Over thirty-one years ago, I proposed to “J” in the parking lot at a mall in Connecticut, and she said “yes.” That evening, a litmus test was applied to me as I was examined for my worthiness for marriage with a singular line of questioning, “How do you know that you are a Christian?”
I was in my mid-twenties, had grown up Catholic, and was exploring what it meant to be a Christian and how that should is lived out in life, and this interrogation was ferocious and unrelenting. That grilling years ago stunned me; it left scars. But it has also shaped the ministry into which I was called.
I said that night that I was a Christian, and only through the grace of God and not the will of the interrogator that it broke in the direction it did. I humbly believe the last three decades are testimony to the accuracy and veracity of my declaration that night. Yet, even now, I passionately continue to explore the “Marianas Trench” of faith and life devoted to “42.”
Before I go forward, I would like to call “σκύβαλον!”(skubalon)* on this practice of litmus testing.
*σκύβαλον (skubalon) – noun: dung, refuse, detritus. Phil 3:8 uses it as something of no worth and detestable that is discarded as it is only worth something to dogs.
Over the years, I have watched many “litmus testers” ravage others, including fellow Christians, with Pharisaic or Sadducean criteria to judge a person’s worthiness. I have seen “waterboarding” from the left and right as they examine Christian pedigree to deem one’s worthiness to be on their team. The latter determines you to be inadequate if your focus is not on the rules and correct answers, yet they seem to care little about justice and love. The former hyper-focus on justice often at the expense of scriptures that confront us about morals and ethics. Behold the ancient balancing act of faith and works!
Here’s why I find this practice revolting. I have seen many people driven away from our Lord by religious zealotry and, quite frankly, hubris. It lacks grace, compassion, and love, and it’s lazy. When one engages in this manipulation, they have no idea what God’s plan is for the individual they are torturing. The person may be a non-Christian, neophyte, or deeply faithful, but judgementalism gets in the way. How does anyone know if God has them on a different trajectory of faith than you? Maybe they are to go to the gentiles like Paul and Peter did, or maybe they are to stay in their own Jerusalem “lane” like James. They may be a pagan at the moment, but perhaps they are destined to bring Christ to other pagans.
I have learned over decades that there are many flavors of faithful, purposeful, and loving Christians everywhere, be it in an Amish community, Baptist church, mainline Protestant congregation, or Catholic parish. The Lord uses a variety of people in their contexts to show and teach others the saving grace of the cross and the incredible hope to live into the resurrection. Because they don’t practice their Christian faith the way you do does not give you the right to apply a litmus test. In other words, stay in your own lane unless you are interested in learning from them!
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? James 2:14-20