The Mark of a Christian (2022)
We live in a time of deeply contentious disagreements over a number of things, but most are political in nature or over things that, while not overtly political, have been politicized. When we disagree with each other, we have two choices: we can retain the ultimate mark of Christianhood, or we can abandon it and betray it.
In the biography of Jesus written by John, we have the poignant last words and prayers of Jesus to his disciples before his death on the cross. It is considered by many to be one of the most moving sections of the New Testament.
So what occupied Jesus during the moments before his death?
No wonder he wanted the world to know that his death was a sacrifice – that he gave his life for theirs, paid the price for their sins and offered his death as a gift so they could receive the forgiveness and enter into life. a full and intimate relationship with God the Father.
But how would that be?
How would people know, without a doubt, that what Jesus offered came from God? How would they know that Jesus Himself was God the Son in human form, who came to planet Earth to show the way? How would it be authenticated in a way that would be unequivocal and compel people to heed it?
Most would say, “The Resurrection,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not what Jesus suggested the night before he died. He said one thing, and only one, would confirm all of this to a watching world:
Loving unity among His followers.
And to lead this house, he first commanded it (John 15:9-12), then prayed specifically for it (John 17:20-21). For Jesus, the observable love between those who called themselves his disciples was everything. It would be this unity that would attract the attention of the world and confirm that He came from the Father.
We often marvel at the growth of the early Church – the explosion of faith in Christ in such numbers and at such speed that in the twinkling of history the Roman Empire officially passed from paganism to Christianity. We are looking for formulas and programs, services and processes. The simple truth is that they fleshed out Jesus’ challenge and prayer. As the second-century writer Tertullian noted, the impressed pagan reaction to Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”
When the Bible speaks of such unity of love, it does not mean uniformity, that is, everyone looks and thinks alike. And the biblical idea of unity should certainly not be confused with unanimity, which is complete agreement on every minor issue at all levels. By unity the Bible means first and foremost a unity of heart – a relational unity.
It involves being kind to each other, gracious to each other, forgiving each other – without imagining the worst, shooting the wounded or being quick to be suspicious. Biblical unity is about overcoming conflict, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit.
Such unity and such love, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, is the “mark of the Christian”. Not just a feeling of love or an acknowledgment of love, but rather a expression of love. And that’s the litmus test that Jesus gave the world to know if we really reflect him.
As Schaeffer wrote:
“Jesus gives the world a right. On his authority, he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians based on our observable love for all Christians.
“It’s pretty scary. Jesus turns to the world and says, “I have something to tell you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you can judge whether an individual is a Christian or not on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.
Schaeffer then added that the world cares little for doctrine. That the only thing that will hold the attention of a world that has disavowed the very idea of truth is “the love that true Christians show for one another and not just for their own party.”
By party, Schaeffer meant any segment of the Christian faith you might belong to, such as a Baptist or a Presbyterian. And these divisions can run deep. But this is not where love and Christian unity are most violated today. It is the observable unity and love between Christians despite political divisions.
At this moment in history, we can either be a shining light to the world – another example of how the Christian faith creates radical community even in the midst of honest disagreement – or we can allow our faith to to be cast aside in the name of politics and therefore unloving attitudes and words cause a stench that the world can smell and destroys our testimony before a watching world.
So why is it so bad right now? What’s going on with us? Why are so many Christians behaving so badly, in ways that are no better than non-Christians, if not worse?
Two reasons come to mind.
The first is that we don’t know how to pleasantly disagree with someone. We only know how to indulge, demonize, belittle, belittle, cancel. We don’t even try to sympathize with others, enter into understanding, or put love before opinions. We can barely treat them with basic human dignity.
In other words, we only know one way to disagree: to wage war.
As Robert Morris wrote, to choose war is to set someone else apart as an enemy, often through a process of disrespect and dehumanization. And we love war! Being at war and having enemies can be exhilarating. It brings a sense of moral clarity and purpose in life. The trick is that when you demonize your opponents so much, especially when they are fellow Christians, you don’t have to think of them as Christians at all. You simply relegate them to a sub-Christian level and absolve yourself of any responsibility for civility, let alone charity.
Which leads to another reason why this happens:
We stopped seeing it as a sin.
Whether on blogs or chat rooms, on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, we spit the most caustic and petty words, actions and attitudes as if they were not objectionable before heaven. But they are. According to Jesus, and throughout the New Testament, this is equated with second degree murder (Matthew 5:21-22; James 3:5-10).
The one thing we must not do as followers of Christ is engage in partisan bickering in such a way that we put party before faith. We are not primarily Republicans or Democrats. We are first and foremost disciples of Christ. And as followers of Christ, we must bear the mark of our Savior.
And the mark of a Christian is love. This means that we see our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of party or position, as our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the way we should interact and engage should be the way a healthy, loving, functioning family should interact and engage.
One of the stories that surfaced around the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her deep friendship with another Supreme Court Justice who died before her, Antonin Scalia. You couldn’t imagine two people more politically distant. However, the icon on the left and the icon on the right were extremely close.
They went to the opera together.
Their families spent Christmas Eve together.
And while vacationing with their families, they even rode elephants together in India.
No, it’s not Photoshopped.
It’s Scalia and Ginsburg.
A little-known story is that Scalia once bought Ginsburg two dozen roses for her birthday. One of her clerks, knowing how divided they were on countless court cases and that she had never given him the vote he needed on a 5-4 decision of any significance, asked him why he had done it. Scalia simply said, “Some things are more important than votes.”
Yes they are.
To claim the relational unity that we are called to demonstrate before a watching world, we must have an underlying trust of our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we can find that, we’ll flesh out the only true, real mark of Christian faith that Jesus said would be the only thing that would hold the attention of the world and prove that what He came to establish was real. And this mark has been and always will be,
James Emery White
Tertullian’s Apology, AD 197.
Francois Schaeffer, the Mark of the Christian.
Robert Corin Morris, “Christians Fight – Again,” weavingsVolume XXII, Number 2, March/April 2007.
Jennifer Senior, “The Ginsburg-Scalia Act Wasn’t a Prank”, The New York TimesSeptember 22, 2020, read online.
This blog was first published in 2020. The Church and Culture team thought you might like to read it again.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.