I Am Not a “Person of Faith”

by Thomas Hersman

Call me a Bible-thumper. Call me a Holly Roller. Call me a Jesus Freak if it makes you feel better. Just don’t call me a “person of faith.” Every time I hear that label, I cringe. I know it’s not meant to be derogatory. It’s a convenient way for pop culture to lump together all religious traditions while remaining all-inclusive, non-sectarian, and ostensibly non-critical. Yet, I can’t be too hard on outsiders when some of us Christians use the term ourselves, selecting it from the cache of euphemisms that make us feel more spiritually hip. It’s popularity aside, there are some very good reasons to reconsider whether we are indeed “people of faith.”

Applying “person of faith” to a Christian suggests that faith is the defining characteristic of Christianity. That isn’t the case at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Surely we can all see that the scope of a Christian’s faith is actually very limited. Exclusivity is built in, and faith is not our default setting. The fact that we have faith in Christ should not mean that we are more likely to have faith in any other person, thing, or idea. Judging from the slew of religiously charged hoaxes circulating on social media, perhaps we didn’t get the memo.

Every passage of Scripture that praises and encourages faith clearly indicates that the faith must be in the God of Scripture. Without that context, a passage such as Luke 17:19 (Where Jesus tells a man that his faith has healed him) appears to say something altogether different than what the author intended. It wasn’t faith as a standalone virtue that healed him. It was Jesus. Jesus healed him because of his faith in the God of Scripture. Playing to our culture’s weakness towards over-inclusiveness and unity, we’ve made simply having faith more important than the person in whom that faith is placed. At some point we concluded that if all religions have faith, but they disagree on who the faith should be in, at least we can all agree that any faith is preferable to lack of faith. But, that idea is not only unbiblical and irrational, it is incredibly foolhardy. If I am in a sinking ship, and my nondescript faith in abstract karma convinces me that everything will turn out okay, so I don’t get into a lifeboat, my faith may very well get me killed for no good reason. Faith without a reliable object is nothing but wishful thinking.

When faith is separated from a reliable object, it becomes a quasi-magical, mystical power that we attempt to conjure up in our own psyche. This pop-culture view of faith is often at odds with objective truth, and results in the Miracle on 34th Street model. We all join the child Susan as she says over and over, “I believe, I believe, even though it doesn’t make sense, I believe.” It’s all about cultivating the right feelings and suppressing any opposing ones, so that Santa Clause gives you miracles, healing, money, or whatever you want – the sky is the limit.

We must understand that Biblical faith is based in truth, and not merely feeling or attitude. To clarify and demystify faith, I prefer to say that faith is a personal trust based upon what we know, that extends beyond what we can personally verify. It is a familiar part of human experience. My wife tells me that she loves me. I can’t test for love. While it is possible that she has some secret agenda that she has hidden for the past 11 years, everything I know about her indicates that she is telling the truth. It is perfectly reasonable to trust that her love is genuine. However, if she cut my brake lines on Monday, put arsenic in my coffee on Tuesday, and I woke up to her trying to put a pillow over my head on Wednesday night, nothing I feel toward her would make it reasonable to believe that she loves me. Similarly, our faith in Christ has a basis in things that are tangible, real, and testable, such as the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15) and other historical evidence, evidence from the natural world (Psalm 8), and rational consideration. Upon a foundation of what we know to be true, our faith takes us to “assurance of things that we hope for and evidence of the unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Since we know who God is, and that He has both the power and reliability to perform what He has promised, we have faith in things that cannot be examined, such as life after death.

Another consideration is this: If only the religious are people of faith, then it makes sense that some people (such as atheists or agnostics) successfully reject all faith in favor of what they know through their senses, but everyone has faith in something. Faith is a necessary part of human existence because we all have limited knowledge and limited senses. Only faith allows a person to observe small, limited changes in life forms and conclude that this method generated all life from single cells to humanity. Faith compels a person to believe that reality is limited to experience through the senses, when reason says this is not necessarily the case. Finally, if I believe that my intellect evolved to help me survive, yet I trust it to reveal truth, it must be faith that brings me to that conclusion. None of these beliefs can be established by simple experience and reason, they require faith to take the final step. Everyone has faith. What sets Christians apart is not their faith, but the One in whom their faith is placed.

