The Poor Advertising of Christians for Christianity

Do bad believers undermine the entire religion?

David Clay / 11.22.21

In an essay in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell lamented that “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” In Orwell’s telling, middle-class British socialists glorified the working class in the abstract while loathing actual working class people. They pontificated on the necessity of smashing the bourgeoisie while clinging, almost comically, to bourgeois values over and against the uncouth, smelly masses they were theoretically trying to liberate. Worse still, British socialism seemed to attract all kinds of weirdos and cranks:

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ’Socialism’ and ’Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ’Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” 

Orwell thought this supremely tragic, since in his view socialism was the only real option to lift millions of British people out of poverty and despair (in 1937, the Great Depression had been ongoing for eight years, its end nowhere in sight). But he also emphasized, and I think rightly, that there is no logical (as opposed to emotional) connection between the propositions “Socialists are snobs and weirdos” and “Socialism is a failed economic system.” Socialism is the kind of thing that can be valid even if most of its adherents are not particularly appealing people. The same can easily be said of capitalism, for that matter.

But it’s not at all clear that the same thing can be said about Christianity. Economic systems typically don’t promise moral transformation on the part of their adherents (although they might require it in order to work properly). Christianity, by contrast, certainly does. The scriptures rather audaciously declare that followers of Christ are “born again,” that they have become “new creations.” “How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” asks the apostle Paul, perhaps rhetorically, but also perhaps at a bit of a loss as to why his newly-founded churches exhibited so much bad behavior (Rm 6:2). After all, believers have received the Holy Spirit, who dwells within them and provides a constant source of guidance and spiritual energy.  

So if Christians turn out to be wicked or even just morally unimpressive, then this would seem — at first glance — to rather seriously undermine the plausibility of Christianity. As Orwell put it, it’s very poor advertising. And the sad reality is that Christians throughout the centuries have done vile things in the name of their Lord. Believers have acquired reputations for arrogance, pettiness, and general unpleasantness. You might point out that most Christians are decent enough people — but the same can reasonably be said for many, or most, of their non-Christian neighbors.

So what are we Christians to make of all this? One common strategy is to declare that a lot of “professing” believers are not, in fact, truly Christians at all. The St. Louis metro area, which I call home, features a sizable number of what I call “Real Christians billboards” stationed alongside the major highways. They display messages like, “Real Christians love their enemies,” “Real Christians obey Jesus’ teachings,” and so on. The implication is that there are folks out there who call themselves Christians but prove by their actions (or lack thereof) that they are not.

And this idea certainly has some biblical warrant: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Jesus, though, goes on to elaborate that people might do all kinds of good works in his name (exorcisms, prophecies, etc.) only to find themselves shut out from eternal life at the last judgment (a terrifying prospect). Similarly, in an extensive list of personal trials and tribulations, Paul cites opposition from “false brothers” (2 Cor 11:26). And in his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle implies that one “who bears the name of brother” might prove himself otherwise by immoral or disgraceful behavior (1 Cor 5:11).

But Paul only implies this. In general, the only people he is really confident about writing off are the out-and-out heretics distorting the gospel. It’s certainly true that Paul is perturbed, to say the least, by the bad behavior of the Corinthian church. At the same time, he does not quite say that all those congregants who are dragging each other to court or getting drunk at the Lord’s supper, etc., have shown themselves to be false brothers. It’s possible for genuine faith in Jesus and a rather low moral quality to co-exist in the same person. Paul does not even deny the genuine conversion of the guy sleeping with his stepmother (a thing which makes even the pagans blush), although excommunication is clearly in order until the man repents (1 Cor 5:5).

The issue of making a determination of who is a real Christian based on behavior, as opposed to belief, has raised its head many times over the course of church history. During the fourth century the Donatist sect in North Africa declared that the true church is comprised only of those who demonstrated extreme moral purity when faced with persecution. A particular point of contention for them was the issue of priests who had surrendered copies of holy scripture to the Roman authorities during the Diocletian purge (302-303). For the Donatists, such “priests” could only re-enter the church as laymen after a long, harsh period of penance, and they could certainly never offer the sacraments again. Anyone who accepted the sacraments from such a traditor was to be excommunicated. 

