dealt with and even honored his doubt: he showed up and said, “Look, here I am.”God can handle your doubts, your confusion, your pain, even your anger—if you’re just willing to own them and disclose them in prayer.
I think there are two options with doubt: you can let it become an excuse to stop trying to understand, or you can let it spur on a genuine search for truth. To this day, when I struggle with doubts and confusions at various times (there always seems to be a couple on my plate), I remember that as long as I am genuinely committed to seeking truth—even if I’m not sure on the details yet—then it’s okay. And that commitment has always been met with God’s faithfulness in helping me discover more of God.
If being a “Christian” means having God figured out, I am not a Christian.
Apart from the fact that we never could have God figured out, I’ve still got plenty of issues I struggle to understand (even after seven years of Biblical and theological education). I know I love Jesus, I know Jesus changed my life, I know I want to follow him, but I also know there are lots of things people consider “essential” that I find myself unsure about. Sometimes these things change from season to season, or even day to day. And I have to be reminded: it’s okay not to have it all figured out.
If being a “Christian” means not being with those that the institutional church often excludes, I am not a Christian.
Some of my most treasured moments have been times with people that most Christians would call the worst of the worst. Like one time when I went clubbing while sober with party-going folks and I went outside with a friend—a hopelessly drunk young single mother. As we smoked a cigarette together, I asked her about her daughter and her life, only to comfort her as she broke down crying and told everyone I was an amazing pastor – which, by the way, has never been an official title of mine.
One of my favorite memories is the time I sat with five hippies around a fire at a music festival in Vermont, while they were drinking, smoking (cigarettes and weed), snorting cocaine, and taking tabs of LSD. Partaking only in a beer and cigarette, I shared from my own broken experiences about how Jesus had changed my life, and soon I was affectionately (not sarcastically) called the “preacher man.” And still, I had their love and trust a year later when we sat around the same tent at the same festival.
If being a “Christian” means being good at being a “Christian,” then I am not a Christian.
It took me almost nine years to quit smoking. I went through a period of heavy solo drinking where I thought I was on my way to becoming an alcoholic. I cuss like a sailor with certain groups of people. I’m not sure that any of these acts are sinful in and of themselves. Show me that in the Bible?
But I do think addiction and dependence are way outside of what Jesus wants for his people, and as someone who has gone through and been brought out of both while being in ministry, I know it’s a whole lot more complicated than what I was taught when I was young: “Christians don’t smoke, drink, or cuss.” I’m not proud of some parts of my past, but I’m willing to own all of them.
If being a “Christian” means using only the Bible for my spiritual formation, I am not a Christian.
The Bible has of course been central to the development of my faith, and I am committed to living my life as part of the story of God calling a people for his name and redeeming the broken universe. But I’ve also found tools to help me become a more whole, healthy, integrated, and yes, spiritually mature Jesus follower from plenty of other sources. Not just Christian books and devotionals. I’ve found a lot of wisdom and growth from a multitude of writings in totally different contexts. Having the freedom to do so has really helped me flourish spiritually.
Most recently, I’ve been captivated by the Tao te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of spiritual wisdom that didn’t draw me away from Christ-centered faith, but actually helped me hold onto it. The TTC was never meant to be a religious book anyway, even if some have made it one. So I have had no problem learning from it when so much of what it says lines up with and complements the character of Christ. In fact, I have learned so much of this book that I now run a podcast, “A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching,” that goes through the TTC chapter by chapter with stories and exposition about just how transformative it can be—even (or I might say especially) for Jesus followers.
If being a “Christian” means thinking the United States is a “Christian nation,” I am not a Christian.
This deserves a whole blog series, or a book, or a series of books. Luckily there are plenty of good ones available. Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation is an excellent one. I know lots of Christians who compare the USA to Israel in the Bible, but a much better comparison is that of the Roman Empire. I’ve written a series on Christian Anarchism diving deep into this topic.
Nations can’t be Christian, even if their Constitutions are written by faithful Christians (debatable) and on “Christian principles” – whatever those are supposed to be. Usually those principles don’t have much in common with the Sermon on the Mount, which is the most concentrated collection we have of Jesus’ teachings. This makes perfect sense, since a nation run on those principles would almost instantly collapse considering how they’re structured today. I pledge my allegiance exclusively to the Kingdom of God.
If being a “Christian” means believing everyone who has not accepted Jesus into their hearts is going to be eternally tormented in hell, then I am not a Christian.
I don’t know exactly what I believe about hell, but it isn’t that. In fact, I’m not sure why it ever became an “essential” doctrine of the Church anyway. To that end, I’ve written an article called I don’t believe in hell. Does that mean I’m going there? In no way can I reconcile the heart of God revealed in Jesus with the eternal torment of billions of people who never even had an opportunity to hear about him, much less an opportunity to deny him. And for those who think eternal conscious torment is clearly taught in the Bible, a little digging and reading will show it’s a lot more muddy than that. Sadly, many Christians have made doctrines about hell “essentials” of the Christian faith, as if we get the details of eternal judgment wrong, somehow we are excluded from salvation.
If being a Christian means being resolutely, firmly, and stubbornly committed to the Story of God’s people, along with doing my best to stay faithful to Jesus and figure out what the heck it means to follow him in the midst of this broken world and in spite of all my terrible choices, then I may just be a Christian.
This article originally appeared on Corey Farr’s blog.