One time in a church I was visiting I heard a sermon which burdened my soul, and not in a good way. Now, I’m fully in favor of being challenged in church. To have the mirror of God’s Word reflect truth into my heart and examine the length, breadth, and width yet to fill. But there is also a virus of elitism in the history of the Christian faith, which can make us feel special instead of encouraging us upwards.
The whole vibe of the sermon went like this – We are God’s Special Forces. We are the remnant of faith in a corrupt and hell-bound world. We are God’s special ones. We are the sheep, not goats. We are on the right path and not like those “nominal” Christians over there. And one more thing – for all those on the outside, those unsaved and “nominal” Christians – “Jesus is not their friend; He is their judge.” You get the picture. Seeds of truth covered with the poison of judgementalism and elitism.
What burned me the most was the misuse of the word “nominal,” and the judgmentalism it reinforced. In one sense of the word nominal does mean “in name only.” A figurehead leader without any real power is a nominal leader. But the predominate use and meaning is “less than” or “a little bit.” As in – this pipe is nominally larger than the specification. This football player only has nominal skills. It doesn’t mean “zero,” it means “less than.” So, while there have been and are “Christians in name only,” is that really for us to judge? Those of the elite remnant will say, of course, we can. I’m not so sure.
You see, when I look at myself. When I truly look into my soul, I recognize that I am nominal, I am less than when compared to Christ. I am, therefore, a nominal Christian.
Those of God’s elite forces miss something. Jesus was most angry with those who thought they had it all together. The self-righteous religious leaders that had it all figured out. Jesus welcomed the sinner, the tax-collector, and ate with the rejected and those counted as “nominal” in His day. But He was forceful with those who strained out gnats of imperfections (Matthew 23:24). There is perhaps one incident that should always steer us away from condemning the faith of others.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He (Jesus) was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went on to another village.” (Luke 9:51–56, NASB95)
These were not nominal Jewish folk but the hated and mutually despised Samaritans. Perhaps for all their childhood James and John had heard about the wrongheaded destined for hell Samaritans. And then the Samaritans disrespected Jesus – how dare they – let’s call fire down and purge them from the earth. Perhaps they did deserve a little heat, but Jesus made this very clear – “You don’t know what kind of spirit you are of; I didn’t come to destroy lives, but to save them.”
Now, some may point out that Jesus’ words are not in the earlier dated manuscripts of this passage. Perhaps, but it does sound like Jesus. Consider these. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10, NASB95) “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, NASB95) And, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:17, NASB95) So, even if the text is suspect the sentiment is not. After all, the part about Jesus rebuking James and John for wanting to call down fire is in the oldest manuscripts.
Is God interested in His children walking in Christlikeness and freedom from sin? Yes, of course. Are we to declare what God says? Yes, of course. But all of what God says! Yes, God hates sin. Unrepentant sinners will one day experience His wrath. He will on that day separate the sheep from the goats and the weeds from the wheat. But God doesn’t save us to make us the judges of the world. Those who judge, who consider themselves as God’s remnant, are subject to a greater judgment. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (Luke 6:37, NASB95)
Now, it may seem at this point that I am judging. The difference is that I am not condemning. I am not saying that they are not Christians or are any more nominal than I am. I’m not saying they’re rejected and doomed to hell. That’s not for me to say or even think. I am not calling for fire to fall on them other than that of the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that they are lost or that they don’t love Jesus. What I am saying is that their teaching is unbalanced, heavy on wrath and light on love. Heavy with judgment and light on mercy contradicting James 2:13. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
But now I need to point the finger at us. We, too can have feelings of elitism. Feelings of being better and more together and more correct than those folks down the street or the other side of town. We may not call fire down, but we may still reject, refuse, or fail to seek fellowship based on our own set of rules. Christians have marginalized and judged each other for far too long. We can discuss, even argue over, our differences. That is healthy and good. None of us has all the right answers, we truly do need each other. Neither is this a left-right, liberal-conservative, no spiritual gifts-all spiritual gifts, or any other kind of binary thing. All sides can fall into the trap of elitism and seeing others as less than fully Christian or less than human. Even those of us who strive for the radical middle can fall into the elitist trap.
Yes, I am a nominal Christian. I have many many miles yet to travel in this journey of faith in Christ. I trust Jesus, but I also recognize my struggle with sin and where I tend to fall short of Christ. The love I fail to give, the forgiveness I withhold, the grace I fail to extend, the message I fail to speak, the prayers I fail to say, the times I trust myself more than God. I am in Christ, but not as fully in Christ as I know to be. I am a nominal Christian that is striving to take the log out of my own eye. I hope that you are one too.