In very nearly every church, there are people who aren’t Christians. You knew that already. But today I’m not writing about the folks who are on the fence about following Jesus, and still have to commit. Nor am I writing about the hypocrites who aren’t Christian, know it, and fake it for their own personal reasons. I’m writing about those people who honestly think they are Christians—and aren’t. You know, the folks who tell Jesus, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this and that and the other thing for you?…” and he responds,
These people are legitimately good people. They carry and quote bibles. They regularly attend their churches and give to them. They go on missions trips. Their prayers even get answered. But they have no relationship with Jesus, despite how much the Holy Spirit is trying to draw them to him. There’s reality to be had, but they’re comfortable with their façade. And they’re not producing fruit at all.
I don’t write this to put fear into you—“What evil plans are they making?” They’re not part of some conspiracy to take down the church. (Although the devil will definitely try to use them to achieve its goals.) Most of the time, the fake Christians aren’t a problem. But I warn you of them because they exist. You might be one yourself—though I certainly hope not.
Growing up fake.
When I was a teenager, most of the kids in my youth group weren’t Christians. Their parents were. But those parents had never tutored their own kids in Christianity. They figured it was our youth pastor’s job. (God help those poor youth pastors; this isn’t an uncommon attitude.) Consequently the kids never chose to follow Jesus themselves. But they went through all the motions. It’s far easier to fake it than announce to your parents, “I don’t want to be a Christian anymore,” then have to put up with intervention after intervention, as your folks ham-fistedly try to make up for all their years of neglect with a combination of sloppy apologetics and emotional manipulation. That’s an awful sight to behold, by the way; proselytizers really are the most obnoxious people in the world. So they wisely dodged all this and kept their mouths shut.
There were other reasons to go to church, you know. The family was there. All their friends were there. The music was good. Youth group activities were often fun. There’d be “missions trips” that were really just vacations to Mexico. There’d be “retreats” that were really just ski trips. Sometimes there was this hot young thing in the church youth group whom they were hoping to impress with their spirituality.
And that’s not just true of the kids: Adults go to church for precisely the same reasons. The spouse makes them, friends and family attend, good music, good people, good fun, and some possible hot Christian lovin’. Once you enter the workforce, add a bevy of whole new reasons: You can do some serious work-related networking. If you go to an activist church, you can also do political networking. Church makes you look and feel responsible, or spiritual. Maybe you’re musical, and the choir lets you sing, or the worship band lets you play bass. Maybe you made a bargain with God at some point, and are holding up your end. Maybe you’re figuring regular attendance earns points towards possible future deals with God, like getting out of hell. Maybe your dying mother squeezed a promise out of you.
Once you have kids, you begin to realize, “Wow, I don’t have a clue what I believe about God. And the kids have questions. What’ll I tell them?” Which means you’ll either start to pay attention, to prepare yourself with answers… or when those questions come up, you’ll hand your kids off to the youth pastor. And the cycle begins again.
I knew a professor who insisted churches are excellent for social order: They encourage people to be moral, and moral people tend not to tear down the government or overthrow tradition for no good reason. America’s founders believed likewise, so really he was just repeating what they wrote. But he didn’t believe in God himself—and realized he was a bit of a hypocrite for encouraging religion in others, yet practicing nothing. So he started going to church. Ironically, his fear of hypocrisy turned him into an actual hypocrite. But he’s yet another fake Christian in our churches. Not all their reasons for going to church have to be logical.
Identifying the fake Christians.
How do we detect fake Christians? The same way we identify real Christians: Fruit.
Ah, you were wondering why I used the “fruit” graphic. Yes, fruit—the expected results of obeying the Holy Spirit, and the collateral good works, good behaviors, and good attitudes which we Christians should be able to point to as proof we truly have a relationship with Jesus.
A true Christian produces fruit. A fruitless Christian is a fake one. A Christian who lacks love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Ga 5.22-23) is simply not obeying Jesus. They’re going through the motions of Christianity, or practicing Christianism instead. Because they lack obedience, the Spirit is too busy trying to get them to obey that he hasn’t got around to putting any fruit in their lives. Anyone who is fighting the Spirit so intently that you see nothing—and even some pagans appear to show some fruit—simply isn’t a Christian.
