Counterfeit Christians and the Real Thing
raid rubbish bins and meticulously go though household waste under
cover of darkness. They copy other peoples’ correspondence,
pocket their utilities bills, watch their commuter patterns, shoulder
surf as their victims stand at automatic teller machines and access
their credit card and drivers license details. When they have enough
profile data, they steal their identities, fraudulently use their
personal information to obtain bank loans, credit cards, passports
and other genuine documents and proceed to spend money in their
names. When circumstances permit, they commit crimes, travel and
pursue assumed lives using their new personae.
fiction? A cheap plot for a “B” grade movie? Not at
all. According to a report recently issued by the UK Government,
identity fraud and theft are on the increase around the world, with
one in ten citizens eventually being deceived by people using stolen
identities. It is big business; it is going on all around us, and it
is on the increase.
Christian community, likewise, is not immune from people stealing the
identities of others and posing as genuine Christians. They sound
just like the real thing. They look and act like believers, but
their lives are a front, disguising their true selves. They observe
Christians in action and imitate the role. Those who do not know the
difference are unaware of their true nature. In fact, in many cases
only God really knows. Counterfeit Christians go through the
motions, but they live a pretence.
recent years I have had a lot to do with identifying forged
documents. I have examined travel documents from many countries and
advised carriers and authorities about the role of fraud in
international travel, people smuggling, human trafficking and related
transnational crimes. Few travellers would be aware of the number of
security features in their passports, tickets, bank notes and other
official documents. These range from complex ultraviolet or
infra-red designs, threads and fibres, to watermarks, security
threads, micro-line printing, optically variable ink, holograms,
scrambled indicia, and hidden, or “intaglio”, images.
Syndicates of good forgers know the features and spend a lot of
effort in richly resourced laboratories producing some of the best
fraudulent documents in the world. Competition is fierce. Teams of
highly trained experts sometimes miss the best forgeries, because
they are of such high grade. Banks, licencing agencies, national
governments, insurance companies, educational institutions and
employers acknowledge fraud and counterfeiting to be one of the
largest money spinners in the world at the present time.
to growth in the forged document industry are the complexity and
sophistication of imposters. There are clear advantages to being an
imposter. For one thing, imposters do not need to obtain forged
documents that can potentially be detected by wary specialists.
Also, it takes the skilled eyes of an expert to look at a photograph,
assess the size and location of the subject’s ears, eyes, nose,
mouth, chin and moles, scars and other identifying features, compare
them forensically to another photograph or the person in question in
a fraction of time and decide whether the two are one and the same.
Increasingly, biometrics, retinal scanning, DNA, electronic
fingerprint analysis, voice mapping and tools that do not rely on the
subjectivity of people to tell the true from the false are being used
to identity imposters.
acts of terrorism and vandalism against humanity have proven that the
best agencies are sometimes incapable of detecting imposters or
distinguishing fraudulent documents from the real thing. It is in
the nature of people to design cover-ups to mask their true
identities, character and other defining features, and to have all
their defences worked out in advance of questioning. Everything is
not always as it appears. Those who try to get past the experts
spend a lot of money and undertake training to do so. What’s
more, people smugglers usually coach their victims with biodata and
histories designed to deceive interviewers.
among God’s people
Bible reveals that counterfeits exist in religious circles. In the
Old Testament, King David lamented when a friend betrayed him (Psalm
55:12-14). What made it galling was the fact that the betrayer was
not a known enemy – if he were, David could have anticipated
problems in the relationship. In the case in question, the
arch-enemy had long posed as a true friend. They had kept company,
shared their hopes and goals and gone to church together. Until one
betrayed the other. What made matters worse was that his son,
Absalom, then worked behind his back and fomented a civil war that
plunged the kingdom into chaos, resulting in great loss of life. In
the New Testament, we read that one of Jesus’ inner-circle
disciples (Judas Iscariot) colluded with his enemies to betray him,
even while he functioned in close relationship, was a trusted
colleague, managed the group’s finances (siphoning off part of
it for himself) and operated as a valued member of the ministry team
(he was even considered an apprentice apostle, cf Acts 1:25).
Friends sometimes turn out to be phonies, imposters, posers, who have
no compunction about double standards as they pursue their own
worst manifestation of fraud is when the enemy emerges from within.
A friend once told me about a missionary contact in China who was
betrayed to the authorities by a member of the church ministry team,
who showed him a pro-communist declaration inscribed beneath the top
of the church pulpit. For years, they had worked, prayed, visited,
planned and taught together. One of the men was the real article, a
genuine believer; the other was a counterfeit Christian.
do not usually expect Christian friends to be counterfeits. In fact,
most of them aren’t. But, just as forgers copy security
features of passports, some professing believers manage to copy the
characteristics of the Christian life. They plausibly pray and they
know all the right vocabulary. They “talk the talk” and
“walk the walk” (Titus 1:10, 16), worship the “right”
way and know the Bible. In their hearts they are far from God (cf
Matthew 15:7-9). Like hybrid roses and camellias, they seem to
produce the right flowers, sometimes more impressively than the
original version; they look good; just don’t get too close, or
you will notice they have no scent. Something essential is missing.
