What Do We Do With Non-Christians Who Act Like Christians?

goldentemplefarA little while back I wrote a post entitled “When Jesus Is Present Where Jesus Isn’t Present.”

It stemmed from a National Geographic program I watched about the Dhavari slum in Mumbai, the same slum from the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

In that post I talked about a group serving the people of that community which, though not Christian, sure seemed a lot like what we would expect Jesus to be like if he lived in the Dhavari slum. As I said in the post, it seems to me that this is one of the great questions facing the Church in an ever increasingly connected 21st century global society. What are we do to when we encounter the kingdom of God being lived out among people who have either never heard of or choose to ignore the Church’s gospel?

Well, as it so happens I’ve been watching more television since then and that question continues to ramble about in my mind.

This time I was watching a BBC series called Himalaya, hosted by the one and only Michael Palin. If you have Netflix, you need to do yourself a favor and watch every single one of the Michael Palin BBC specials because, well, they’re awesome. Anyway, in this particular episode he was visiting Harmandir Sahib, The Golden Temple in India.

That’s it in the picture above.

The Golden Temple is an especially holy site for those of the Sikh faith for it contains their holy scripture. Covered in gold, as the name implies, The Golden Temple welcomes some 100,000 visitors a day. But, as beautiful and impressive as the building was, what struck me was what goes on inside.

Every day of the year a free meal is served to the poor, the hungry, the pilgrim, or whoever else may happen to stop by. Tens of thousands of people are fed each and every day. The meal itself is prepared and served by volunteers. Donations cover the cost of the food and more volunteers, many of whom who just fed, help clean up.

But this isn’t just a meal for the poor.

According to the guide who was showing Michael Palin around, the meal is for the rich as much as it is for the poor because it is, in part, intended as an act of equality wherein all can join together around one table and share one meal together.

Sound familiar?

The familiarities don’t stop there.

Here’s where this meal, called “langar” got started….

When the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev, attained manhood, his father gave him 20 rupees and sent him on a trading expedition, impressing upon him that a good bargain makes for a good profit. On his way to buy merchandise, he met a group of sadhus living in a jungle. Nanak noticed the emaciated condition of the naked holy men and decided that the most profitable transaction he could make with his father’s money would be to feed and clothe them. When he returned home empty handed, his father punished him. Insisting that true profit is to be had in selfless service, Guru Nanak established the principal of langar.

I don’t know about you, but as I read that brief history and watched the BBC special I couldn’t help but think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, words that seem to be Jesus’ own summary of what being a disciple of Jesus is really all about….

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Isn’t that what the Sikhs are doing?

Oh, and did I mention that Sikhs worship only one God?

And that they practice baptism?

And that they reject blind spirituality, materialism, and worldly living?

Now, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not a universalist. Sikhs are Sikhs and Christians are Christians. I get that. I don’t want to take away from the distinctive beauty of either or any other faith for that matter.

But I have to confess, when I see moments like this, when I see people acting and thinking in the ways I am told Christians are supposed to act and think, I’m finding it harder and harder to see them as “pagans” and easier to see them as “Samaritans.”

You remember Samaritans, right?

Jesus told a famous parable about a good Samaritan. He also visited with a Samaritan women by a well – something he wasn’t “supposed” to do. In both, cases Jesus made it pretty clear that A) Samaritans were not the evil people Israel made them out to be and B) God was at work in their lives just as God was in the lives of the people of Israel.

If we switch out Samaritans for Sikhs (or whatever other faith for that matter) and Israel for Christians, then perhaps you can see the conundrum I’m in.

I get that repentance is important. I know being part of a church is important. I know that believing Jesus is Lord is important.

But even the devil and his demons believe that last bit and Sikhs do both of the former things even if they look a bit different and have different names.

So, as compassionate, loving, grace filled people what do we do with non-Christians who act like Christians?

To be honest, I’m not completely sure.

I do know that the writer of James says that faith without works is dead.

Which got me wondering, if faith without works is dead, does that mean works without faith is dead? I’m not so sure. Because the reply of the “sheep” in Matthew 25 seems to be one of surprise in which they were doing the “works” without any particular confession of faith.

Now, once again, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying you can earn your way to heaven. What I’m saying is that God extends all of us grace and apparently expects us to further extend that grace to the world. If Jesus was being honest in Matthew 25, and Jesus had the tendency to be honest about things, then our extending of God’s grace to others seems to be pretty darn important.