Yes, I know, good deeds don’t save us. But faith without works is dead. Any Christian who lacks fruit is as dead as they come. Worse, of course, is when you start to see behaviors from Paul’s list of works of the flesh.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
—Paul, Galatians 5.19-21 NLT
Your average fake Christian knows better than to exhibit that sort of behavior. Not publicly, anyway. They hide it. Most live dual lives: There’s their church friends, who only ever see the pious façade; then there’s their real friends, who know how they really are. When caught by their church friends, they know how to explain away every last one of these behaviors in Christianese. Impurity is renamed “freedom in Christ.” Sexual immorality and lustful pleasures are blamed on the spouse who won’t “humbly submit” to such things in their bedroom. Idolatry becomes “hobbies.” Sorcery is when you put Christian labels all over your pop psychology so you can manipulate people into doing as you want because God is ostensibly behind it. Dissension and factions are the result of “concerned groups” who are often more interested in whether people are politically correct than spiritually. Quarreling and division is either “concern for doctrinal purity,” or “concern for proper biblical headship.” Selfish ambition is “the pursuit of God’s promises.” Hatred and hostility and rage are justified because you hate sin—you’re “hating the sin, loving the sinner,” although 99 percent of your effort is put into the hating.
Fake Christians are experts at hiding works of the flesh. They get away with it for a good long time because they don’t share their lives with their church friends. The few church friends who know about them will either forgive them, or accept their explanations, and blow it off—they’ll never take them to task for living a lifestyle that’s the antithesis of the Spirit’s fruit, and they’ll unwittingly permit the fraud to continue.
What a lack of fruit looks like.
The absence of love creates people who don’t look at their fellow human beings as creatures to love, but as resources to tap. They care about their friends—and might be very loyal to their friends—but could give a crap about strangers. They don’t care at all about their neighbors. Depending on their politics, either the poor are nothing but a societal burden, or the rich are nothing but societal parasites. Either way, other people are inconvenient—until they need something from them.
They don’t care to know the other people in their church. At best, it’ll be on a superficial level. At worst, a parasitic one, where it’s always take, take, take. They’ll form cliques, because they only want to be with (or be) the people worth knowing. You won’t see them outside church—and when you do, they’ll be uncomfortable, ’cause you might have seen them behaving a little less than Christian.
Quite often you’ll see hatred. They hate sin. They tend to hate sinners. Depending on their politics, they’ll hate liberals and Democrats, or they’ll hate social Darwinists and Republicans. They’ll complain a little too much about homosexuals, or crack gay jokes. They’ll express a little too much concern about Muslims and heretics. They’ll absolutely hate the devil. (What, you thought we can make an exception for the devil? No. Any hate corrodes the hater.)
The absence of joy creates people with no sense of humor. Combine it with the absence of love, and they might have a sense of humor—but it’s all about mocking and slamming others.
You’ll often see pessimism. Pessimists claim they’re “just being realistic,” but their so-called realism doesn’t seem to notice, or totally dismisses, any of the good in the world. They only focus on evil. They’re quick to find problems—in their family, church, job, in the government, in society. They nitpick, not because they care, or are trying to improve things, but because that’s just what they do. They never expect anything, including their own lives, to get any better. Any Christians who do, they mock as naïve or idealistic—or they accuse us of loving the world too much.
The absence of peace can either makes you paranoid, or make you a troublemaker.
The paranoid are constantly worried about what the devil might be up to. Not to mention the devil’s minions in the media, big business, the press, the government, other religions… Paranoiacs are especially fond of conspiracy theories and End Times stuff. Any sign can mean the Great Tribulation is coming. So they’re nervous about gun control, their constitutional rights, their personal data existing in any computer anywhere, or about other groups gaining on them. They’re scared.
Troublemakers, of course, like to create drama around them. To them, life is boring when people aren’t fighting. So they’ll hang around fights, or try to start one. They like to debate. They love apologetics and politics. If there’s an issue that they can either fight over or forgive, they’ll never, ever pick forgiveness.
The absence of patience produces, of course, the impatient.
They’ll complain whenever a worship chorus gets sung more than three times. They’ll give dirty looks to a parent who has a crying child in the service. They’ll get really angry when the pastor doesn’t get to the point, and the service cuts into lunchtime. They prefer quick fixes, easily summed-up theology, ideas that are easy to grasp, and people who don’t waste their time. They take it as a personal insult if we violate any of these things. They offer little grace. They don’t forgive either.
The absence of kindness produces rude people. There are two kinds of rude: There are people who treat others like scum, and they’re obvious enough. Then there are people who are politely rude—the folks who don’t really care what you have to say, and just impose themselves. These’d be the brainiacs in the bible studies, who never catch the leader’s hints to shut up and give someone else a turn. These’d be the people who drag you forward for prayer, without asking if you want or need prayer—or, just as bad, they ask, but never wait for an answer.
