“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
But do they? Well, it depends on who “they” are.
With the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” congregations sing about the unity found through Christian love. The simple lyrics reference restoration, as Christians walk and work together to spread the good news and save others. The last line of the hymn sings, “And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one.”
The lyrics are emblematic of how Christians aspire to love one another, becoming unified within their identity as children of God. They share their spiritual journeys and walk alongside each other as they seek a relationship with God. They work together for the common purpose of guarding “each man’s dignity” and saving “each man’s pride.”
This love by which “they” are to know “we” are Christians is defined by collective trust in God and one another. It also is defined by the ways in which Christians come together in common beliefs, for common goods.
But what does this Christian love look like for those who do not share Christian beliefs and ambitions?
A 2019 study conducted by Lauren Sierra at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary titled “Secular Students’ Perceptions of Christian Rhetoric: A Phenomenological Study” examined this question. Researchers interviewed 10 students from Secular Student Alliances across five universities in Texas on their thoughts, feelings and experiences about Christianity.
These researchers identified different ways Christian rhetoric creates barriers to communication between Christians and non-Christians. Sierra identified three meta-themes across responses:
- Christianity doesn’t make sense and Christians aren’t well-versed enough in the Bible or relevant arguments to make convincing or meaningful conversations.
- Christians don’t know how to talk to people who disagree with them, become aggressive, and make negative assumptions about atheists and other non-Christians.
- Christians need to listen and communicate better overall. Participants are afraid to talk about being secular with Christian family members for fear of being judged.
When asked about Christian beliefs and doctrines, interviewees noted that, in general, Christianity is illogical. Specifically, the study’s participants said two things — Christ’s substitutionary death, and the existence of hell — were the most illogical aspects of Christianity.
“When asked about Christian beliefs and doctrines, interviewees noted that, in general, Christianity is illogical.”
One participant described the Christian God as a “God who sacrificed himself to himself, to account for rules that he made.” The participant explained: “That doesn’t make sense to me. If God is setting that the wages of sin is death — and he is — either he is omnipotent, and he can change those wages to ensure that more people can get into heaven or he can’t, in which case, he’s not omnipotent.”
Another participant critiqued the notion that a God who created all people could be loving, while still allowing people to go to hell: “The idea of ‘God created us to be the way that we are.’ God created me to be gay,” the participant explained. “And if God created me that way and then punishes me for being that way. That’s a pretty s****y God.”
The respondents concluded: “The image of God that has been painted for me, both by the Bible and by Christians and by common understanding of God, is of a pretty heinous being, of someone who does some pretty terrible things.”
Interviewees also discussed finding Christian rhetoric unable to fully encapsulate the complexities of these big issues. They often could find explanations for the problems non-Christians brought up surrounding their beliefs. There was a desire among participants to engage in conversation with Christians, but they felt such conversations lacked the depth required to satisfy their questions.
According to Sierra, “A number of participants urged Christians to just ‘think.’”
On talking with secular folks, one participant advised Christians: “Be able to express your beliefs and why. Don’t just spit out whatever your pastor tells you.” This person added it is important to “think for yourself and figure out why you believe” rather than just asserting blindly what has been taught in church.
“Be able to express your beliefs and why. Don’t just spit out whatever your pastor tells you.”
This is not to say non-Christians do not want to have conversations about faith. Interviewees noted they would be open to conversations about faith if Christians spent more time listening to them, made more meaningful efforts to ask and answer questions, and spent less time trying to scold or shame them into repentance.
In fact, three respondents noted they enjoyed participating in faith-based discussion groups that facilitated philosophical conversations about God on campus.
One participant recalled: “I was regularly going to this Methodist group … because they had really good groups that were actually interested in genuine discussion because that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to just go there to be preached at.”
They described the group this way: “It was like they have a group called ‘Who created God?’ which is sort of a philosophical view of why — they’re a Christian group of course — they believe that God exists. But they’re a small group of just philosophically speaking, is there good reason to believe that any God exists? And then we’ll worry about the theology.”
Other interviewees, however, felt isolated by their Christian peers. Many described their transition from Christian to secular life as a “coming out” experience, where they had to admit to themselves and their loved ones they no longer believed in God. And for multiple study participants, this led to judgment, shame and bullying.
One participant recalled feeling like an outcast among Christians who became bullies after finding out about their secular identity.
“It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t believe in God that was making me feel s****y, it was the fact that I was surrounded by a bunch of people who did believe in God and who thought I was a bad person because I didn’t,” the respondent said.
“The ‘love’ by which others are to know we are Christians has become an isolated, exclusive practice.”
All this data points to one thing: The “love” by which others are to know we are Christians has become an isolated, exclusive practice. According to non-Christians, this “love” Christians believe defines who we are is not so evident to those who are not already inside our churches.
Those who are not one of us, who do not walk or work with us, who question the good news and do not seek to “save” others may find the doorway into the church too heavy to open — or may even be locked. For some, there seems to be no door at all, only windows through which they see us and we see them, but there is no common ground.
Why are the doors so heavily closed? Because Christians have failed to open them.
We are too comfortable in our uniformed communities where our beliefs go unchallenged and hard questions are never spoken aloud. We as Christians have confused deep conversations that welcome curiosity or address concerns with poor faith or bad intention.
Perhaps the true Christian “love” the hymn is talking about has little to do with maintaining our own social order and much to do with listening to and making time for those on the margins of church life.
Only in this way, only once we open our doors wide, will they know we are Christians by our love.
Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University and serves as BNG’s Clemons Fellow.
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