During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump held up a copy of his The Art of the Deal and called it his second favorite book. He told his audience that his favorite book was the Bible. He then said, “I’m a good Christian.” I have to admit that when I heard him make that claim, I wanted to vomit. But his words got me to thinking. For much of church history there have been professed Christians who have condemned other professed Christians for not being “true” Christians. In the past I’ve been very reluctant to claim the right to judge whether someone is a Christian—true or otherwise. But there are times when a line must be drawn. What about Klan members who claim to be Christians but lynch, torture, and burn Blacks? German Christians during the Nazi era who harbored anti-Semitic beliefs and may have even participated in Hitler’s Final Solution? Christians on both sides of the war in Bosnia who committed unspeakable atrocities against each other? South American dictators who kill innocent peasants but who also take their newborns for baptism in Christian cathedrals? What about Christians whose words, actions, and example in no way whatsoever reflect the teachings, life, and example of the One they call Lord? Are they Christians? Are they “good” Christians?
Frequently people conclude from Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged” that we are never to judge any person. But Jesus also said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” I would assume that he realized an evaluation of another person’s life and deeds (their “fruits”) was, in fact, a kind of judgment. We make judgments every time we choose one way of living over other ways—every time we witness acts of others and choose not to emulate their choices in our own lives. For example, my decision never to use the “n” word is a judgment on those who do use that despicable term. We judge every day of our lives.
Jesus’ words about judgment must be seen in the larger context of a specific portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Here is the passage from which these words come:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother or sister’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly how to take the speck out of your brother or sister’s eye. Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.(Matthew 7:1-6)
Jesus is warning his followers about the sin of hypocrisy. If we judge people for the same faults we have and for the same sins we commit, we are hypocrites (or perhaps better translated, “charlatans”). Our nation recently saw another religious example of such hypocrisy. Jerry Falwell, Jr. (who has been so quick to condemn the lgbtq community and anyone who commits improper sexual acts according to his narrow opinion) was caught in a totally inappropriate situation. (I wonder how many more of these fallen evangelists we must suffer before enough Evangelicals who support these charlatans will see the light!)
It is the arrogance of hypocrisy which constitutes the warning Jesus gave his followers. The very next verses regarding “dogs” and “swine” (neither of which is a flattering image of humans) indicate that he expected his followers to make judgments regarding others. Without those judgments, we can become seduced, abused, or even destroyed. I would suggest Jesus is telling his followers that they must be pure in heart and humble about their own lives and faith before they judge others. We must clean up our own act before we dare to try to judge and reform others. But does all this mean that we have the right to decide if someone is a Christian?
Maybe the following question will help: Is there a difference between judging whether someone is a Christian and judging whether one’s words and actions are Christian? I suggest there is a profound distinction between these two choices. All Christians (whether they will admit it or not) say and do unchristian things. It’s called sin, and according to Paul we are all sinners: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” If we follow Jesus’ teaching in the passage above, we may all profit from the judgments of others if those others are pure in heart and are acting from a place of humility and love. Such judging is a part of “speaking the truth in love,” a practice most of us are afraid to embrace.
But what happens when there is nothing about someone claiming to be a good Christian which reflects the example and teachings of our Lord? Dare we question that person’s identity as a Christian? I would suggest that such judgment must be left to God. We often do not even know all that is in our own hearts, much less what is in the hearts of others. But we can determine whether what one says and does is Christian. All we have to do is compare those words and deeds to the example of Christ.
I would suggest that none of the racism, lying, scapegoating, persecuting immigrants to the point of tearing infants from their mothers’ arms and putting those babies in cages, labeling Klan members and neo-Nazis as “good” people, and pandering to the fears and prejudices of one’s followers and inciting them to violence is Christian. Whether Donald Trump is a Christian is a question that is between him and God. But I have to wonder how far one can go from Christ’s example and still claim that identity. I hope at some point Trump asks that question of himself for all of our sakes.