We have probably heard the term “fake Christian” thrown around more in the past few years than the decades before. Liberal or progressive Christians are called “fake Christians” by conservative Christians, and conservative Christians are called “fake Christians” by the liberal or progressive Christians. Christians from both sides are increasingly looking at the Trump administration and referring to many people there as “fake Christians.”
While it may seem at first that these accusations do nothing but prove “both sides are equally bad” to some, I do understand where the need to determine who is or is not a “true” Christian comes from. All of our societal sociocultural groupings have standards, rules, and/or regulations for what counts as being “part” of that group. You can’t go and eat chicken while proclaiming “I am vegan!” for example. Words have meaning, those word describe our groupings, and we should have some say in telling people when they are misusing terms or claiming to be something they are not.
Also, we know that “being fake” has historically been a part of our cultural interactions. If a person acts like a friend, or the life of the party, or anything else they are not, they get referred to as being “so fake.” Whether it is because they are a “backstabber” in our opinion, or trying too hard to be a part of a social group they are initially not a part of, we are used to hearing the term “fake” used to describe people that are not being what they claim to be. This is nothing new.
Obviously it gets a little more complicated when applying the term “fake” to whether or not someone is a Christian, because really the main thing that makes one a Christian is belief in Jesus. Well… kind of, depending on who you talk to. There is then the whole process of sanctification and following Jesus. Sometimes your actions indicate you really don’t believe, while other times they indicate you really don’t understand fully. It’s all very complicated: some believe in “once saved always saved,” so there is nothing you can do to no longer be a Christian. Unless you renounce it, some say (but even a renouncement doesn’t count to some views). To others, even Christians have to ask forgiveness for their sins before they are washed away, others say all future sins were washed away at the salvation. Then there are others that say you lose your salvation, maybe because of suicide, or the unforgivable sin, or sometimes just because you “back-slide” so much that so much sin piles up and you lose it all. Then there are those that claim that some people pretended to pray a prayer of salvation but didn’t mean it, or just wanted the social look of holiness without making any personal sacrifice. And so on.
So really, what counts as being a “fake” Christian or a “real” Christian is in the eye of the beholder.
But wait! some would say: the Bible tells us that we have to determine who is real or fake, and how to tell which they are. Yes, there are some verses that tell Christians they can determine whether people really are Christians or not (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, James 1:26, Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, etc), and even some limited guidance on how to kind of do that.
Despite all of this, I would still recommend that you not go there. Yes, it is acceptable in society to define boundaries between different groups, and to even to delineate why your group is different from others. But yes, even despite that and even though the Bible even tells you can, I would say its still not a good idea. Many things are permissible, but not all are beneficial as a good idea.
Some people have very good, defined reasons for why you can’t call Mike Pence or Donald Trump or Barack Obama a “fake” Christian. However, many of these reasons ignore the simple fact that all groups can, in fact, determine the rules for the boundaries of their group… even if many factions of that group end up disagreeing.
Others would say that brushing away all examples of bad behavior by Christians as “fake” Christianity ends up giving the impression that Christians never do anything bad. This is a real concern, and many people in the Church do need to wise up to the fact that there are people that do bad things while still very much being an actual Christian.
Sometimes this brushing away of all bad deeds under the banner of “fake Christianity” is seen as an enabling factor that allows abuse to go unaddressed in Churches. It is true that many people hide behind the banner of “they couldn’t be doing anything wrong because they are such a good person.” Or even “they did something bad, so they never were a real Christian, so they are no longer our problem.” These are real problems in the church, but they are ones that are deeper than the term “fake Christian.” In reality, the deeper problem of ignoring abuse in the Church is merely using the the real/fake Christian debate as a shield. If you could somehow ban the term “fake Christian” tomorrow, abusers in the Church would move to a different shield. We need to confront the underlying problem, but focusing on the concept this abuse is currently hiding under won’t really change much.
Besides, we should recognize that the term “fake Christian” is not always used as a way to talk about people we don’t like (in politics or real life). Here in the South at least, a common sermon point is that one can be “a really good person, but a fake Christian.” The idea that one is “fake” is not always tied to being a bad person in all circles.
Additionally, some people say that calling some a “fake Christian” is a No True Scotsman fallacy. The problem is that No True Scotsman is a pretty weak informal fallacy that misunderstands social norming. The main point of this fallacy comes from a hypothetical Scotsman saying “no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.” Someone else might say “well my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.” Then the first person responds with “well no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.” It is considered a fallacy because Uncle Angus is a Scotsman, this proving the first statement untrue. However, the main final claim is not that Uncle Angus is not a real Scotsman, but that he falls out of the social norms of what true Scotsman are required to adhere to as a group. He is still a Scotsman, just not a true Scotsman. Some see that as changing the parameters after a counterargument is made, but in reality it is just a clarification of what was meant in the first place.
But No True Scotsman only really applies when referring to at least one factor that is a scientific fact, like being born a Scotsman. The concept of a “fake Christian” doesn’t fall under the No True Scotsman informal fallacy because it completely relies on choices and actions related to those choices. If you replace “Scotsman” with “Vegan” and “sugar on porridge” with “eats meat,” you see how quickly the entire concept of the No True Scotsman fallacy falls apart if applied to beliefs instead of actions and heritage.
However, while it seems like I am making a pretty good case that it is okay to call people “fake Christians,” I would still come to the end of all of this and say: don’t do it. If you want to point out that some one who claims to follow the Bible is going against one of its commands, that is one thing. But dismissing them as a fake Christian? I would avoid that.
Why? Well, because it is so complicated. I covered many of the different beliefs in the Church today about what makes one a Christian or not several paragraphs above. It is a long list of contradictory ideas that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the different ways to view what it means to be a Christian. The person you think is a “fake” Christian may interpret the Bible differently than you do. They may sincerely be doing what they think is right. Or they might be doing something wrong, while determined to ask for forgiveness later. They may not know much about what the Bible has to say. They might truly be a bad person and a Christian. The Bible makes it clear that Paul himself did things he knew were wrong (Romans 7:15-20).
Even looking at all of the scriptures I quoted above, it is clear that the Bible writers meant for us to spend a lot of time and due diligence in determining whether a person really is a Christian or not. Tweeting out “Fake Christian!” every time John Piper or Robert Jeffress says something that doesn’t match with your understanding of the Bible (as much as I would probably agree with you personally) does not count as that level of diligence. And even then, most of the time the Bible just tells you to ignore and avoid that person more than anything else. There are times to speak up and disagree, especially when dealing with public statements by public figures. We all have a voice and should use it. But I think there are much better ways to disagree with evil in the world that are more effective than screaming “fake Christian!”