Christians are not “people of faith.” We are people of faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s not cheapen the Gospel by burying it in a sea of dead religion, and empty faith, as if Christianity were simply just a face in the crowd of religions. Not when souls are at stake. I say that we take every possible opportunity to correct this misnomer and challenge others to see that we are not people of faith. We possess faith – in the one true God.

Christians, we are Victors, Not Victims

As I write this, #DayOfSilence is trending on social media. Created by the LGBT advancement organization GLSEN, it’s a day for young people to take a vow of silence at school in protest of “anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment.” Ironically, Christian young people across the nation face name-calling, bullying, and harassment, every day, without press and media coverage bringing attention to their plight. Sometimes it seems that with every call for tolerance secular culture sends out, the individual Christian living out his faith is finding less tolerance, and dimmer prospects for freedom in the future. However, if you expect me to spend the rest of this post bellyaching, then I must disappoint you. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Scripture warns that anyone living God’s way should expect resistance. (2 Tim. 3:12) In fact almost every other generation and nationality of believers could tell us to join the club. Nothing we face approaches the daily reality for Christians in North Korea and the Muslim world. Regardless, it seems that the tendency is for American Christians (who previously enjoyed such an extended reprieve from serious persecution) to either lash out, or to adopt a victim mentality.

Matthew 5:11 tells us that we are blessed to take our place as persecuted believers. Not because we get any enjoyment out of suffering, but because God uses the difficult circumstances of persecution for His own Glory. All of that goes out the window, however, if in frustration we lower ourselves to the same tactics that the secular world uses against us. That is the other part of Matthew 5:11. The blessing comes only if we suffer for Christ’s sake and the evil spoken against us is false. As odd as it may sound, on one issue I am on the same page as the activists that seek to end bullying. I have heard far too many Christians use language that could only be intended to offend and tear down. It is not our job as believers to voice our own personal disgust or disapproval to unbelievers. Sinners sin. That’s what they do. It shouldn’t surprise us. It shouldn’t surprise us that sinners retreat from God’s laws. We did too. Our sins were and are every bit as real as theirs, and but for the grace of God we would be in the same condition. Colossians 4:5-6 tells us to be wise in our encounters with unbelievers, and to make the best use of our opportunities, with speech that is “seasoned with salt.” That is language that is “savory,” or well thought out, and carefully chosen. It doesn’t mean sugar coating the truth, or denying the consequences of sin. It does mean that everything we say and do serves the purposes of God’s kingdom, and that we aren’t creating occasion to be misunderstood through clumsy, aggressive, or spiteful language. Sometimes it means overlooking a personal slight or forfeiting an opportunity to assert our individual rights, when doing so would not be in the best interests of God’s kingdom. Furthermore, we can and should engage in the political process as individuals and support leaders that will protect and defend us, but only while remembering that our citizenship here is merely temporary, and while keeping the big picture of God’s glory in mind.

The current trends seem to indicate that persecution is probably going to increase in America. Perhaps it won’t be as intense as persecution found in other parts of the world, but in my opinion, we are going to increasingly discover that living according to the principles of God’s Word puts us at odds with political power. That knowledge can inspire a fatalistic attitude, or perhaps because we live in a culture where nothing is quite as personally validating as the ability to claim the victim label, it means asserting the coveted title of disenfranchised minority. The truth is that genuine Christians have been victimized through all of history. From the beginning we’ve been tortured, hung, burned, beheaded, fed to wild animals, and dismembered for sport. Even now, our brothers and sisters are enduring similar things, while much of the world turns a blind eye. But we are not victims. We are more than conquerors. Not in the sense that eventually we will turn things around for a big political win. That’s not how we measure success. We will continue to bear the name of Christ in the tradition of those who have gone before, the faithful martyrs who burned in Nero’s gardens, who defied kings to translate the Bible to the common language, who were slaughtered for hiding Jews from the Nazis, who died spreading the Gospel behind the Iron Curtain, and who today face unspeakable atrocities under totalitarian regimes. The success of the church is not counted in its ability to win elections, reverse bad laws, or defeat cultural enemies. Success is maintaining the integrity of our conduct and beliefs regardless of tremendously difficult circumstances. Success is looking into the eyes of those who hate you so much because of the Name you bear, that they will imprison, impoverish, and even execute you, and saying “I love you, God loves you, and if this is what it takes for you to see the power of His love, then I hope to count you my brother or sister in this life or the next.” No, we are not victims. We will bear that witness in defiance of evil and for the Glory of our Risen Lord to the fires of our own martyrdom if necessary and to the very end of the age. We can, because we walk in the company of the One who has promised to be with us the entire way.

