No True Scotsman

Scripture:  Romans 14:1-13

Back in 2019 I was able to attend the Star Wars celebration in Chicago, which was kind of like a dream come true for me.  However, I was a little anxious about going, and one of the interactions I had on the second day showed why.  I was in line to be the first people to see the premiere trailer for what was going to be the newest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.   The previous Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, is actually my absolute favorite Star Wars movie.  However, that particular film can be somewhat divisive.  There are some people who really dislike it and then tend to be quite vocal about why.  It turns out the guy I was behind in line was one of those people.  It did not take long in the conversation before he started railing against The Last Jedi, before he said, “We all know, no real Star Wars fan likes that movie right?”  I quietly stated, I did in fact like it and he more or less stopped talking to me.

His statement, that no real Star Wars fan would like the movie he did not, was in fact a well-known logic fallacy that is referred to as an appeal to purity or more informally as the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.  It gets this name from a 1966 philosophy book which in part seeks to define this fallacy.  Strictly defined this is when someone attempts to protect a generalized statement from an example that shows the statement was false by excluding the counterexample.  A simple example is often given to illustrate how this works.  One person states: “No Scotsman put sugar on his porridge”, to which someone replies “but my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge”, so the first person comes back with “but no true Scotsman put sugar on his porridge.”

The No True Scotsman fallacy is an attempt to define who belongs and who does not belong to a specific group by a completely subjective set of criteria.  When someone employs this fallacy it is to say that those who agree with the person belong and those who do not agree do not belong.  This is a fallacy, because the criteria that is being used is not what actually decides who belongs or does not.  While this concept gets its name from a silly example involving Scotsman, sugar, and porridge perhaps it could have also been accurately called the No True Christian fallacy, because unfortunately using subjective criteria to define who gets to call themselves a Christian and who does not has been a problem that happens again and again.  This morning’s scripture shows that the problem goes back to close to the beginning.   This morning’s scripture is Paul’s attempt to argue against the No True Scotsman fallacy and it is attempt to state that gate keeping tests should not be used to determine who is out and who is in the community of Jesus followers.  This morning’s scripture emphatically states that we should accept those who God accepts.

Today we view and understand the epistles of the New Testament to be divinely inspired scripture.  While that can be true, we also have to remember that letters like Romans were written to specific communities of faith, in specific times, at specific places.  In this morning’s scripture we get into some of the very specific issues that the church of Rome is dealing with.  We see the crux of the issue that the church is struggling with spelled out in verse 2: “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another whose faith is weak eats only vegetables.”   It should be pointed out that the idea of weak here does not refer to someone who is struggling with faith or only has a nominal faith.   It may be perhaps more helpful to think of the word weak in this scripture to mean novice.  It is not necessarily a value judgement on the quality of the person’s faith.   Understanding why they are having this dispute in the first place sheds light on to what Paul is talking about.

Biblical scholars tend to agree that the church in Rome that Paul was writing to was a faith community that was made up of believers who came from both a Jewish background and a Gentile, or non-Jewish background.   The conflict here seems to relate to Jewish dietary laws.  We know from Acts and several of the other epistles that when the early church gathered together it was often around a meal together.  The issue appears to be that, at least in Rome, the protein options were not terribly kosher.  This could be because the right type of animals were not readily available or it could be that it was a common practice that nearly all of the meat offered in the marketplace had been part of some sort of pagan sacrifice.  In a place like Rome it would have been almost impossible to avoid this.  From a Jewish perspective either of these would have made the meat unclean which is why they stuck with vegetables.  Paul actually states his perspective in verse 14: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded, in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.”

It was Paul’s belief that being saved by grace through faith, meant that following certain dietary restrictions was not necessary for following God.  However, for these new Jewish believers who had grown up firmly planted in a tradition that adhered to strict dietary restriction this was a bit much.  It was too drastic of a change from what they had always been used to doing, so they kept doing what felt comfortable to them.  Apparently this difference in eating habits was causing some friction in the Roman church.  It was leading to the different groups to look at each other with contempt.   Based on some of the admonishments that Paul makes in this morning’s scripture reading it is not hard to imagine that some of the charges being leveled.  One Roman believer might have held a position such as, “No true follower of Jesus would follow dietary laws to honor God because they are not necessary.”  Then one of the believers who was following the Jewish dietary laws would shoot back something along the lines of “Well, no true follower of Jesus would dishonor themselves and God by eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols.”