Christians claim to be followers of Christ, but they do not believe
the Bible to be the word of God, Jesus Christ to be the son of God,
or Heaven and Hell to be real. They preach that Christian morals are
relativistic. They insist on their right to have faith on their own
terms. They are universalists, believing all religions are the same.
They yield to seductive arguments and argue that the church can
tolerate gay and lesbian leaders and New Age teachings, as valid
contributions to Christian community and manifestations of Christian
love. They masquerade as Christians, carrying out Christian duties,
but Christ does not recognise them as His own. (Matthew 7:21-23).
do we detect counterfeits?
extra-biblical account of the life of King Solomon relates that the
Queen of Sheba presented him with real flowers and copies that were
so close in appearance that no one could tell the difference. Then
she put the challenge to him. If he were as wise as people commonly
believed, could he tell which were the genuine flowers? “Open
the windows”, commanded the King. Soon enough, bees came in
and went straight for the genuine flowers and ignored the false ones.
We need that kind of discernment. If we choose life, the false will
warned us to look out for wolves dressed as sheep (Matthew 7:15). Or
grandmothers, for that matter. Like the wolf in the account of
Little Red Riding Hood, initial appearances can be deceptive. The
bared teeth of hostility are not always the first thing we notice.
By nature, we usually look for the good and prefer to believe the
facade. That’s why we need divine discernment to know what is
going on. The aging apostle John wrote to Christian friends in his
generation to warn them about false Christians (1 John 2:19). One
sign was an independent spirit. Paul warned his friends to be on the
look-out for false believers (Acts 20:29-3). He said some of the
worst offenders would come from their own number.
Christians, at some stage in their lives, go through crises of faith
to do with the genuineness of their faith. This does not mean they
are not Christians. Let me relate own experience.
grew up in a Christian home and do not remember ever “giving my
life to Christ” for the first time. An evangelical upbringing
was a blessing in many ways, but it led to a major crisis when I was
a teenager. It occurred to me one day that I might not be a
Christian. Every night I prayed that Jesus would come into my heart.
I felt nothing but a growing sense of panic that I had never been a
true Christian, was not one of God’s “elect”, could
not understand or experience real repentance and that I would be lost
for eternity. I struggled for months, scanning the Bible, being
distracted in my church life, walking to and from school asking
myself whether I could have an assurance of faith. I was asked to
speak at a school Christian meeting about the subject, “How Can
I Be Sure That I Am a Christian?” and spoke for an hour about
the Bible and archaeology. I’m sure everyone thought I missed
the topic altogether. On another occasion, a friend asked me if I
knew I was “saved”. I replied that I believed in Jesus
and had been baptised in water, but never shared my doubts with
anyone. It was terrible. I heard a preacher say that he had been a
leading member of his denomination in Australia’s largest state
before he became a Christian. Another helpful friend told me that
John Wesley had been a clergyman for years before he became a
believer, in the Biblical sense. I was confused; it was a black
night of faith.
one day the switch was turned to "On” and my life was
flooded with a great spotlight. I was reading John’s First
Epistle and I came across the words, “God has given us eternal
life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life”
(1 John 5:11, 12). That was it. I had long believed Jesus was God
and that he had come in the flesh – for me. In an instant I
knew that I was a true believer and that I was not an imposter. I
believed that Jesus was God. I knew Christ lived in my heart. The
doubts I had harboured for months vanished. There was no more
period was followed soon afterwards by a life changing experience the
Bible calls the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”. My life
was transformed. The Bible became a new book; I discovered
meaningful prayer; I wanted to share my faith with others. Before
long, Christian friends began to approach me in the street and write
to me, telling me that what I had experienced was “of the
devil” and would not last. I was staggered that established
Christians were ready to judge as Satanic a new dimension of
relationship with Jesus Christ that drew me closer to him, filled me
with His joy, created a hunger for His Word and a deep desire to live
according to His will. I am happy to say the experience did last,
because it was born of God. I am sad my friends chose to call
experiential differences a counterfeit version of Christianity.
young or weak Christians should not automatically be labelled false
believers. (It is easier to sit in judgment than it is to edify
others. The “law of Christ” is represented by the
latter, cf Galatians 6 1, 2).
need to ensure we don’t launch a judgmental persecution against
genuine, but weak, believers. Refugee believers in Sana’a, the
capital of Yemen, once told me they suspected members of the church
they attended to be stooges of the government they had fled, who
reported their activities to agents in Ethiopia. They were convinced
the members were false believers. But, what could they do? In the
end, they decided to continue meeting and worshipping God the way
they always had and trust the Holy Spirit to change the suspects’
hearts and release faith and love. Their changed attitude eventually
broke down the barriers and they discovered the people they suspected
were genuine followers of Jesus after all.
