First it was the Pope, and now it’s the venerable Max Lucado. Not quite a Pope, but certainly among the more widely respected of contemporary American Protestant Evangelical churchmen, this is what Max Lucado wrote in a recent blog (February 24, 2016) –
As the father of three daughters, I reserved the right to interview their dates. Seemed only fair to me. After all, my wife and I’d spent 16 or 17 years feeding them, dressing them, funding braces, and driving them to volleyball tournaments and piano recitals. A five-minute face-to-face with the guy was a fair expectation. I was entrusting the love of my life to him. For the next few hours, she would be dependent upon his ability to drive a car, avoid the bad crowds, and stay sober. I wanted to know if he could do it. I wanted to know if he was decent.
…The leading candidate to be the next leader of the free world would not pass my decency interview. I’d send him away. I’d tell my daughter to stay home. I wouldn’t entrust her to his care.
I don’t know Mr. Trump. But I’ve been chagrined at his antics. He ridiculed a war hero. He made mockery of a reporter’s menstrual cycle. He made fun of a disabled reporter. He referred to the former first lady, Barbara Bush as “mommy,” and belittled Jeb Bush for bringing her on the campaign trail. He routinely calls people “stupid,” “loser,” and “dummy.” These were not off-line, backstage, overheard, not-to-be-repeated comments. They were publicly and intentionally tweeted, recorded, and presented.
Such insensitivities wouldn’t even be acceptable even for a middle school student body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith? I’m bewildered, both by his behavior and the public’s support of it. (https://maxlucado.com/decency-for-president/)
Explaining what he meant by his blog, Max Lucado told an interviewer from Christianity Today that –
I don’t even put a candidate’s bumper sticker on my car. People don’t attend church to hear my views on a presidential candidate. In this case, it’s not so much a question about particular policies or strategies about government or even particular opinions. It’s a case of public derision of people. It’s belittling people publicly. It would be none of my business, I would have absolutely no right to speak up except that he repeatedly brandishes the Bible and calls himself a Christian.
…It’s a high stakes thing from my perspective because people make decisions about Christ on the basis of Christians and how we behave. If he’s going to call himself a Christian one day and call someone a bimbo the next or make fun of somebody’s menstrual cycle, it’s just beyond reason to me
…There was one occasion he held up a Bible. On another occasion, at Liberty University, he read from Scripture. On multiple occasions he’s said “Of course I’m a Christian.” There was a time in Iowa when he said “I’m a Christian,” and somebody asked about forgiveness and he said “I’ve never asked God for forgiveness.” I can’t imagine that. I’m just shaking my head going “How does that work?” Does a swimmer say “I’ve never gotten wet?” Does a musician say “I’ve never sung a song?” How does a person claim to be a Christian and never need to ask for forgiveness? (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/why-max-lucado-broke-his-political-silence-for-trump.html)
Now, Max Lucado didn’t say that Donald Trump wasn’t a Christian – something that Pope Francis may or may not have said, depending on the vagaries of translation. But both of these Christian leaders raise important questions about what to do with the faith claims of others, especially “public” others who are capitalizing on their faith identities and who display a gap between what they profess to believe and how they behave.
Now, I really like being part of a church that has a simple “Good Confession” and that insists on according to anyone who can publically make it a “Good Faith Assumption.” “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior” is the content of the “Good Confession” that we ask anyone who wants to be part of our church to make. Dr. Hunter Beckelhymer, one of my seminary professors “of blessed memory,” in his very fine essay – “Representative Preaching about Jesus” – in the first volume of the Panel of Scholars Report – The Reformation of Tradition (1963) – explained –
Whatever be our feelings about the faith of our fathers (denominational – Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, et al), and the way they expressed it, they demonstrated that a minimal confession does not mean a minimal faith. …Behind that simple confessional tie, there were Christologies as complicated and as simple, as high and as low, as orthodox and as unorthodox as any in all Christendom. The economy of words carried a wealth of meaning. (96)
Now, we don’t pick and probe at those who make this confession. We don’t ask them to somehow prove it right there on the spot that they “really really” mean what they are saying. There’s no “cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye” kind of sincerity pledge that must accompany this “Good Confession.” If you can make it, then I will embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. That’s it. That’s how it works. Donald Trump has. And so I must. This is what’s meant by the “Good Faith Assumption.”