Maybe even more important than the formal confession of faith we as evangelicals seem to think is required for salvation – even though we also say salvation is a gift that cannot be earned.

Quite the conundrum if you ask me.

The space of a blog post doesn’t allow for the sort of thorough treatment this subject deserves. I can’t fully explore the depths of “no one comes to the Father except through me” here and wonder if that statement simply means Jesus is the means of our salvation or if our salvation requires our explicit confession of Jesus as the means of our salvation. Such a treatment would require the space of a book.

And who knows, maybe I’ll write that book one day.

But for now, I only want to suggest that perhaps as Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we need to not be so legalistic with the grace we have been given. We need to do a better job of extending it to others regardless of their confession of faith.

And perhaps we also need to do a better job of recognizing when God has already extended that grace to others.


Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

  • Jennifer Putnam
    April 30, 2013

    I’ve seen this question struggled with by many of my faithful friends. It’s always seemed to me to be an attempt to quiet the cognitive dissonance required to accept the gospel as truth, regardless of how loosely you interpret it (and with the hippie friends I keep, it can be pretty loose), and to see that there are people who are doing the hardest parts of Christianity without benefit of the specific mojo that has been fundamental to their good works.

    It’s a hard thing to square the fact that your truth dictates that these people who you see living the word are still damned to an eternity without the God of your choosing. And when the stakes are so high, it’s a rough thing to wiggle around.

    I’m interested to see how this pans out, as the discussions here are always enlightening.

    *Sits back, nibbles popcorn and waits*

    • ZackHunt
      April 30, 2013

      I join you in your popcorn nibbling. 🙂

  • Robert Martin
    April 30, 2013

    It seems to me that we need to take on, then, the role of Paul in Athens.

    “Hey! wow! You’re a bunch of really hip spiritual folks. I mean, you recognize that there is something else and, just to make sure, you even have a temple to any unknown God you might offend. Let me tell you, then, about this guy who brought that God concept down here and made it possible to know even the Unknown.”

    For the Sikh… we just saw that in a video in our own time at church and I had much the same reaction as you. What do we do with that?

    I think it is sufficient to let God do what God’s going to do… God’s revelation is not limited to the words in the Bible… God can move and work “out there” without us… and often does.

    HOWEVER… when it comes to “faith”, I think it’s a bit of a false dichotomy to differentiate between “faith” and “works”. Faith is more than just “belief”. Faith is a radical reorientation of your life towards a single focus.

    For Christians, faith is that reorientation towards Christ. Where it used to be that we sought other things to fulfill us, now we aim towards Christ.

    Back to the Sikh. They have their lives focused somewhere, that’s pretty obvious. And it seems that they have a pretty good aim, too. Perhaps, in that situation, it’s not a matter of saying, “Well, they aren’t Christians because they aren’t like us” but more on the lines of “They are following the unknown God”…which opens the door to introduce them to the One who makes the unknown God knowable…. and to put a “face” to their faith focus.

  • Jim Charlotte
    April 30, 2013

    I used to be an evangelical. Then I went to Japan and studied their traditions and religion. I came back and asked my evangelical pastors and friends, “Are these wonderful people going to hell because they don’t hold the correct beliefs?” “Yep.” Wellllllllll…. then I’m out, guys.” And so I left evangelicalism after two decades of service. Now I’m a happy Unitarian Universalist.

  • Joshua Shope
    April 30, 2013

    I’ve struggled with these same questions, and I can only tell you the conclusion I’ve come to personally: that when Jesus said “no man comes to the Father but through me” he meant “through my sacrificial act” and that doesn’t require belief in him as the Savior and Son of God.

    I could very well be wrong. I know a lot of good, faithful people who disagree with me. But my solution to that cognitive dissonance that Jennifer mentions below is to believe that people must get some kind of credit for believing in a God and for following Jesus’ teachings (whether they know they are or not). Salvation is a mystery I’m comfortable with leaving unsolved, but I have to believe one way or another, and my understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and the world around me leads me to this conclusion.

    • ZackHunt
      April 30, 2013

      “Salvation is a mystery I’m comfortable with leaving unsolved” – Love that line. Amen.

