The True Mark of a Christian
We live in a day of deeply contentious disagreement on any number of things, but most of it is political in nature or over things that, while not overtly political, have been politicized. When we disagree with each other, we have two choices: We can maintain the ultimate mark of the Christian, or we can abandon and betray it.
In the biography of Jesus written by John, we have the poignant final words and prayers of Jesus to His disciples before His death on the cross. It is considered by many to be among the most moving sections of the New Testament.
So what occupied Jesus during the moments before His death?
Not surprisingly, He wanted the world to know that His death was a sacrificial one—that He was laying down His life for theirs, paying the price for their sins, and offering His death as a gift so that they could receive forgiveness and enter into a full, intimate relationship with God the Father.
But how would that happen?
How would people know, beyond a doubt, that what Jesus was offering was from God? How would they know that Jesus Himself was God the Son in human form, come to planet earth to show the way? How would it be authenticated in a way that would be unmistakable and would force people to reckon with it?
Most would say, “the resurrection,” and that would not be wrong. But it’s not what Jesus suggested on the night before He died. He said that one thing, and one thing only, would confirm it all before a watching world:
… Loving unity among His followers.
And to drive this home, He first commanded it (John 15:9-12), and then prayed specifically for it (John 17:20-21). To Jesus, the observable love between those who called themselves His followers was everything. It would be this unity that would arrest the world’s attention and confirm that He was from the Father.
We often marvel at the growth of the early church—the explosion of faith in Christ in such numbers and speed that in only a blink of history, the Roman Empire officially turned from paganism to Christianity. We look for formulas and programs, services and processes. The simple truth is that they fleshed out the challenge and prayer of Jesus. As the second-century writer Tertullian noted, the awed pagan reaction to the Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”
When the Bible talks about such loving unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike. And the biblical idea of unity is certainly not to be confused with unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board. By unity, the Bible means first and foremost a oneness of heart—a relational unity.
This involves being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another – not assuming the worst, shooting the wounded or being quick to be suspicious. Biblical unity is about working through conflicts, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit.
Such unity and love, as Francis Schaeffer once wrote, is the “mark of the Christian.” Not just a feeling of love or an acknowledgment of love, rather a demonstration of love. And it is the litmus test Jesus gave to the world as to whether we really reflect Him.
As Schaeffer wrote:
“Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon His authority He gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.
“That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, ‘I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.’”
Schaeffer then added that the world cares little for doctrine. That the one thing that will arrest the attention of a world that has disavowed the very idea of truth is, “The love that true Christians show for each other and not just for their own party.”
By party, Schaeffer meant whatever various segment of the Christian faith you might be a part of, such as Baptist or Presbyterian. And those divides can run deep. But that is not where Christian love and unity is being most breached today. It is the observable unity and love between Christians despite political divides.
During this moment in history, we can either be a shining light to the world – another example of how the Christian faith creates radical community even in the midst of honest disagreement – or we can allow our faith to be shoved aside in the name of politics and, as a result, have unloving attitudes and words cause a stench that the world can smell and destroy our witness before a watching world.
So why is it so bad right now? What’s going on with us? Why are so many Christians behaving so badly, in ways that are no better than those who are not Christians or even worse?
Two reasons come to mind.
One is that we don’t know how to disagree with someone agreeably. We only know to give in to anger, to demonize, to belittle, to demean, to cancel. We don’t even try to empathize with others, enter into understanding or put love ahead of opinions. We can barely even treat them with basic human dignity.
In other words, we only know one way to enter into a disagreement: go to war.
As Robert Morris has written, to choose war is to set someone else apart as the enemy, often through a process of disrespect and dehumanization. And we like war! Being at war and having enemies can be exhilarating. It brings a sense of moral clarity and life purpose. The neat trick is that when you so demonize your opponents, particularly when they are a fellow Christians, you don’t have to consider them as Christians at all. You simply relegate them to a sub-Christian level and absolve yourself of all responsibility for civility, much less charity.
Which leads to another reason this is happening:
We’ve stopped seeing it as sin.
Whether in blogs or chat rooms, on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, we spew out the most caustic, mean-spirited words, actions and attitudes as if they are not reprehensible before heaven. But they are. According to Jesus, and throughout the New Testament, this is likened to second-degree murder (Matthew 5:21-22; James 3:5-10).
The one thing we must not do as followers of Christ is to give ourselves over to partisan bickering in such a way that we put party before faith. We are not primarily Republicans or Democrats. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. And as followers of Christ, we should bear the mark of our Savior.
And the mark of the Christian is love. That means we see our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of party or position, as our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the way we should interact and engage should be the way a healthy, loving, functional family should interact and engage.
One of the stories that surfaced surrounding the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her deep friendship with another Supreme Court Justice who died before she did—Antonin Scalia. You could not imagine two people further apart politically. Yet the icon of the left and the icon of the right were extremely close.
They went to the opera together.
Their families spent New Year’s Eve together.
And while vacationing with their families, they even rode elephants in India together.
No, that is not Photoshopped.
That is Scalia and Ginsburg.
A little-known story is that once Scalia bought Ginsburg two dozen roses for her birthday. One of his clerks, knowing how divided they were on countless court cases, and how she had never given him a vote he needed on a 5-4 decision of any significance, asked him why he did it. Scalia simply said, “Some things are more important than votes.”
When Ginsburg was asked how they did it, this is what she said:
“We know that even though we have sharp disagreements on what the Constitution means, we have a trust. We revere the Constitution and the Court, and we want to make sure that when we leave it, it will be in as good a shape as it was when we joined the Court.”
What if we followed suit? What if we, as Christ followers, would say:
“We know that even though we have sharp disagreements on what the Constitution means, we have a trust. We revere the body of Christ and its witness before a watching world, and we want to make sure that when we leave it, it will be in as good a shape as it was when we joined it.”
If we could, we would flesh out the one, true, real mark of the Christian faith that Jesus said would be the one thing that would arrest the attention of the world and prove that what He came to establish was real. And that one mark has been, and will always be,
James Emery White
The Apology of Tertullian, AD 197.
Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian.
Andrew MacDonald, “Some Things Mean More: The Friendship of Ginsburg-Scalia,” Christianity Today, September 23, 2020, read online.
Robert Corin Morris, “The Christians Are Fighting – Again,” Weavings, Volume XXII, Number 2, March/April 2007.
Jennifer Senior, “The Ginsburg-Scalia Act Was Not a Farce,” The New York Times, September 22, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.