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The intent of this question is not to define 'what is a true Christian?', but to ask:

Given that each tradition has it's own well-defined understanding of what being a Christian means, how do they explain how their own adherants can (after fitting that definition sufficiently to be regarded as members of their visible church) transgress commandments to an extant that is manifestly inconsistant with that definition and yet remain regarded as 'Christians' (i.e. they are not ex-communicated for their behaviour).

Particularly, how would they explain such situations in the light of:

1 John 2:4, "The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him."

The answer sought is a short over-view from the perspective of different Traditions clearly identifying which perspective is in view and how it relates to the issue. Views are sought particularly from those tagged, but not necessarily limited to such.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Peter Turner, Jayarathina Madharasan, Affable Geek, Narnian, Mason Wheeler Jun 12 at 4:53

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
This is certainly a tough question to ask on this site as it looks like you are transgressing the 'hard boundary' of seeking to define a 'true Christian'. If either you or someone else re-edits somehow so that's in on-topic I would like to attempt an answer as 1 John is part of the bible I seem to be drawn to over and over. –  bruised reed Jun 10 at 2:41
    
I think this should go to the hermeneutics.se. –  Anonymous Jun 10 at 2:50
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Maybe you should limit it to a particular person you think didn't keep those laws. (Augustine?) –  david brainerd Jun 10 at 3:34
    
@bruisedreed maybe suggest some edits? I guess it feels like answering "well why did the inquisition torture people etc." by "well not everyone is a true Christian" is a cop out, and I would like to then ask, well so what do you know about true Christians and all the terrible things that people were doing to each other? It doesn't seem like you can just wave a hand and say "oh well the TRUE Christians are living now, and those pious churchgoing people from 500 years ago who enlisted to kill Jews were actually all liars" –  Gregory Magarshak Jun 10 at 3:40
    
@ Gregory Magarshak, Its not as much a copout as you want to make it since it was mainly Christians they were killing in the inquisition. So you can easily say "The people doing the killing weren't true Christians. After all, they were killing the true Christians." –  david brainerd Jun 10 at 3:48

3 Answers 3

Preface: This community wiki has been opened to incorporate different perspectives into one post, if you are happy to do so, please edit it and add your answer here (try and adhere to a 300 word limit and if you want to include a longer answer you can link to it from the community wiki).


An Evangelical Protestant Perspective:

Summary answer: Yes - there are such things as 'false Christians' (and also 'Inconsistent Christians').

Evangelicals believe that a true Christian is someone who has been 'born again'. It is not membership in a visible church or baptism that defines them as a true Christian, but that they have heard the message of the Gospel, and responded to it (with the necessary enablement of the Holy Spirit) in faith and repentance and have therefore become members of the true Universal and Invisible Church. In one sense, this complicates matters in discerning who is a 'true' Christian - only God truly knows who are His - but some level of discernment is possible regarding 'is this person's conduct consistent with their professed faith.'

While this perspective is of more recent origin historically (although adherants would argue it is a return to New Testament Christianity) and may have had less opportunity to generate the egregious inconsistancies the question alludes to, Evangelicals would still recognize that members in their congregation can still fall in to one of two relevant categories: 1. The fallen brother*. & 2. The false brother. While both may engage in commandment breaking, they may be differentiated to some degree by the former's subsequent humble willingness to confess their wrong-doing and repent of it, versus the latter's prideful self-justification and refusal to repent upon confrontation.

Regarding excommunication, this tends to be rare but not entirely unheard of in evangelical congregations, it is far more common that upon confrontation, the fallen brother will repent before being 'put out', and the pride of the false brother will lead him to decamp before similar action is taken (cf. 1 John 2:19) - excommunication is not usually declared in absentia. Where it is done, it does tend to be for reasons of unrepentant immorality and not (for example) just for maintaining contrary doctrines.

*the word is meant in a gender-inclusive sense - my apologies if there is a better term that would actually convey this meaning and still fit the argument appropriately, but none spring to mind.

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An Evangelical Protestant Perspective:

Summary answer: Yes - there are such things as 'false Christians' (and also 'Inconsistent Christians').

Evangelicals believe that a true Christian is someone who has been 'born again'. It is not membership in a visible church or baptism that defines them as a true Christian, but that they have heard the message of the Gospel, and responded to it (with the necessary enablement of the Holy Spirit) in faith and repentance and have therefore become members of the true Universal and Invisible Church. Adhering to the teaching of Christ and the Apostles is seen as evidence of true faith and repentance ('by their fruit you shall know them'). While there may be some accoutrements of Evangelical praxis that could be construed as official recognition of who is a Christian - such as baptism or church membership - the general understanding is that these are symbols (that may possibly be falsely applied) not the substance that matters. In one sense, this complicates matters in discerning who is a 'true' Christian - only God truly knows who are His - but some level of discernment is possible regarding 'is this person's conduct consistent with their professed faith.'