am not an advocate of self-righteous witch-hunts. I have seen too
much of the horror that such purges produce, in places as grim as
Palacios de la Inquisicion in Cartagena and Lima, where people once
had their feet burned, flesh cut off, bodies roasted alive, families
drowned, human frames stretched beyond the limit on cruel
instruments, men and women of faith put on scales to determine
whether they were witches, then flayed alive, for not towing the
religious party line. (No prizes for guessing who was acting in the
spirit of Jesus.) There are too many censorious and Pharisaical
Christian groups and leaders today who spend more time denouncing
Christians whose worship and leadership styles do not fit into their
mould than they do using their energies and resources to proclaiming
Christ. If we fall into this trap we will forfeit our objectivity
and the skill to determine true Christians from false ones, genuine
conversions from mere charlatans. Fortunately, God, not men, is the
judge (Romans 14:10-13).
has a lot to answer for. Stereotypes have split the Christian
movement and diluted our capacity to influence people and change the
world for Christ. We have labelled those who belong to other camps
and traditions heretics, apostates or lesser creatures than us in the
divine pecking order. We have acted as though the Christian brother
who differs from us in terms of interpretation or, worse still,
ecclesiastical tradition, is a charlatan, an alien, less of a
Christian for not belonging to our “side”. We wait for
such a person to trip up, so that we can be confirmed in the belief
that our version is more viable and faithful to divine revelation.
For years I railed against my Catholic neighbours, until I began to
realise some of them loved God as much as I did. What’s more,
while God may not have approved of some of their (and my) practices,
He loved them as much as He loved me.
how do you know you are not a counterfeit Christian? For a start,
genuine Christians are led by the Holy Spirit; he comes to affirm in
our hearts that we God’s children (see Romans 8:16). They
genuinely desire to spend time in God’s presence and among His
people. They hear God speaking to them, including in the Bible.
They want to grow as Christians, to reflect the character of Jesus
and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in their outer lives.
They often fall into ditches, because they are human, but they know
God is loving and restorative and at the bottom of their hearts they
want to live for Him and live and die believing Jesus took their
place on the cross to give them eternal life. If He lives in your
heart, you will know it, even though you frequently feel less strong
as a Christian than you might otherwise wish.
the real product
do not look obvious, like four dollar bills, two headed cows used in
circuses or some of the exaggerated computer-enhanced images that
speed around the world attached to emails. They are more subtle,
sophisticated and invasive. Counterfeit Christians do not recognise
the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They may call him Lord, but their
hearts are not in it. They reject God-given leadership (1 Timothy
6:3-5). They promise much, but deliver little, like clouds without
water (cf Jude 12). They can be persuasive. Often they are
should we respond? What would Jesus do? (“... he knew what
was in their hearts”, Luke 16:15; John 2:25). For a start, he
did not spend three years judging and lecturing Judas, even though he
knew all along that he was a candidate for Satan’s deceit (John
6:64, 70, 71). The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30)
reveals Jesus’ approach. While God the Planter knows there are
false Christians among us, he does not tear down the church in order
to extirpate those who are not genuine, lest real believers be
destroyed. “Give it time. There’s no hurry”, he
tells his workmen. The day of judgment, of separation, will come
soon enough. If false Christians do threaten to divide the Body of
Christ, there are Biblical processes for responding (see Romans
of focussing on the nature of counterfeiting, Jesus emphasised the
power of the truth to liberate men’s hearts and spirits. “The
truth will make you free” (John 8:32). He saw through
falsehood, but only on select occasions did he publicly pass
judgment. On one occasion, he denounced the religious leaders,
telling them that God saw “dead men’s bones”
beneath the white exteriors of their lives (Matthew 23:27, 28).
Usually, however, he left judgment to God (John 3:17). We are all
called to be like fruit inspectors (Matthew 7:16-20), assessing the
evidence in peoples’ lives, but we are not mandated to chop
down the trees. That is the Holy Spirit’s prerogative, by his
means, in his time. We need his guidance; who knows, we may chop
through some genuine roots as we wield the axe in our eagerness to
expose error. Those who are in error are not necessarily our mortal
enemies, but men and women for whom Jesus Christ hung on the cross
and died and who need to repent and start following him.
more powerful and enduring than the lie
do not have to imitate the world to be attractive as Christians. Nor
should we be artificially different. The purpose of God is to
develop Christ-like character in us, not a copy, but imbued with His
Holy Spirit has come to discern truth and falsehood, facts and
fiction, genuine and fraudulent faith, the children of God and
counterfeits. At the end of the day, what God has charged us to do
is not to be self-serving or slaves to our denominational
preferences, but to proclaim the whole truth as revealed in Jesus
Christ, on the divine assumption that true truth emancipates.
Abiding by the truth is important, but if we divide the Body of
Christ and fail to reach the world with the Gospel our use of truth
ends up being un-biblical.
people follow counterfeits because they are spiritually hungry and
because versions of Christianity to which they have been exposed are
tame and boring. Counterfeits often resonate with those who are
searching for “something more”. People need life. If
our faith flows from life, it will be regenerative and dynamic.
we are to be relevant, as Christians in a complex world, we must
allow the Holy Spirit to give us understanding to discern what is not
of God, sanctify what is (not mistaking the two in our zeal or pride)
and work in our lives to make our character more truly like that of
Jesus Christ, the only one whose identity is truly worth imitating.