Thursday, 31 March 2011

There are no non-Christians here...

One of my weekly lessons when I was at school was called 'Personal and Social Education'. Its goal was to ensure that I wouldn't end up as a geek.

I remember the teacher one day calling for meditation on the day's Bless├Ęd Thought:
There are no strangers here; only friends we haven't met.
It was an embarrassingly crass and schmaltzy statement. What did he think the word strangers meant? It must have held some meaning for him, otherwise it wouldn't have made much sense to say that there were no strangers there. Anyway, we'd all met each other, and we certainly weren't all likely to end up as friends. As well as playing fast and loose with the meaning of strangers, it rather cheapened the meaning of friends to imply that everyone could be and should be friends with everyone else.

Recently I went to a church whose service sheet mentioned a weekly meeting for prayer for 'the chronically ill and not-yet Christians'. Praying for those who are ill (James 5:14), and praying that people would become Christians (Matthew 9:35–38) is, of course, an essential part of the Christian life, and I'm sure that the meeting itself was wholesome and honouring to God. But not-yet Christians? I can almost see my teacher nodding approvingly:
There are no non-Christians here; only not-yet Christians.
It's not the first time I've heard the phrase. It seems to turn up more and more, mainly in the context of spurring people on to evangelism. Google hits for the phrase are well into six figures.

But for all its optimism, I do find this language rather disturbing. This isn't mere linguistic pedantry: the language we use to describe people affects our perception of them, and eventually affects the way we treat them.

So what's wrong with describing non-Christians as not-yet Christians?

For one, it's horribly patronising. It's roughly equivalent to telling a child: I know you don't agree with me at the moment, but one day you'll see that I'm right. I'll explain when you're old enough to understand. How does that sound from the receiving end? How would I feel to know that my atheist friends describe me as a not-yet atheist, and my Muslim friends describe me as a not-yet Muslim?

Secondly, it demotivates our evangelism. It is odd that the phrase gets used mainly in the context of encouraging Christians to spread the gospel; it certainly doesn't have that effect on me.

Jesus sees those who live without him as lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7), as in mortal peril (Luke 13:1–5), as in imminent danger of being cut down (Luke 13:6–9). This is what gives evangelism its urgency: time is short. Any view of non-Christians as simply Christians-in-waiting may be very comforting, just as it may be more comforting to ignore the warnings on cigarette packets; but it is a dangerous game to play.

But finally, and most importantly, it contradicts Jesus' teaching. Describing non-Christians as not-yet Christians suggests that it is only a matter of time: eventually all non-Christians will become Christians. Jesus' love will win through in the end: just trust him to do what he has promised.

The trouble is that he has promised no such thing. There are narrow and broad roads (Matthew 7:13–14); there are good and bad trees (Matthew 7:15–19); there are solid and weak foundations (Matthew 7:24–27). At the last judgement, there will be a final separation into two groups (Matthew 25:31–46). Some of those for whom we pray will eventually become Christians; some will not. Christian faith is about trusting God to do what he has said he will do; trusting God to do what he has said he will certainly not do is pure self-deception.

Contrast the biblical Jesus with the not-yet Christian view of Jesus. Hear the words of comfort our much nicer, softer, all-inclusive Jesus brings us:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘There are no strangers here; only friends I haven't met.’ (Matthew 7:21–23, Not-Yet Version)

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