The mark of a Christian

The mark of a Christian

John M. Fowler

Indian cinema, second only to Hollywood in size, often portrays a Christian in a stereotypical manner: he operates a garage; is given to swearing, drinking, and chain smoking; wears flashy clothes; has a big cross dangling around his neck; shows a splattering knowledge of broken English; and speeds with drunken friends who occasionally do a good Samaritan job.

The portrait is neither flattering nor true, but it does raise some fundamental questions: How does one detect a Christian? In what ways are Christians different from the rest of the population? Should there be any difference at all?

In other words, what is the mark of a Christian?

Throughout history, Christians have adopted one sign or another as a mark of their faith. One of the earliest signs was the symbol of a fish. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, was turned into the acronym Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter, meaning Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. The symbol was helpful for early Christians to identify each other. A sign of a fish on a door or threshold was a haven of safety for a Christian fleeing the onslaught of persecution or rejection; the sign was a symbol of spiritual witness and solidarity.

When Christianity became more acceptable, open and obvious signs – a cross, an open Bible, a dove, or a flaming torch – were employed to show that the wearer of such a symbol was a Christian by profession. Architecture and art often gave expression to Christians’ presence in a community.

There is nothing particularly wrong or right in these symbols of faith. But when symbols remain on the exterior level, there is a danger of distortion and misrepresentation. A profession of faith without the backing of an appropriate life is worth nothing.

But there is a sign that all Christians are admonished and expected to possess. It is not something that they can wear around their necks or carry on their persons. It is a mark that was commanded by Christ Himself: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, NKJV).

In a culture that treats humans as machines, in a society that pays more attention to television than to hungry children, in an age that spends more time and money on pleasure and beauty than on care and concern, the Christian is called upon to bear the mark of discipleship, the many-splendored robe of true love. Love in action marks out a Christian from everyone else. The abused child searching for an identity, the homeless seeking shelter, the blind beggars reaching out on thousands of streets around the world, the condemned lawbreaker staring at an empty ceiling in a lonely cell, the sin-sick soul on the verge of collapse … all these and many more are the objects of Christian love and concern.

The mark of love demands not only the act of giving oneself selflessly to others, but also of seeking a structural change in the relationship of person to person. Three factors stand out.

First, true love accepts the humanity of all. To compartmentalize humans into various categories and to dish out relationships in a wide-ranging spectrum of absolute worship to absolute rejection is neither humane nor Christian. No person is insignificant to Christ’s gospel. The good news from Christ suggests that each human is a unity, and that person is not to be related to on the basis of any divisive factors, be it nationality, color, gender, caste, language, or whatever. Because every person is a child of God, the Christian must love that person at all costs.

Second, love demands a loving action. Christ’s new commandment projects love not as a negative guard against evil, but as a positive, adventurous force of righteous action; not as a passive onlooker on human misery, but as an active force in the alleviation of that nameless plight; not as a pious invitation to retreat into a rejection of self, but as a forceful command to identify self with the needs and aspirations of others. To a Christian, love stands as the prime motive of all being and action.

Third, love must be observable. As a mark of a Christian, love must be observable not only in action, but also in relationships. For example, consider the simple act of saying, “I’m sorry.” Pride would find a thousand reasons not to say those words, but love prefers the nurturing of a relationship to the preserving of pride. If one has not learnt to say, “I’m sorry,” one has not begun the basic thrust of Christian life. To seek and to offer forgiveness is the core of Christian excellence. Did not the voice from the cross pave the way: “Father, forgive them …”?

Thus, the mark of a Christian is not what one wears, but what one is. Love at any cost, love at any time, love in any situation, love in the face of all odds is the distinguishing mark of following the One who commanded, “Love one another.” As the song has it:

We will walk with each other,

We will walk hand in hand,

And together we’ll spread the news That God is in our land;

And they’ll know we are Christians By our love, by our love;

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians By our love.

John M. Fowler, “The mark of a Christian,” Dialogue 27:2 (2015): 3-4

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