The absence of goodness produces people who are good in church, and not all that good outside it. Or inside it—but they’re taking full advantage of the Christians who extend them grace. They do evil, but they justify all of it—they undertip and blame the waiter, or steal office supplies and blame the boss for underpaying them. They’re undependable, untrustworthy, unsympathetic, uninterested, ungenerous… they’re just unChristian.
The absence of gentility produces people whose emotions are entirely out of control. When they’re happy, upset, anxious, ecstatic, sad, whatever, everyone can’t help but know it. They won’t contain themselves. They claim they can’t—“It’s just the way I am,” or “That’s just my personality,” or “That’s just my behavior quirk.” Unless you’re suffering from serious psychological problems (and let’s not rule this out) we have no excuse for trying to rework the emotional environment in our church to fit our mood swings.
The absence of self-control produces people who are out of control. Their lives are a mess and they won’t lift a finger to sort them out. They won’t grow as Christians because they won’t give up sinful habits, or minor idols. They figure they’ll magically wake up all better one day. Or they figure since all have sinned, it’s too late to seek improvement—just try not commit any of the bigger sins, like murder. But there’s grace, right?
Reaching out to fake Christians.
Where’d I get these descriptions? Simple: My own misbehavior. I used to be an awful hypocrite. Now I’m concentrating on growing fruit. I still have a way to go. As do we all. Once we recognize these failings in ourselves, we can concentrate on letting the Holy Spirit get rid of them.
Once we reform, we’ll more easily see others who need reform. We all need to reform in one way or another. Some more than others. But don’t assume because your neighbors have one of these traits, or even ten of these traits, they’re automatically no Christians. Like you and me, they may suck at one particular fruit, but excel in another. Your conspiracy-nut neighbor might lack peace, but he might overflow with love, kindness, goodness, and self-control… even as he’s cleaning his guns lest the black helicopters show up tomorrow to take away his bible. Worry about the guns, not his salvation.
Even so, it’s not our job to reform them. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. If we try to force others to behave, we’re promoting legalism, which isn’t any better than hypocrisy. Don’t do that. They must repent on their own, and reform with the Spirit’s help. All we do is point the way.
What I find works best is confession. I admit my past misbehavior—like the things I listed above. I talk about my less-than-noble motives for doing such things. I tell people it was sinful. I condemn it. And if other people, who are doing the same things, happen to be personally convicted because of it, that’s fine. I don’t try to figure out what sins they’re committing, and customize my confessions to convict them—I’m not into passive-agressive manipulation. I just talk about what I was gonna talk about—myself—and call a spade a spade, and admit I was self-centered instead of Jesus-focused.
Some folks will reform. More won’t. They don’t want to change their lifestyles; it works for them. Because I was exposing my misbehavior, they might go to even greater lengths to hide their own misbehavior. Some might even leave the church over it—I offended them far too much, and they figure they’re far too deep in the closet to ever come out now. They’re not impossible for the Spirit to get to, of course, but we can only go so far. It may require a scandal—and you know, sometimes God takes that very route.
But as long as they stay in our churches, we ought to take advantage of them being around, and condemn sin forcefully, and encourage right behavior just as forcefully.
But don’t partner with them.
In the meanwhile, as you’re working on them, be wary. Remember, they’re fake Christians. Their lack of spiritual maturity means they’re not going to be safe Christians to partner with in spiritual goals. God forbid you have any of them in church leadership. But you don’t want them as accountability partners, prayer partners, study partners, business partners, and especially marriage partners.
I’ve known more than 20 couples where this very thing happened: One was a fake Christian, who said all the right things in order to get married. (Or at least into the other person’s pants.) Each marriage was nothing but trouble until the fake Christian repented—or, more commonly, the couple divorced.
I’ve known churches that were ripped asunder by fake Christians who managed to worm their way into leadership. Their character, the only biblical consideration for leadership, wasn’t assessed—they were selected because they showed some ability, or they seemed earnest, or they were a family member, or they were supernaturally gifted. (Just because God allows you to heal the sick or prophecy, it does not qualify you for leadership. Ministry, of course, but not leadership.) The results? Power struggles, lawsuits, adultery and divorce, embezzlement and other fraud, churches closing their doors, and two suicides.
Those aren’t the worst-case scenarios, either. Those are the usual scenarios. Like I said, the devil will use fake Christians for its own goals.
How fake are you?
You might find yourself in the descriptions I listed above. Don’t freak out. Don’t try to defend yourself either; you and I both know how full of hot air we can be when we try that. Just do some soul-searching, turn to God, and repent.
Then follow Jesus, and watch the fruit grow.