"I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Yes, it is the battle of the ages: Christianity versus Christ. And virtually everyone agrees that Christ wins hands down.
After all, almost everyone likes Jesus Christ. But Christians? They're judgmental! They're hypocrites! They do very unchristlike things! So, liking Jesus is easy because he taught love and forgiveness. Christians, on the other hands, talk about love and forgiveness, but many neither forgive nor love all that much, right? So, one can follow Christ without being a Christian, right? Gandhi was right when he said, "…to be a good Hindu also meant that I would be a good Christian. There is no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example."
This is, in sum, the argument made in an article in the Washington Times by Frank Raj entitled Gandhi glimpsed Christ, rejecting Christianity as a false religion. While quoting from the Bible in places, he elaborates:
Christianity asks people to follow wise men in a hierarchy; Christ asks people to follow him in Spirit and in Truth. Christianity requires institutional membership; Christ has promised to be anywhere two or three gather in his name. Christianity binds individuals with ritual and tradition; Christ warns that tradition makes God’s Word void in people’s hearts. Christianity has blood on its hands, it is guilty of untold depravity; in John 8:46 Christ demands, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”
Because Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam etc., were each founded by one individual, it is assumed that Christianity falls in the same category. But Jesus was not its founder - it was legalized as Rome’s state religion in 317 by the emperor Constantine.
The fact remains truly knowing Christ need have nothing to do with Christianity.
Down the ages with its violent history of power and politics, debauched clergy and widespread division, Christ has been consistently sullied and concealed by what the world accepts as "Christianity." Often it displays no resemblance to the name it bears. It is man-made and not all Christians consider it authentic or desirable in its current institutional model.
Many are concluding that a choice must be made, and following Christ authentically and simply as he showed how, is the growing preference.
Even the uninitiated in their hearts know that Christ brings peace and unity, all else has been tried and found wanting.
Well, with all due respect to to both Raj and Gandhi, the answer is no. One must be a Christian to follow the teachings of Christ. Or more accurately, if one is following the teachings of Christ then one is a Christian.
Let me back up for a moment and respond to some of what Raj claims as fact. First, there is no question that people have done some horrendous names in the name of Christ. It is certainly true that people calling themselves Christians have engaged in slavery, murder and any number of other acts that the world largely agrees are bad. In some cases, they have used the Bible and Jesus' words to try to justify these actions. On a smaller scale, it is also true that people calling themselves Christians have been mean, spiteful, and hypocritical. Look at the ignoramuses at the Westboro Baptist Church and how they spread their gospel of hate against homosexuals and the families of dead American soldiers. More recently, one can look at that incredibly stupid pastor in Florida who burned a Quran which directly led to the death of United Nations workers in Afghanistan when the Muslims in that country predictably rioted at the news. These are acts done in the name of Christ, but they certainly are not Christ-like.
But Raj's argument (and that of Gandhi, as well) assumes that Jesus was simply a teacher who taught about love and forgiveness. In this view, Jesus is seen as a moral teacher or someone who taught "be good and you will be rewarded with heaven."
But that view ignores the main point of what Jesus actually taught...and did.
Contrary to Raj's article, Christianity does not "ask people to follow wise men in a hierarchy. There may be an aspect of that in the Roman Catholic Church, but even that Church teaches that the teachings of the man at the top of the hierarchy, the Pope, is speaking what God tells him to speak as if God Himself is speaking. But most of Christianity -- especially those whose teachings have a core belief that the Bible is the true Word of God -- teach that the relationship with God through Jesus Christ (often phrased as "having a personal relationship with Jesus") is the central teaching of Christ. Christianity absolutely teaches what Raj says Christ teaches, i.e., Christ asks people to follow him in Spirit and in Truth.
Raj claims that Christianity requires institutional membership. Really? Again, most churches maintain membership roles, but few, if any, teach that one must be a member of a particular institution to be Christian. That is usually more of a sign of a cult than of Christianity. Christianity certainly believes that Christ has promised to be anywhere two or three gather in his name. Does Raj really believe Christianity does not teach this?
Raj asserts that Christianity binds individuals with ritual and tradition. This is entirely too vague to directly counter because I don't know what he means by "bind" and which rituals or traditions he is referencing. I mean, if by ritual he is referencing Communion, Raj apparently overlooked the fact that Christ himself said that when we eat of the bread and drink of the wine we should do so in remembrance of Him. Since the very beginning, those that followed Christ (including those who learned at his feet) have understood this to mean that they should celebrate Communion as a body of believers. And what does he mean by "bind"? I know of no modern church that says that anyone must share communion or be condemned. So, what does he mean?
Moreover, Raj follows by taking Jesus Christ out of context when Raj claims that Jesus "warns that tradition makes God’s Word void in people’s hearts." This appears to be a reference to the account of Jesus being questioned by the Pharisees (who Jesus referenced as a "brood of vipers") and teachers of the law who were questioning why Jesus allowed his disciples to eat food without following the proper cleanliness laws set up by the elders -- not by God. Jesus does not say that traditions are bad -- rather Jesus declares in Mark 7:9 that the Pharisees were "setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" Traditions consistent with the commands of God do not make God's word void -- only those traditions that (like anything else) set themselves up against a true knowledge of God.
I could go on with debunking most of what Raj says, but I think it important to get back to the question at hand: can a person follow Jesus and not be a Christian? The answer is no. The reason is very simple. Gandhi said (and Raj apparently agrees) that there is "no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example." But following Christ has nothing to do with believing in the beauty of his teachings or following his example. It is, as Raj pointed out earlier without understanding, about "following Jesus" in spirit and in truth. Not just following his teaching -- following Jesus Himself.
"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks his disciples. Jesus answer is clear and unequivocal: "I and the Father are one." (John 10:30) He is God incarnate. Jesus says, "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:40) Moreover, Jesus added, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (John 3:36)
Christianity is what we call the belief that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God in whose name one need believe in order to be saved. This is what Jesus taught. One cannot be a person who follows the teachings of Christ, including those quoted above, and not be part of Christianity. One cannot truly follow Jesus without becoming part of Christianity; one can only pick and choose portions of his teachings while ignoring the core of what Jesus said and what He did.
Christianity, however, is made of fallen people. Fallen people make mistakes. We are sinful and we cannot follow God's law perfectly. In fact, no one comes close to following God's law -- including Gandhi. But merely because we Christians are often bad witnesses does not mean that Christianity itself is false. It merely means that Christians need the saving gift of Jesus as much as everyone else.
Christians ought to be crying out to God for forgiveness for having "consistently sullied and concealed" Christ by our own evil and sin. We collectively have turned people away from Jesus by our witness. But Christianity remains the best human expression of what God wants from us, and anyone who truly professes what Jesus taught is necessarily Christian.