An editor friend forwarded me an email he'd received. The original sender said he was reading articles about how intertwined Christians are these days with secular politics and found the subject very confusing.
He suggested that somebody ought to explain how to identify a genuine Christian as opposed, I assume, to people only using faith to further their political agenda.
I thought I'd take a stab at that.
Of course people have been trying to define what constitutes a "real" Christian since Christians were first minted back in antiquity. For two millennia, all manner of people have expressed all manner of thoughts on the subject.
So, everything I say here will be contradicted by others. You're not obligated to buy anything I'm about to tell you. I'm not the boss of you.
Some people think being a genuine Christian is about getting baptized into the right denomination.
Others think it's about subscribing to a specific checklist of theological propositions, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection.
Others still think it's about adhering to a strict moral code, forgoing drunkenness, say, or sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
To start this exercise, then, let me state my own working definition of a "real" Christian. To me, the starting point is believing Jesus was and is the Son of God, then swearing allegiance to Him and, finally -- hardest of all -- doing your best to obey His teachings.
I've heard people describe this as being a "Jesus follower," to distinguish it from being a nominal, lukewarm Christian. I've heard some describe themselves as "red-letter Christians," meaning they try to live according to those New Testament passages printed in red ink that are supposedly direct quotes from Jesus.
What might a real Christian, or a Jesus follower, or a red-letter Christian look like?
Well, for one thing, they're never going to be deluded into thinking temporal earthly power, including the political kind, can create God's kingdom. "My kingdom is not of this world, or else my disciples would be fighting," Jesus told Pilate.
A main reason Jesus got crucified is because he thought all this planet's fiefdoms put together didn't amount to squat. He had a bigger agenda: introducing heaven on earth, changing the world through unconditional love. He refused to follow anybody's political agenda. So they killed him.
That's not to say there aren't some wonderful political figures who are simultaneously sincere, humble Christians. I've had the honor of knowing a few, in both parties. But, while they tried to influence the state toward good goals -- honest government, help for the most vulnerable -- they never thought for a minute politics was the answer for the human soul.
Go listen to the late John Prine's "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore." (See: youtube.com/watch?v=sRCLHBhZPQ4.) As far as I'm aware Prine wasn't religious, but this song is about as accurate, and humorous, a take on Jesus' view of mixing faith and politics as you'll find.
They're probably not going to be rich. You'll likelier find Christians of the truer sort among the dispossessed, the poor, the suffering, the unloved. Not so much among the haughty, comfortable and trendy.
"How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," Jesus declared.
"Blessed are the poor," he said. "Blessed are those who mourn."
He spent his time among demon-possessed people and lepers and prostitutes and the hated tax-collectors. He told them they were children of God.
Consequently, that's usually where you'll find his best disciples, too: among those same people. Media mogul Ted Turner once said, dismissively, that Christianity is a religion for losers. He was absolutely correct about that.
They will have developed a bone-deep humility. They recognize that Jesus turned the cosmos on its head. Down is now up. Day is night. Round is square.
The Good News is disorienting. It's paradoxical. The poor are blessed, Jesus said, and the rich are poor. Servants are masters, and leaders must serve.
Others have told you to bless your friends and curse your enemies, he said, but I tell you to love your enemies. It's not enough to abstain from murder, he said, for if you even get angry with someone that's another way of killing him -- so don't be angry. Instead, forgive.
If you're mocked for behaving as I tell you, count it all joy, he said, for it proves how blessed you are.
He laid down a spiritual code that's hard to comprehend, much less obey. Becoming a genuine Christian ain't for the faint-hearted, friends. That's why there are so few of those true disciples around. It's far easier to just throw your lot in with divisive politicians, prigs and cynics.
But anyway, you can easily identify those who've become the "real" Christians by their profound lack of self-regard. They don't judge others' failures because they themselves have failed so regularly for so long. Yet they've received endless mercy from the Lord.
Having required so much mercy, they're happy to show mercy. To everyone.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at