By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Expanding What We Mean by "Nominal Christian"

For most of my life, I have understood the term "nominal Christian" to refer to someone who claims to be a Christian but who is wholly or mostly absent from religious activities. I now find I need to expand that notion to include Christians who are very, very active in religious activities and, in fact, often adhere to a very punctilious and very conservative form of Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant evangelical. 

I have met more than a few very conservative, highly active Christians whom I now categorize as "nominal Christians," just as nominal as the Christian who rarely, if ever, attends a church service of any kind. As I said, the problem cuts across our Catholic and Protestant evangelical boundaries.

There is an objective, revealed standard of Christian personality: kind, patient, humble. When I meet a missionary, or a person immersed in his religious practices, or one posing as an interpreter and teacher of his religion (whether layperson or cleric), but who, nevertheless, lacks the traits of the objectively revealed Christian personality type, I have no choice but to honestly view that person as a nominal Christian, regardless of his extensive religious activities. Your level of religious participation does not protect you from being a nominal Christian. 

First Corinthians 13 always bears rereading by all of us:

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothingIf I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (NRSV; bold emphasis added)

The passage is quite clear: if you have a resumé bursting with great religious accomplishments, whether of the intellectual or the more concrete type, and lack the personality type defined by "love," you are nothing. You are, at best, a nominal Christian. 
Verse 12 gives us the remedy for the type of rigid and dogmatic fanaticism that underlies the nominal Christianity of many conservative diehards who lack love: recognize that you know only in part. Even Socrates knew that much centuries before the coming of Christ.
Yet, many of the very "orthodox" nominal Christians have found a way to blithely ignore what Paul celebrated in 1 Cor. 13. I am under no illusion that they will listen to me. But, at least my own cognitive dissonance is cured. I now recognize that the nominal Christian label includes both those who may never enter a church and also those who practically live in church.