  • Kate
    April 30, 2013

    Amen! I know that God was working in me and forming my character long before I heard the gospel. And I think that our desire for mercy and justice come from God (and his teachings!), who is more merciful and just than we are. We can be wrong in what seems just to us, but we are also often quite right. When Jesus says “no one comes to the father but by me” he doesn’t say we have to *know* it’s through him. And when he promises that those who trust him and confess his name will be saved, he *does not* say that those who don’t won’t! I might say to my kids “Hey, if you’ll tidy up your rooms I’ll buy you a snow cone while we’re out.” And maybe they do the tidying, and maybe they don’t, but I haven’t phrased it to rule out snow cones either way; I have simply made a promise that *if* they tidy up then they can count on the snow cones. I might buy them anyway, even for kids with messy rooms. SO I believe God that because I trust in him I am rescued. I know *nothing* from this about what happens when we haven’t yet trusted him.

  • Matt Appling
    April 30, 2013

    Couldn’t have said it better, Zack. I believe in Paul’s mind, he covered this by saying that where the law does not exist (pagans) then people are judged by the law on their hearts. Paul used it to prove on the one hand that no one is without excuse, that nature itself testifies to God. But on the other hand, that is why God’s spirit is evident in many non-Christians. They know the spirit of God even if they do not know His name.

    • ZackHunt
      April 30, 2013

      That’s a really great point, Matt. I didn’t even think of Paul! But that definitely captures the sort of preventient grace I was alluding to.

  • Karen
    April 30, 2013

    Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest whose blog I love to read, has often commented that he, as an Orthodox, doesn’t mind if those outside the Orthodox faith get saved! 🙂 As a Christian, I am quite confident that everyone’s salvation will be in and through Christ (because “salvation,” by Orthodox Christian definition, is union with Christ), but the Holy Spirit has ways we know not of, and I’ve noticed He’s not at all adverse to working behind the scenes rather anonymously. The norms of the Church (faith and baptism, etc.) are binding on those to whom they have been revealed and whom God has convicted that the Orthodox faith is true, but the Holy Spirit is not bound by His own norms. The Fathers teach that virtue is possible in those outside the Church and that the Holy Spirit empowers this virtue. It seems clear that there are those among the sheep in Matthew 25 who were not explicitly Christians (otherwise why would they be surprised that they were feeding Christ in feeding the hungry, etc.?). Matthew 25 is commonly understood to be a picture of the judgment of the nations.

    It’s probably a bit of a paradox, but while Orthodox ecclesiology is such that we Orthodox are quite comfortable to say that the Orthodox Church is, in fact, “the” Church, and unique in the fullness of its continuity with the apostolic faith of the NT within Christendom, we are also very reluctant either to pronounce those within the Orthodox Church “saved” (being in a garage doesn’t make you a car) or to pronounce those visibly outside the Church “unsaved” because only God knows the heart and only Final Judgment will definitively reveal what’s what. Obviously, God is working both within and outside the Church in people’s lives (John 16:8) or nobody would find their way into the Church in the first place.

    Speaking of Sikhs, have you ever read the biography or writings of Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Sikh who found Christ and spent his life as a wandering “holy man” in the style of his own people taking missionary journeys into the Himalayas to share the gospel with the Nepalese? Amazing story and a must read if I say so myself.

    • ZackHunt
      April 30, 2013

      Really good stuff. Thanks for sharing Karen!

      (And no, I haven’t read that biography. I’ll have to check it out.)

      • Karen
        May 1, 2013

        Of course, none of what I’ve shared here is original with me. I’ve also read that the early Greek Fathers of the Church believed that developments in pagan Greek philosophy (e.g., the notion of the “logos”) constituted a partial revelation from God preparing the Greek people to be receptive to the gospel in much the same way that the traditions of the Jewish people had prepared them for the coming of Messiah.

        There are definite parallels to the insights of those early Fathers in our times. If you’ve never read the missionary biographies, Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson and Brucho, the story of Bruce Olsen’s mission to So. American Columbian natives, you owe it to yourself to read those books–especially in light of what you’ve written in this post. (Not that you needed more books on your reading list in grad. school, right?) 🙂

        Greg’s comment below about his Canadian Indian friend gave me goosebumps in much the same way that reading those amazing biographical accounts does. God’s ways are wonderful and mysterious. We don’t give Him enough credit for how He is working in others and in places we don’t expect–the result, I suspect, of being infected with modern rationalism and unbelief, even if in “Christian” guise–but those biographies show what He often does is beyond our expectations and truly more wonderful than the most imaginative fiction!

