Are you a Christian just because you say you are? This question was actually at the heart of both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the later eighteenth-century Wesleyan revivals. We sometimes have the mistaken notion that the revivals and awakenings of these amazing chapters in church history were primarily directed to all of the unbelievers in the society who explicitly did not believe in, or follow, Jesus Christ. While this is undoubtedly true for certain groups of people, the far larger groups that were awakened in both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the eighteenth-century Great Awakening already belonged to the church. If asked, they would have considered themselves Christians. It was the genius of the Reformation to join experience, doctrine, and ethics into one seamless message to help people who happened to already belong to the church (and who claimed to be Christians) to actually hear the gospel and become true Christians. The broad road of nominalism is one of the specters that looms over any culture where Christianity is the culturally approved faith.
Now that this is evaporating in the West, we are forced to remember the true nature of Christian identity. The point is this: Being a Christian was specifically tied to real beliefs, historic confessions, and shared ethics that related the believer properly to Jesus Christ. As one early church father rightly commented after the post-Constantine influx of Christians into the church: “You cannot be ‘born’ a Christian, you have to ‘become’ a Christian.”
Various ecclesiastical bodies may disagree on exactly where these lines are drawn, but all churches have the right and responsibility to uphold their own boundaries and, if necessary, exercise church discipline. In fact, when the Reformation was pressed to define the church, they stated that the true church would be marked by three things: the gospel was preached, the sacraments administered, and church discipline was exercised, (See, for example, Belgic Confession, article 29.)
This may seem like a discussion from a distant era, but it all rushed back this week when I read about the dispute between a Christian university in Canada and the Canadian legal system. The dispute involves Redeemer University, which is a private, Christian liberal arts college located in Hamilton, Ontario. It is like hundreds of Christian colleges that are located all across the United States. Like most evangelical colleges across our nation they have an ethos, or community life statement, which provides ethical parameters to the community. Like countless private schools, no one can be admitted into the community unless they agree to abide by these community standards. This has long been a normative and accepted practice for all Christian universities, as well as churches, when they determine whether to admit someone into membership or enroll someone as a student.
However, the Canadian Bar Association is bringing a case against the University for discrimination against LGBTQ students. The statement by Susan Ursel, the lawyer who represents the Canadian Bar Association, is very telling. She said, “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Christian, they’re discriminating against them because they’re LGBTQ by this code of conduct.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Christians, sure, but once you’re inside your Christian community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who are gay or straight. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”
The underlying assumption of the legal statement is that being a Christian is self-defined, i.e. if someone claims to be a Christian, then that person automatically is one, with all the privileges which may come with that identity. Therefore, a Christian university must accommodate that person as a Christian insider. However, the gospel defines the community of those who are called by the name Christian as those who have submitted to his lordship. This is defined historically, through the revelation of the New Testament, the creeds and confessions, the ethical parameters of the faith, and so forth. The New Testament regularly exercised discipline against members who violated the ethical standards of the church (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).
As a community, we must be prepared to counter this post-modern approach, which somehow thinks that even the word “Christian” can be autonomously defined. We must recognize the inherent problem if this line of reasoning is accepted. If, for example, a person employed by Wendy’s were to decide that he or she can autonomously decide what it means to be a “Wendy’s employee” and they, for example, refused to wear a uniform, or thought that it was acceptable to make racial slurs against a customer, we would rightly expect that Wendy’s has the right to “uphold their borders” and apply their own standards to the workplace. They retain the right to define the terms of employment and, from a free speech perspective, no one can be compelled to become a Wendy’s employee. They are free to not accept the terms of employment. This very scenario happened in a McDonalds in 2019. A McDonald’s employee got into an argument with a customer and the employee used a racial slur (which was captured on video). After the incident, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “The disturbance with the customer prompted our management team to call the police right away; and we did an immediate investigation on this matter. This behavior goes against the values and standards that I expect from employees in my restaurants. This employee displayed improper and unacceptable conduct and is no longer with the company.” This has happened hundreds of times across this nation, even including employees who make offensive posts on their private Facebook or Twitter accounts from their own homes.
Let’s take a religious example to drive the point home. If a young man gains entrance into an Orthodox Jewish training program within the Yemenite tradition of Judaism, they are required to maintain a “payot,” which is to allow the lock of hair growing on the sides of their heads to remain uncut. For this religious community, this is an ethical matter that serves as a sign of their obedience to the Torah as well as one of the distinguishing marks which sets them apart as a community from non-Jews. Suppose a young man from this tradition wanted to cut his payot off, yet still insisted that he be granted entrance into a Yemenite training program on the grounds that he was being unfairly discriminated against because he still considered himself a Yemenite Jew. But, is it not the right of the Yemenite community to determine what constitutes the boundaries of that particular community? To illustrate the absurdity of the argument, let’s restate Susan Ursel’s point, but use my example: “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Jewish, they’re discriminating against them because the Yemenite code of conduct forbids them from cutting the sides of their hair.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Jews, sure, but once you’re inside your Jewish community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who wear a payot or not. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”
It should raise serious concerns if a company like McDonald’s is allowed to apply ethical standards in defining someone who is called an “employee of McDonald’s” and yet the church or a Christian university is prohibited from defining who can be a member of their respective communities. Redeemer University has every right to uphold their community life statement as one of the defining parameters of what it means to be a member of the Redeemer University community. In short, Christian identity is both doctrinal and moral. If the Canadian government prevails over Redeemer University, then it will, in effect, be forcing Christians to accept a reductionistic faith which puts our entire identity into the small thimble of privatized beliefs that we are required to keep hidden in our hearts with no public, ethical witness.