Eight Litmus Tests for Christian Leadership

A number of years ago, a political candidate knocked on the door of my in-laws in Plymouth, Minnesota. She introduced herself as a candidate for political office, so I asked her about her view of abortion. When I did so, she became visibly agitated and angry. She told me that she thought abortion was not a real issue and that it should not be used as a litmus test.

Several years later I exited an interview with a group of Board members. Upon exiting, another prospective employee excitedly questioned me, “What did they ask; tell me, what did they ask you?” He wanted to know the litmus test questions of Board members.

The existence of litmus tests to discern the doctrinal and/or practical stand of politicians or Christian leaders is not negative, but rather a necessary reality. The issue at hand becomes what the litmus tests are, and how they are applied. The following provides eight litmus tests. Their inclusion on this list is merely by way of example, and does not imply an endorsement of the question. The esteemed reader may also think of other questions.

Issues of biblical interpretation

  • Are you a premillennial? Sometimes the hidden issue is biblical interpretation.
  • Do you believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11? Sometimes the hidden concern is adherence to evolution versus creationism.

Doctrinal issues

  • How do you feel about biblical inerrancy? The term inerrancy usually implies adherence to the authority of the Bible, and submission to its all of its words as interpreted literally and contextually. Because there are seven views of inerrancy, an answer to this question can be equivocal in nature.
  • What is your opinion of the Doctrines of Grace? Calvinism and non-Calvinism have become very divisive issues in some circles. Therefore, adherence to Calvinism or a clear disavowal of the same has become a litmus test in this arena.

Evangelism issues

  • What do you think of the Great Commission and its place in the ministry of the local church? The primacy and urgency of evangelism are sometimes litmus tests for church leadership.
  • What do you think of ________? Then is inserted a particular method of evangelism, be it servant evangelism, door-to-door, or apologetic evangelism. In this case, the person asking the question often seeks adherence to or non-negativism towards a particular style of evangelism.

Cooperative/ecumenical issues

  • How do you feel about _______? Then is inserted a denominational program. The questioner may be looking for denominational conviction or perhaps an affirmation of denominational independence.
  • How do you feel about the Catholic Church? Convictional openness to Roman Catholicism, usually tested by secondary questions, appears to have become a new litmus test for those teaching on or writing in church history.

Views on evangelism are a bit faddish. And most Christians have clear views on what they believe is right and not right. However, ecumenism is a different thing. We only find fault with what we experience, know, and study. So ignorance can be a problem in the area of ecumenics. Interestingly, since the 1994 “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (brokered by the now departed Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson), openness to Catholicism appears to have become a new litmus test in Evangelical academia.

That being said, litmus tests do have value. Doctrinal and practical positions in one area often spill over to views in other areas as well. Further, Christian leaders may desire to hide their views on touchy subjects. Thus some litmus tests allow the interviewer to discern other views by use of tangential reasoning.

The danger with any litmus test is that it be taken in a vacuum, not considering context, or other important doctrines and practical concerns. Some, looking for quick and easy answers, may not see the full ramifications or implications of an untried or untested litmus test. Young minds often fall prone to quick judgment, and may easily fall prey to a heavy reliance upon litmus tests—which is not all bad!

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
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