See? It’s a tough pill, and a tall order. Even as I write, I see how easy it is to say and how hard it is to live, and I am humbled by my own imperfection and inadequacy. Join with me, please. Let us pray for, and pursue, the purity of heart and action and the singular focus upon Christ that will make this idea a reality in our lives.

The Myth of the “Head Christian”

by: Thomas Hersman

I’ve been called a “head Christian.” I don’t know if you have heard this expression, but before you have a chance to get the wrong idea, let me explain. No, it’s not some sort of rare mental disorder. In certain corners of Evangelical Christendom, it describes a person who one perceives to be guilty of over-thinking his Christian beliefs, or leaning too heavily upon rational processes. As you might imagine, given the fact that I spend a great deal of time discussing the rational underpinnings of Christian belief, I’ve come across it a time or two – or two thousand.

I present for your consideration this premise: The head Christian is a Myth – like big Foot, or a tasty veggie burger. In its most innocent form, the head Christian label might describe someone who knows and perhaps claims to believe basic Christian doctrine, but stops short of making an actual commitment to Christ. It assumes a dualistic tension between the rational or intellectual part of an individual, and the emotions or heart. The common notion is that the heart must be engaged for genuine salvation to take place, but the intellect is to various degrees less important, and may actually get in the way.  Due to deeply ingrained attitudes in the church, this seems almost intuitively true, but at best it’s a mischaracterization. At worse, the head Christian charge has a darker side as a justification for elevating feeling over careful thought and consideration.

The first step in our consideration of the idea of a Head Christian is to see what Scripture says. Is the dichotomy of a head vs. heart Christian found in the Bible? When Christ commands us to us to love God with the heart (cardia), soul (psyche), and mind (dianoia), (Matt. 22:37), we are tempted to read it in terms of emotions, intellect, and spirit. In modern usage, the term “heart” is almost synonymous with emotions, and that fits our preconception of the heart/mind conflict. In Scripture, the term heart (cardia), overlaps emotions and intellect. It is the seat of our deepest passions, and the innermost part of us that drives our behavior. Soul references life and consciousness, and Mind references our entire thought life, rational and otherwise. In this passage emotions and feelings aren’t even addressed separately, perhaps because they are moving targets that are just as easily swayed by hormones or heartburn as they are by anything objectively real. The focus of this verse, and the theme in all of Scripture is that a person should love God to his very core in such a way that it motivates him to a particular way of living. Romans 10:9 tells us that to be saved, we must “believe in [our] heart.” Believe is another term that has been corrupted with emotionalism, but in Greek it is the word pisteuo, which means to be thoroughly convinced. Belief in Scripture is mostly unconnected to emotions. We have come to think that “believing in your heart” means to feel strongly about something, but in Scripture, it means to be so convinced that something is true that it invades the deepest part of you, altering your motives and actions. Salvation starts not with a feeling that we have, but with our internalization of the truth that Christ is God, and risen from the dead. Simply put, the anchor of our relationship to Christ is what we know in our minds, not what we feel with our emotions.

That raises a question. Can that process stop with the head? Can a person believe, but not commit? Human nature informs us to the contrary. The heart always follows the head. We can be confused about this because there is “I believe,” and there is “I BELIEVE.” It’s like the period of childhood where you began to see that the whole Santa Clause thing wasn’t adding up. Yeah, you played along for a year or two because it was fun, and there were presents involved, but you wouldn’t have bet your baseball card collection on it. Our culture allows us to say we believe anything without being challenged to rationally defend or live by those beliefs. However, the things that we genuinely believe drive our actions and judgement. A person that truly believes the Christ is the Lord of the Universe will be transformed to the core by that knowledge.

