What is the hallmark of a true Christian? How do you tell a true church from a false one?
You could ask those questions of a variety of different people and get a variety of different responses back, but most of them would probably centre around one of two things.
Some might point to Bible verses such as John 8:32 where Jesus says:
“…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”
or 1 John 4:6 where John writes:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood
These people might argue that a true Christian or a true church is one that believes the truth about God and Jesus and excludes anything that is false. There are many different church denominations in the world, all of which have a variety of beliefs on certain issues. Some of those issues may seem fundamental and some may seem trivial, but nevertheless each church denomination has its own set of doctrines which it holds to be the truth.
The way to tell which churches or which Christians are true, according to this view, would be to carefully examine what the Bible teaches and then find the churches or Christians who believe that. They are the true ones and those whose doctrines disagree with the Bible are the false ones.
Others would instead point to Bible verses such as Matthew 7:16-17 where Jesus says:
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit”
or Matthew 7:21 where he says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”
These people might argue that a true Christian or a true church is one that lives out in practical ways what Jesus taught, by showing compassion and care to those around them and doesn’t exclude anyone who is in need, regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle choices or standing in society.
The way to tell which churches or which Christians are true, according to this view, would be to examine what Jesus and his apostles taught about the Christian responsibility to care for others, and then find the churches or the Christians who are doing that. They are the true ones and those who don’t practice what they claim to believe are the false ones.
Some Christians take these views to extreme levels, to the point where it almost doesn’t matter how you live your life as long as you stick to an orthodox set of beliefs and lifestyle practices, or on the other side where it almost doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are motivated to respond to the suffering and needs of others.
It seems to me that both of these positions contain truth, but not the whole truth. These two aspects of Christian life must be held in balance. There is little point in believing the truth unless it’s put into practice, but equally there is little point in committing oneself to practical action if there is no conviction about the ultimate goal in sight.
For me there is something even deeper than both. Paul wrote to the church(es) at Corinth:
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13: 2-3)
In other words, if you as a Christian are not motivated by love, it doesn’t matter what you believe and it doesn’t matter how you put it into practice.
A true Christian is someone who is firstly motivated by love for God to listen to what God says and make it the most important thing in your life, regardless of what people around you or society at large are saying, and secondly motivated by love for other people to put those things into practice every day in any way you can, no matter how much it hurts or how unpopular it might make you.
Paul went on to write:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
A Christian faith that is founded on love (for God and for others) is the only way to achieve that essential harmony between rejoicing in the truth and allowing that truth to transform the way you think and behave.