But the church ultimately rejected Donatism, not least because of one Augustine of Hippo — a man not known, at least after his conversion to Christianity, for moral laxity. To address the Donatists’ specific concern, Augustine argued that sacraments purvey grace regardless of the moral state of the priest offering them. Taking communion from a priest who is a traditor (or an adulterer, or … ) therefore does not harm the lay Christian and does not subject him to excommunication. On a more general level, Augustine and his theological allies realized that if only the pure could aspire to the priesthood, then there would very soon be no priests. 

In other words, the church has long recognized that “Real Christians” can be really disappointing sometimes. The question now is whether Christianity can give a convincing answer to why this is so. One classic answer is that most believers don’t try hard enough (with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course). In the words of the  Anglican priest and theologian William Law (d. 1761), who, in context, was lamenting the extensive use of profanity by believers: 

And if you will here stop and ask yourselves why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance or inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it …

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether all the “primitive” Christians were especially pious (see 1 and 2 Corinthians), Law was quite right that we’re regrettably lax in our pursuit of holiness most of the time. But this answer only raises another question: why don’t we intend it? Better yet: why can’t we intend it? Somehow our real intentions (as opposed to our stated ones) seem just outside of our control. We end up doing the very thing we hate.

The “Christians don’t try hard enough” approach is theologically and practically insufficient. Here, then, is another common answer that’s pretty good: God allows our sanctification to proceed slowly so that we will not grow conceited in our own moral progress. Should our growth in conquering bad habits and replacing them with virtuous behavior be too swift, we’d run the risk of becoming like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, whose prayer life seems to consist of carefully recounting his own good deeds while offering thanksgiving that he is not like other men, especially that filthy wretch of a tax collector over there (Lk 18:9-14). 

In other words, it’s possible to reach a state where one no longer feels his desperate need for Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners who came especially to seek and save the lost. In this view, God will see to it that sanctification is never so rapid or so complete as to leave the believer without an ongoing sense of sin in his life, so that he will continually despair of his own efforts and qualifications and trust wholly in Jesus. It seems it’s difficult for us to make a lot of moral or spiritual progress without it going straight to our heads. 

Which is admittedly a bit odd, because God, being God, could just as easily facilitate our rapid progress in humility as well as in the other virtues. If God is responsible for our sanctification, which he is, then he presumably could make us brave, honest, generous, kind, and somehow not insufferable, all at the same time, and rather quickly at that. This does, perhaps, happen — but not very often. Sadly, some believers even appear to grow more arrogant as time goes on, that is, more reliant on their theological prowess or exegetical abilities or whatever virtue they see in themselves to prove their worthiness before God and others.

The slowness and unevenness of sanctification thus remains a problem. Recently, I’ve really come to like the explanation offered by John Newton (d. 1807), that God does things this way, in part at least, to irritate the devil: 

Satan likewise is more remarkably disappointed and put to shame, when he finds bounds set to his rage and policy, beyond which he cannot pass; and that those in whom he finds so much to work upon, and over whom he so often prevails for a season, escape at last out of his hands.

We make comically easy targets for the devil, but he still somehow loses over the long haul. Put another way: while God can deliver knockout blows, he often prefers to go the distance and win the match on points. This is, at least, in keeping with God’s biblical penchant for subtlety: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself” (Isa 45:15).

God’s movements in our lives are more often than not quiet, perhaps even imperceptible, such that we scarcely notice ourselves slowly being conformed to the image of Christ (which is probably for the best; see the point about arrogance above). The deepest reaches of our lives are hidden from us, as Luther once pointed out; to cite an even more authoritative author, “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). This means, among many other things, that only God knows the real score when it comes to our sanctification or lack thereof. 

Rapid, obvious sanctification is therefore rare for the same reason that other miracles are rare. God could decisively prove himself at every turn as a far better provider of peace, power, protection — and even personal sanctity — than any other would-be object of human devotion. But God doesn’t just want to win that particular game. Instead, he wants people to focus on the only really unique thing he offers — which no other god, philosophy or program does or possibly can — his only-begotten son, Jesus. 

We Christians may strive to attain a holiness without which no one will see the Lord, but we are not famous for having attained it. Were our sanctification more obvious and fast, no doubt many more people would be attracted to Christianity. But perhaps they would come for the wrong reason. The distinctive thing about being a Christian is not that you get to be a great saint — it’s that you get to be friends with Jesus, who is himself our holiness. That’s it. And that’s enough.