I learned about this from Karl Barth, the theologian who gave me a place to stand and a way to spiritually survive my seminary days. In the German Introduction to his book Protestant Thought (1959), Karl Barth explained –
I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And if I seriously intend to listen to a theologian of the past – whether it be Schleiermacher or Ritschl or anyone else – then I must take this “I believe” seriously, unless I have been released from this obligation by private inspiration! That is, regardless of my myriad opinions I must include these people in the Christian Church. And in view of the fact that I myself, together with my theological work, belong to the Christian Church solely on the basis of forgiveness, I have no right to deny or even to doubt that they were as fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian Faith. (8)
So, I am simply not in the business of deciding who is a Christian and who is not. God told Samuel when he went looking for the next king of Israel that he would surely be misled if all he was looking at were the externals. “The Lord sees not as man sees,” the Lord told Samuel, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samael 16:7), and because we really can’t get very good access to what’s really going on in another person’s heart, we’ve got to be very careful with our spiritual judgements of them. But this doesn’t mean that we then have to swing wildly to the other side of the road and suffer from what I once heard a family and marriage therapist describe as “the blind and deaf parent syndrome’ – parents who refuse to see what their kids are doing and who refuse to hear what their kids are saying.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, not long after He famously said the words that everybody just loves to quote these days, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1), went on to say, “You will recognize them by their fruits… Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? …A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. …Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16-20). And it’s in-between the “judge not lest ye be judged” and the “by their fruits you will know them” that together with Max Lucado and Pope Francis we’ve all got to make prudential assessments about how thoroughly another person who makes the claim to be a Christian has been grasped by the power of the Gospel.
In I Corinthians 2:6 – 3:4 the Apostle Paul identified three spiritual modes of being: (1) “Natural” people (2:14) – unregenerate men and women who do not accept the things of God; (2) “Spiritual” people (2:15) – regenerate men and women who are being taught the things of God by the Holy Spirit (2:12-13) and who are having the “mind of Christ” formed in them (2:16); and (3) “Fleshly” or “Carnal” Christians (3:3) – regenerate men and women who are stuck in a state of spiritual immaturity (3:1-2). And what was the evidence of their spiritual immaturity? They were “walking like mere human beings” (3:3), unaware and/or unconcerned about living lives “worthy of the calling with which they had been called” (Ephesians 4:1). Paul said that you could look at how they acted and listen to how they spoke and know that Christ who was their Savior was not their Lord (I Corinthians 3:4). +But this experience of the “divided Christ” (A.W. Tozer) is well below the norm of New Testament Christianity. This is why Paul addressed it so forcefully in I Corinthians 3:1-4. He looked at their attitudes and actions and concluded that spiritually the Corinthians were stunted in their growth and limited in their ministry effectiveness because Jesus Christ was not being fully formed in them. It showed, just as Jesus said it would. “You will know them by their fruits.”
I once heard a preacher say that Jesus insists that we all become “fruit inspectors.” We can’t see into another person’s heart, and so we must be very careful about declaring who is “saved” and who is not. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But since what’s in the heart always shows (Matthew 15:18-19), we can and must always be making provisional pastoral assessments of one another’s spiritual maturity, not to become smug and lord it over each other, but rather to become lovingly invested in each other’s lives (Galatians 6:1-5), stimulating one another to grow spiritually through lives of love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25), and seeing to it that no one comes short of the grace of God (Hebrews 12:12-17).
In a political year when the Christian faith of candidates becomes part of their public appeal for votes, it is incumbent on those of us who are Christians, and who vote, to inspect the fruit. An immature Christian may make a very effective President. In fact, there’s abundant evidence from our history that men of dubious personal faith commitments served our national interests with great distinction, I’m thinking of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to name just two. The problem arises when the decision about who you are going to vote for decisively rests on a candidate’s claim of faith. If you are going to vote for somebody just because they say that they are a Christian, then the kind of Christian they are suddenly becomes a relevant consideration.
Max Lucado sees a gap between Donald Trump’s professed Christianity and his personal moral behavior. Pope Francis sees a gap between Donald Trump’s professed Christianity and his position on some social moral issues. This is fair game, it seems to me. These are pastoral observations, the result of their “fruit inspection.” Nobody has the right to say that somebody else is not a Christian if they say that they are, but all of us who say that we are Christians need to know that we are constantly being assessed by unbelievers and fellow believers alike – with Jesus Christ’s full knowledge and complete approval (Matthew 7:15-20; John 13:35; 17:21) – as to the depth and consistency of our Christianity. “The whole world is watching,” and what they see should matter to us as Christians, not just for the decisions that people are making in an election year, but for the decisions that people are making about eternity. DBS+