The problem is that many Christians, (May I be so bold as to say most?) in western society have laid emotions as the true foundation of their relationship with God, both as the assurance of their own Salvation, and as the determiner of doctrine and life choices. It is because of this attitude that the head Christian charge has found such utility. Ask someone how they know they are saved, that God is real, the Bible is true, or that Mormonism is a heretical doctrine, and you will just as likely get some version of the “I feel it” answer in place of an “I know it’s true, and here is why…” answer. Chalk it up to laziness or convenience, but one assertion of feeling trumps the best researched and constructed argument. The results of that attitude are devastating. First and foremost, the feelings Christian is incredibly vulnerable to heretical beliefs. It should come as no surprise that every heretic from Joel Osteen to Joseph Smith relies upon emotions much more than intellect to capture victims. It is sobering to think that temples to countless false doctrines are packed with “heart (emotions) Christians,” that feel like they are on the right spiritual course, but are headed to an eternity without God.

However, the cost of emotions-based Christianity is not just all out heresy, but thousands of inferior ideas, beliefs, and practices that harm the effectiveness of the church by diverting believer’s attentions and resources. Many Christians have grown up under the misconception that the Holy Spirit communicates mainly by feeling, and thus follow their own feelings in a giant self-guided circle like a dog chasing its tail. However, all that the Holy Spirit has to communicate about most things can be found in the pages of Scripture, if they would just pick it up, read it, and apply it with some sound Biblical reasoning. While the communication of the Holy Spirit is a mystery that I can never fully understand or explain, I can say with certainty that everything He communicates will harmonize rationally with the truth already provided in the pages of Scripture. Unfortunately, the emotional Christian is generally ill-equipped to see conflicts with Scripture when they arise, and will default to what they feel God is telling them. That, of course, is just another way of saying what feels right to me.

In reality, there are not “heart Christians” and “head Christians.” To be a Christian we must allow the knowledge of who God is to penetrate to our very core, to permeate are entire being, body, soul, and mind, and to fundamentally transform who we are. However, if I must, I will gladly wear the term “head Christian.” I am a “head Christian,” and a “heart Christian,” but in reality, just a Christian. On good days I feel it. Always, I know it.

“You Be The Judge”

by Thomas Hersman

There is no Scripture verse more misunderstood and misapplied in popular culture than Matthew 7’s command to “Judge Not.” People who don’t know a hermeneutic from Herman Munster carry this passage loaded and ready to fire at the first opportunity. Uttering the phrase “Don’t judge me,” deploys an instant bullet-proof dome of deflection around one’s life choices. Sadly, it’s an error that manifests just as commonly inside the church. I suggest that we return to what Scripture actually says, instead of relying upon the kitschy, catch-all slogan that is so prevalent. To begin, let’s recognize that Matthew 7 is only one of a number of places where Scripture addresses the issue of passing judgement. Ideally, a thorough consideration of all these passages would follow, but I don’t have the space here for the volumes that could be written, and you probably don’t have the time to read it. Instead, here are some simple observations to get you thinking, and I will leave you to follow up in your own Bible study.

Observation 1: Most of us have the wrong definition of “judging.”

We often think of judging as it relates to our feelings (e.g., I feel judged). However, the original Greek word has a precise meaning that is evident from the way that it is used throughout in Scripture. Judging a person means to adopt the posture or attitude of a ruler who determines guilt and pronounces a sentence. This is not the same as simply observing how another person’s actions line up to moral law. For example, if you saw me run a red light, you could rightfully observe that I ought not to do such things, and perhaps suggest to me that I consider making a better choice. You can’t, however, pull me out of my car, slap handcuffs on me and incarcerate me in your garage. That is not your role. God is the judge of individuals. We leave that to Him, but we must all make judgements about what is right, wrong, true, and false, for our benefit and for the benefit of those under our influence.

Observation 2: Matthew 7 is more about hypocrisy than it is about judging.