Both sides were beginning to use this issue of dietary restrictions to determine who is in and who is out.  Both sides were using a subjective guideline of their own choosing to determine who is a Christian and who is not.  Both sides were using their personal criteria to judge the other.   Paul makes it clear they should cut this out and accept one another because God has already accepted them.  He makes this point with a rhetorical question in verse 4 where he asks: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”  He then flat out states this is in verse 13 “Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another.  Instead, make up your mind not to put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”

Paul instructed one of the first churches in the first century to stop passing judgement on one another, and unfortunately we collectively have not done the best job at doing that over the years.  Even to this day it is not hard to find instances that people hold up various criteria to exclude other people from being considered a true Christian.   For instance this happens over denominational lines.  On the protestant side, there are those who will claim our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ are not true Christians because they pray to marry or follow the leadership of the pope.   We can also find people using theological or ideological issues to define who they consider a true Christian or not.  As an example, it is not too hard to find people who claim that we, United Methodists are not true Christians.  The criteria they use to determine this is that in the United Methodist church we believe that women are just as capable of being used by God as men so we ordain women to ministry.  And for some that means we are not true Christians.  All of this, all of these little tests or completely arbitrary standards that we make up to determine who is a true follower of Jesus or not is so ridiculous, because we are not the ones who get to decide.   Unfortunately, Paul’s words that he wrote in this morning’s scripture are still relevant.  The point he made in verse 4 applies just as much to the church of the 21st century as it did to the church of the 1st century:  “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To their own master, servants stand or fall.  And they will stand for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

This morning’s scripture is a strong statement that we should not use some sort of personal, subjective standard to determine if someone is a Christian or not.  I realize this might leave you wondering, well then what is the standard?  I get that, because logically there has to be one, right?   There has to be some sort of standard, because after all not everyone in the world is a Christian so there must be some sort of evaluative way to determine who is and who is not.  And there is.  Paul actually plainly states this standard in Romans, in chapter 10 verse 9: “If you declare with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”   That’s it.  The standard for being a Christian is loving Jesus.  That is it. Nothing else.  When we add to that standard, when we complicate it with extra criteria to determine who is a true Christian, all we do is put up stumbling blocks.  We get in the way of people loving Jesus.

There is a story that illustrates just how we can put up stumbling blocks.  The story goes that there was a young boy who came from a family that was not very religious.  He may have heard a preacher on the TV, or it could have been something else but something got into him and he wanted to know more about Jesus.  So on Sunday morning, he left and walked across to the biggest, most beautiful church in town.   This was the kind of church that the phrase “country club church” was created for.   This was the kind of church that the right people went to so they could be seen.  This was the kind of church that took great pride in their stained glass windows, Mahogany pulpit and silver candle sticks.   The boy walked into the church and sat down near the back.  In a few minutes the head usher came and tapped him on the shoulder and said he needed to move because he was in Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so’s seat.  While waiting for the service to start, one woman of the church got his attention and strongly rebuked him for the clothes he was wearing.  He wore what he always wore that day, but apparently since it was not his Sunday best it was not good enough.  The boy meekly apologized.  Once the service started this unchurched boy was lost.  He did not know when to stand, when to sit, and what a hymnal was.  He tried to ask those around him for help, but again found the head usher tapping him on the shoulder and telling him to keep to himself. The service went on, and the boy got more and more confused and impatient.   Finally, in the middle of the sermon the boy raised his hand and said “excuse me, can you tell me more about Jesus?”   There was silence, and the head usher stormed over to the boy, practically picked him up, and carried him out of the sanctuary.    The head usher said, “If you cannot follow our rules, then you need to leave” and pointed to the door.  The boy left the church, sat down on the curb and began crying.   A man stopped and asked him “what’s wrong.”  The boy looked up and instantly knew this man was Jesus.   The boy said through sniffles, “They kicked me out of there.”   Jesus smiled and said, “That’s OK, they kicked me out of there years ago.”

Clearly the church in that story is a caricature, but it is unfortunately one that bears an uncomfortable amount of truth.  There are too many people who feel like they have been kicked out of churches because they were essentially told they were not true Christians due to the fact they did not meet some standard or follow some arbitrary set of rules.  Too many people have had stumbling blocks to faith placed in front of them, and they have been placed there by other Christians.  Think of all the resources, energy, and time that has been wasted over the years by Christians bickering with one another about who is a true Christian and who is not.  Imagine if all of that time and energy was used in affirming others that God loves them, facilitating others in loving Jesus, inviting others to come and know Jesus, and just getting out of the way so that all people have the ability to love Jesus.   We need to be mindful that we are not judging other people who love Jesus or treating them with contempt, because as this Paul wrote in this morning’s scripture, “Why do you judge your brother or sister? . . . For we will all stand before God’s judgement seat.

So may we not worry about if someone is a true Christian or not.   May we let the answer to the question “do you love Jesus be enough?”  Instead of judging people who hold a different viewpoint of theological or ideological matters, may we accept them because God has accepted them.   May we not be a stumbling block to others, but may we instead be people who encourage others to love Jesus all the more.  May we embrace the incredible diversity that God has created and Jesus has invited into be part of his church.


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