I’m halfway through a book about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. The book is written by a Methodist missionary who lived in India during Gandhi’s lifetime and became good friends with him. It’s obvious that this author loved the man that Gandhi was. At one point in the book the author says, “I bow to Mahatma Gandhi, but I kneel at the feet of Christ and give him my full and final allegiance. And yet a little man, who fought a system in the framework of which I stand, has taught me more of the spirit of Christ than perhaps any other man in East or West.” Before reading this book I read a book about a man who has been beaten, imprisoned, attacked, betrayed, and all around persecuted for proclaiming and following Christ in the Arab world, this man self identifies as a Muslim. A missionary learned about the Spirit of Christ from a Hindu named Gandhi, and a man who calls himself a Muslim is persecuted for telling fellow Arab people about Christ’s love, this definitely made me stop and think. What is a Christian? I’ve come to think that there are two types of Christians, or that the word Christian has two definitions.
Now you must know that this idea is something that I am still trying to understand.
There are Christians who obey Christian customs and traditions. I will call these cultural Christians. Christianity has become heavily identified with the West*, which has caused some blending of Christianity and the culture of Western countries. For example, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ won’t sound as appealing to someone who is not from an individualistic culture, Jesus came to save communities not individuals anyways. Jesus was an Arab man, so I assume the shift of Christianity to being a “Western religion” was set in motion by Roman emperor Constantine. I think the culture that is embodied in most forms of Christianity seems to have very little to do with Jesus the Christ. Some people fit perfectly into this mold of dressing up on Sunday to go sing 3 songs, listen to 30-45 minutes of preaching, 2 more songs, lobby handshakes, Bible devotions and small group during the week, and the Jesus Facebook statues. These are not necessarily bad things, but all of these can be done apart from following Christ. Don’t get me wrong, I have faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah. But the thing is I’m coming to understand more and more that it is in Christ alone. I have heard “in Christ alone” before, but I’m not sure we’ve meant it. It’s Christ alone, not Wesley, not Luther, not Calvin, not Edwards, not even the apostle Paul. It’s Jesus alone who has authority, deserves loyalty, provides grace, and saves people. I fear that the Church I love may be developing eyes that are too small to see the entire world.
I understand a lot of people I’m associated with (myself included) are cultural Christians. I think some people are only cultural Christians, but a lot of us do have deep affection for our Lord. A Christian who truly seeks to submit to the Father by following Jesus by the guidance of the Holy Spirit is what I will call a Christ follower. I think a number of cultural Christians I know are also Christ followers. So, if there are people who are only cultural Christians, people who are cultural Christians & followers of Christ, then can there be people who are not cultural Christians but are still followers of Christ? This is what I have been trying to understand. I think the answer is yes.
“A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Even if a person does not call themselves Christian, yet they sincerely follow Christ, are they not doing his will?
I think this is difficult because we don’t think of these two as separate things a lot of the time, unless we’re calling someone a nominal Christian. But what if there is such a thing as a nominal-less Christian, someone who is Christ-like in all ways except name. I think if we come to understand this better it will open doors into places that are blocked because of one misunderstood word, Christian.
I do not know if Gandhi was a follower of Christ, I never met him. There are a lot of things that make me think he might have been, he said he was attracted to the person of Jesus, he lived in a self-sacrificial way, and he loved in ways very few humans ever have. However, there are things that make me think that the Mahatma may have only been a distant admirer of the Christ.
*I don’t really know why North America, Western Europe, and countries where “civilized” white people live is called “the West”. If you change the orientation of a map, then those countries would be the East. I don’t like the term “the West”, but it communicates the point I’m trying to make.