  • Greg
    April 30, 2013

    Many yrs ago, I met a Canadian Indian, up in the Northwest Territories, that told us he met Jesus at the base of a tree. He had lived with nature his whole life, had not heard the gospel and as his identification with the wilderness deepened, so did his appreciation of its design and power. He regularly got down on his knees to give thanks to whatever God had made nature, because in it, he found love. Jesus revealed himself to him there.
    When this man eventually met someone who told him about Jesus, he responded that he knew him, but had not known his name.
    Scripture records that with the froward, God will show himself to be the same, and the same as with the meek. I think its probably a bit childish of us to suppose that Jesus parable of the shepherd leaving the fold to look for one lost sheep, means that he only looks for lost Christians. Knowing Him as the lover of my soul that he is, and remembering that it was that same love I enjoy now that frightened, but drew me to him in the first place, I cant imagine how he could not but love my Indian friend, and come to him when he opened his heart to him under the tree.
    We should probably heed the Proverb to judge nothing before the final day.
    Love hopes and believes all things, and I believe we will be surprised to find
    who knows God, and how far outside our airtight orthodox box many meet Jesus.

  • Ruby
    April 30, 2013

    I’ve run into this with coworkers in the past. In many cases they’ve definitely not been Christian (sometimes outright athiests) and yet there have been cases where I thought a particular “pagan” co-worker was much more at peace in the workplace than I was. Whereas I might get frustrated by some interaction or work task, this colleague would remain cool, calm and even friendly in similar situations. It’s a conundrum. C. S. Lewis said something about non-Christians who seemed to already be good… something along the lines of “but just think how much better they would be with Christ”. I hope that’s true, but to be honest, I often thought I needed to learn something from these kinds of folks who are exhibiting the “fruits of the Spirit” without following Christ.

  • Sally Nash
    May 1, 2013

    Thank you for this, attended a meal with bankers and homeless run by a project in Melbourne – was really powerful and spoke so much of what the Kingdom of God was like.

  • Courtney @ Neighborfood
    May 1, 2013

    You know the line I appreciated most in this article? “I’m not completely sure.” Thanks for just putting this out there. For letting it sit, unresolved.

    I think the church has enough answers, enough black and whites, right and wrongs, you’re in or you’re out. What’s needed is more questions. More uncertainty. More mystery. We need less confidence in our own understanding and more confidence in the sacrifice and justice of Christ. I honestly find comfort in knowing God operates in ways far beyond my understanding…in ways I’m sure I will be stunned to one day know.

    • Kym
      May 2, 2013

      I love this!

  • yipingpijou
    May 2, 2013

    Terrific post, Zack. I wonder if you can expand on why you put the double emphasis (italic and bold) on “I’m not a universalist.”

    In this context, where you both acknowledge your lack of certainty and praise this Sikh tradition, what compelled you to absolutely shut down the avenue of universalism?

  • Connor Park
    May 5, 2013

    Since you raised the comparison to the Samaritans, I can’t help but remember Jesus’ words at the well with his Samaritan witness:

    “Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

    There’s something to be said for Spirit and Truth, no matter from where or from whom they originate. For Jesus it’s not about the mountain, it’s not about particular theologies, it’s not even about naming God in the same way.

    It’s spirit and truth.

  • Mark
    May 5, 2013

    I think you need to consider a couple of things. First, the greatest commandment from God is to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And out of that commandment comes the second one which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, doing good to others without making God your primary affection is idolatry. That is pursuit of the true God in all of his true character. I cant honesly say I love my wife when I do not know her or assume her attributes and desires.
    Second – In Reading Acts 10, Cornelius was a good God fearing man who did not have the gospel. Peter was called to go preach to him and when he preached the Holy Spirit came down and saved through Peter’s proclomation of the Gospel. The Shiks may be good god fearing people’s, but unless they hear the Gospel then accoring to Acts 10 they are not saved. God throughout the Bible calls people to recognition of sins and that he is the only one who can forgive sins. According to the Bible, good works without recognition of sin and a need for a savior do not reconcile us to God.
    I know that I have wrestled with this issue and many others and that in my pursuit of biblical truth God has been good to show me himself. I hope that he will do that same for you and the others who read this as you wrestle with this. May God reveal more of Himself to us that we may love Him all the more!