While this perspective is of more recent origin historically (although adherants would argue it is a return to New Testament Christianity) and may have had less opportunity to generate the egregious inconsistancies the question alludes to, Evangelicals would still recognize that members in their congregation can still fall in to one of two relevant categories: 1. The fallen brother*. & 2. The false brother:

  1. The fallen brother is one who disobeys the commandments** not because they aren't a Christian, but because they (like Eve before them) have been tempted and deceived to do so against their (new) nature (that they would be still influenced by their persistant old nature is a recognised problem also). Their disobedience may range from what outsiders may think the trivial (Peter's denial of Christ) to particularly scandalous (David's adultery and murder), that they remain brothers and have merely fallen is evidenced by a later willingness to repent - acknowledging their error, renouncing it and an evidential re-commitment to the way of righteousness (living by faith - evidenced in obedience to the perfect law of God). This may mitigate somewhat their evil actions, but it is recognised that because of them, 'the name of the Lord is blasphemed'.

  2. The false brother is not a true Christian, but is not immediately discernible as such - they are 'wolves in sheeps clothing'. They have adopted the outward symbols of Christianity and adhere to a bare minimum of commandments that enable them to blend in amongst the Christians that surround them while their heart remains un-regenerated. They may be completely deceived themselves in thinking they are born again, or cunning dissimulators hiding ulterior motives. While the false brother's animus is normally directed inwards at disrupting the work of the Church (particularly by assuming offices of power that they are not called to and becoming false shepherds/teachers/prophets), in certain levels of concentration and sociological conditions, the false brothers may band together and 'break out' against outsiders satiating an innate blood-lust in a despicable fashion (e.g.).

While both may engage in commandment breaking, they may be differentiated to some degree by the former's subsequent humble willingness to confess their wrong-doing and repent of it, versus the latter's prideful self-justification and refusal to repent upon confrontation.

Regarding excommunication, this tends to be rare but not entirely unheard of in evangelical congregations, it is far more common that upon confrontation, the fallen brother will repent before being 'put out', and the pride of the false brother will lead him to decamp before similar action is taken (cf. 1 John 2:19) - excommunication is not usually declared in absentia. Where it is done, it does tend to be for reasons of unrepentant immorality and not (for example) just for maintaining contrary doctrines. Unfortunately (in my view) a common practice is to add the extra-biblical step of asking the person to leave the congregation quietly - usually enacted after they remain unrepentant after confrontation by elders and show no evidence of wanting to leave of their own accord, rather than pursueing the final (biblical) step of (public) congregational/denominational confrontation - the intention is to reduce scandal, but in the long run this practice may perhaps add to it (as well as resulting in less repentance).

*the word is meant in a gender-inclusive sense - my apologies if there is a better term that would actually convey this meaning and still fit the argument appropriately, but none spring to mind.

**Regarding 1 John 2:4 that you've cited, the consistent context of 1 John (and also later in the gospel of John) is that the commandment refers to the perfect law of love. In fact John teaches us that, practically speaking, not only can the whole law be distilled into the two great love commands, but that these can be further distilled into the command 'love your brother (as Christ loves you)' - do 'just' this right (this actually necessarily requires you to walk by the Spirit), and everything else will follow, conversely, if you don't do it, you are not walking the straight and narrow road that leads to life, but the broad way that leads to destruction.

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Excommunication is an interesting issue. I grew up in an evangelical charismatic (protestant) community and have certainly been aware of folks being asked not to speak or publicise their views due to positions at odds with the elders’. It is certainly not excommunication, but were they to continue to push their views, they would be excommunicated (not that we would’ve called it that). Can you give me an example of how other Christian traditions are any different? –  J D OConal Jun 11 at 23:11
    
@JDOConal I've very similar background and experience to you - never personally seen the process go through to completion, but persitant engagement in clearly identified and confronted false teaching & lack of submission to leadership would theoretically (according to common discipline models) be sufficient for further action. Very common is to depart from the biblical model a bit (in my view - unfortunately so) by actually asking a person privately to leave the congregation/denomination rather than publically confront them before everyone. –  bruised reed Jun 12 at 2:42
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@JDOConal The fact that they do this (tend to keep it private) is a nuance worthy of including in the long answer - so thanks for the probing question! –  bruised reed Jun 12 at 2:51

Many people I know who self identify as Protestant, the answer to the question posed is to be found in 1 John 1:5-10, and more especially beginning at verse 8:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The other people I know who self identify as Protestant would refer to Romans 3:22b-23:

For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Finally, one could paraphrase "Honest Abe" Lincoln: "God loves sinners because he makes so many of them."

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It's difficult not to interpret your answer (when relating it to the sense of the question) to mean that there is no difference to be expected in the behaviour of Christians and non-Christians vis-a-vis keeping the commandments - is this what you intend? If not, perhaps you can clarify it a little more so that it doesn't sound like 'Christians are just going to be evil - deal with it'. In the unlikely event that you do mean just that, how would you interpret Jesus' teaching in Matt 5:13-16 that seems to indicate the opposite? –  bruised reed Jun 10 at 18:00

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