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What Makes a Christian

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Yesterday, Pope Francis questioned whether or not Donald Trump is a Christian.

The pope said, a "person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt."

A number of my friends, none of whom are Trump supporters, and a few of whom are Christian themselves, took offense at the Pope's statement. One of them said it would have been okay for the Pope to call Mr Trump to discuss the issue privately, with which I agree. And one said it was fair to question how Mr Trump was living his faith, but that the Pope crossed the line by saying Mr. Trump is not Christian.

Before I respond, let me state a few things.

First, I know and love many, many people who are not Christian. If I were to say someone is not Christian, I am not trying to impugn their character. I am observing that they do not practice the faith.

Second, I do not believe that the only people who are Christians are those who agree with me. There are many different ways of being Christian, but all of them involve practicing the faith.

Third, I would never claim that someone is beyond the reach of God's saving love. So pondering whether or not someone is a Christian is not a statement about whether or not God loves them. If God loves me, I trust God also loves Pope Francis and Donald Trump. It is way above my pay grade to concern myself with anyone else's salvation. And I have "good hope for all", as the 2nd Helvetic Confession reminds us to. (It's in Chapter X).

So, for the Pope to say that Donald Trump is not a Christian is to observe that it is hard to see, in what he says or does, much that resembles either Christian belief or Christian practice.

He did attend a Presbyterian Church in Iowa in the days before the Iowa Caucus, but he is not a member of a church. He does not regularly attend church. He does not seem to know the practices of the church of which he claims to be a member.

He also doesn't seem to know the broad theology of Christian faith.

Forgiveness, for example is an essential part of both Christian practice and belief. The Apostles Creed, a document very important to the Presbyterian Church of which Trump claims to be a part, speaks of forgiveness.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Anyone, Christian or not, can read our confessions at this link. Confession of sin and the seeking of forgiveness, are essential parts of a Presbyterian worship service, and it speaks to the truth that there is a God, and we are not that God. We err. We make mistakes. We hurt the people we love. We do what we ought not do and we do not do what we ought to do.

Here is what Mr Trump said about why he has not asked God for forgiveness.

"I like to be good. I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad."

Now, that is a perfectly acceptable thing to say. Unless you're claiming you're a Christian who acknowledges the sinfulness of humanity and proclaims the value of seeking the forgiveness of sins.

There are hundreds of passages in Scripture that speak about our duty to care for the poor, the orphans, the widows, the foreigners in our midst, the children, and pretty much any other category of people who face judgment, ostracism, and danger.

Mr. Trump wants to build a wall to keep many of those people out of our country. Which is a perfectly acceptable thing to say. Unless you're claiming you're a christian who values the lessons of Scripture.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 says, "For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Again, if you don't want to be a Christian, that's great. Go be a good atheist, or "none", or follower of another religious tradition. There are lots of ways to be good in this world.

I don't believe there are any perfect Christians. Everyone falls short at some point (see above "forgiveness"). But the reason we keep going to church is because we realize that Christian faith is a practice, something we keep working at. I'm a pastor and every single time I read the Bible I learn something new. Every time.

So if Mr Trump would like religious leaders like the Pope to stop questioning his faith, perhaps he might start living it out in ways that are visible to people. Perhaps he might start listening to his own words when he insults people, degrades entire ethnic groups, dismisses women, speaks against the poor, and then wonder how his words match the creeds of his faith.

Jesus, before he died, told his disciples this:

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)

How are we loving one another?

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