This theme is so obvious in Scripture that it practically slaps us in the face when we read the entire context of the relevant passages. The focus of Matthew 7:1-5, which is even more clearly emphasized in Luke 6:37 – 42 and Romans 2:1–5, is that we cannot hold others to a standard that we blatantly disregard ourselves. This is not… not… Christ saying that since no one is perfect, we can’t say that anyone or anything is wrong. While Scripture condemns hypocrisy in many places, it never once allows a person to justify his own sin by pointing out another’s hypocrisy. The big idea is simply that if we deny others grace, mercy, and forgiveness, God will withhold those things from us. Furthermore, we cannot presume to become spiritual guides for others while living in blatant disobedience to God’s rules.

Observation 3: The body of believers must hold its members accountable to God’s rules.

The moment you become a believer, you give fellow believers the (limited) right to be in your business. It doesn’t flow well with American Christianity’s unhealthy tendency toward rogue individualism, but Matthew 18, Galatians 6, and 1 Corinthians 5, all affirm this inter-accountability. That relationship should come with the understanding that God makes the rules, not man. Therefore, we can’t fill in the blanks on issues of practice or methodology where Scripture gives us no specific guidance (Col 2:16–23), and where a person’s individual heart condition is a major determining factor. (1 Cor 4:5) However, the church has the responsibility to eject from the body, anyone who claims the name of Christ, but persists in unrepentant grievous sin. (1 Cor 5:9–13) That may seem judgmental to popular culture, but it is a necessary final option to preserve the witness of the church, prevent the spread of immorality, and to encourage repentance for the wayward brother or sister.

Observation 4: The church’s goal with unbelievers is salvation, not behavior modification.

While the Church is commanded to hold itself accountable, Scripture tells us that God judges those on the outside. (1 Cor. 5:12–13) What that means for us may not appear obvious, but we can look to Christ’s example, because, though He is the rightful judge, he postponed that role during His time on earth. (John 12:44–48)  Christ didn’t ignore sin, but everything He said and did was for the express purpose of drawing the lost into a saving relationship with Himself. One of the greatest examples of this is His interaction with the Woman at the Well. He dealt honestly with the woman’s sin, but did so in a way that drew her to discover Him. (John 4) To refrain from judging the lost, I believe, means making sure that everything we do has the overpowering focus of communicating the Good News that though sin has corrupted us all, redemption comes through Christ. Never are we to find self-righteous gratification in pointing out another’s sin, nor should we be preoccupied with voicing disgust and disapproval towards unbelievers.

The ugly side of the “don’t judge me” error is an attitude in the church that destroys accountability, tolerates sin, and prevents careful and thoughtful consideration of actions and consequences. Even in issues where the final verdict depends upon our relationship to Christ, we are still accountable to make wise decisions. Too often, we assume that if Scripture doesn’t spell out a hard and fast rule, we can do whatever we want, and no one else can say a thing. Not only is that a misinterpretation of Scripture, it is incredibly foolish. Scripture tells us that even on debatable issues, we have the responsibility to be completely convinced that we are making the right choice. (Rom. 14:5) Though God will make the final call, reading the condition of our heart, He will still hold us accountable for how we exercise wisdom and discernment. Thus, it is prudent to surround ourselves with people who will ask hard questions in a non-judgmental way.

Our culture, even the church, suffers from a lack of good judgement. One of the great functions of our God-given reasoning ability is that we get to observe other people’s ideas and actions for their own merits and learn from them. We can do that without forming an opinion about the person, understanding that even good people can be gravely mistaken. However, there are times when we have to judge another person’s character, and when appropriate, the quality of their walk with God. (That is why we are given extensive guidelines in places like I Tim. 3:1-13) It is scarily foolish to think that, out of a misconstrued idea of what it means to be non-judgmental, citizens voting on a leader, a young person deciding upon a possible spouse, or a ministry choosing its management should refrain from weighing the evidence from a person’s life to determine if they have the qualities needed for these roles. Even while leaving the question of a person’s final eternal destiny up to God, we must still make these judgements.

It’s time to correct our misunderstanding of what it means to judge, and it us up to us to challenge others with the truth of what Scripture actually says on the topic, without being judgmental, of course.