  • goobieclick
    May 12, 2013

    I love sikh music esp. Snatam Khar , an American born artist.
    This article reminds me of as something I have read a heard recently called Christ consciousness. The Christ consciousness was before time and is still at work today. Go to seedwork.org download an amazing lecture from episcopal priest Susan Sims Smith India Lecture 2. She talks
    about finding Christ in India and Tibet.

  • Sachman Bhatti
    September 30, 2014

    Hi, I was born into the Sikh tradition and have come to Jesus the Christ. The law is in the hearts of all, and I believe this was in effect in Nanak through Gobind, who called themselves servants of the one and only God. They said to pursue truth and you will find God. I did just that and it landed on bible pages that said those who seek come to know.

    Although Nanak was opposed to superstitious thinking, many Sikhs do get caught up in superstitions but I suppose that happens in Christian circles as well. I know this… I know that I was born Sikh, I surrendered to God and asked him to bring me to the truth, I studied buddhism, I studied yoga, and I was practicing eastern mysticism when I came to realize that the bible was more than just wise, it was on another level. When I came to realize Jesus must have had indeed lived, must’ve indeed been resurrected, which led to repenting, crying in relief in having been led to the truth, looking back and seeing how He brought it all together, the journey and the experience and the Spirit I feel in my life now is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before.

    I came to this page after having a similar thought, that the gurus of SIkhism were humbling themselves to God and regardless of who did it, God loves when we humble ourselves to Him. I also know there is only one judge and how He works this out, is His.

    Here are some writings from Sikh literature: “God projects Himself in the world. He himself gives life and takes it away. He Himself misleads and Himself shows the way. Not many devotees are blessed with the light of His knowledge. I am a sacrifice to them. Who have found the Lord with the Guru’s wisdom, says Nanak, the lotus of their heart has blossomed. And the Lord comes to dwell in it. They remember God day and night. Man! You should hurry to receive God’s protection, all your sins and sufferings will vanish.”

    The use of Guru here means the True Guru (God) who is also called Sacha Padsha which means The True King.

    This is their morning recitation: “He is the true Lord, his name is true. His language is endless love. They ask and ask and ask, the giver always gives. What should I offer to behold His court? What prayer should I make hearing which He should take take kindly to me? In the ambroisal hour of the morning, remember and adore Him. You are born in the image of your karma but salvation is His gift alone, says Nanak, this is the way to know Him. The True One is everywhere.”

    In some of their writings concepts from other eastern philosophical traditions come in and Nanak says God is superior to them. Nanak must’ve known of Jesus because Nanak learned from Kabir who was a sufi poet. I haven’t been able to reconcile this myself. I just know that Jesus is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

    • Sachman Bhatti
      September 30, 2014

      I’d like to add I felt moved and compelled reading Sikh gurus. I felt compelled when they wrote that reciting mantras or simply reading prayers does not mean a thing, although many do. I felt compelled when I read the same guru who started their traditional dressing style write that asceticism does not lay in saffron robes but remaining pure amidst impurities. Sikhism as it is practiced to me did not match the depth that was being shared.

      I can share that my big interest was classical Buddhism, that I studied many of the world traditions, took classes on them, went to the HImalayas, met the Dalai Lama, and I can tell you that it was His masterpiece that brought me to the cross. That it was the narrow gate of Jesus the Christ that gave me what I sought, and through which I found a personal relationship with God.

      The level of humility in recognizing we couldn’t of made it on our own, by our own effort, is liberating. That we all fall short brings to us forgiveness and helps us in forgiving others. Jesus is the pinnacle of spirituality. This is what I believe.

    • Sachman Bhatti
      September 30, 2014

      teachers taught all roads lead to God as long as you seek the Truth. I
      believe they recognized the Spirit. As my friend Tim says, All truth
      is God’s truth. In the story of the Samaritan, Jesus showed how
      spirituality transcends our ethnicity or tribe. I didn’t stop being a
      student (the word Sikh means student). I kept learning. I learned God
      had a begotten son, the messiah, through whom we are reconciled with

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