Institutional Christianity has historically identified itself based on doctrinal compliance, which means correct beliefs and proper response to those beliefs. In this fashion Christianity generated a dichotomy, polar opposite subsets of humanity- the saved and the damned. The spiritual state of everyone was one or the other at any instant in time.
In church theology there is no room for a gradual spiritual transition from one spiritual state of being to another. The church does try to fill in the missing element by fostering what they call discipleship- some sort of further spiritual development which involves embracing the "Christian lifestyle". However, this comes after the instantaneous change from the lost to the saved state. By implication, becoming a Christian and living like Christ are two completely different things.
Both the insistence on doctrinal compliance as the true measure of a real Christian and the notion that becoming a Christian is an instantaneous transformation leads inevitably to the numerous inconsistencies and incongruities which plague the church and roil its membership.
Based on doctrinal compliance the church declares a variety of human activities as un-Christian- things like alcohol use, birth control, profanity, failure to attend the church, etc. Most any church member, Protestant or Catholic, will probably admit that if they don't personally engage in one or more of this prohibited activities, they know plenty of church members who do. Now some church leaders will readily admit that the churches are full of unsaved, non-Christians; but that admission does nothing to ameliorate the evident fact that countless folks in the churches don't really believe what they are taught there. They show up for some reason and lend apparent approval to church doctrine but in fact don't really care about doctrinal compliance. If church members evidently don't believe the church's message, why should the unchurched?
Additionally, the doctrinal compliance measure of Christianity has never been a settled matter. For over a thousand years there has been no generally recognized doctrinal position that defined a Christian for everyone. For most if not all of their history the various elements of the church considered all outside denominational groups as non-Christian, i.e. damned. If Christianity can't agree on who is a Christian, why would anyone outside accept any particular version of Christianity as valid. Unverifiable claims to being true to the Bible are largely discounted because most churches assert a biblical basis for their theology.
The general population's ignorance of the Bible and the church's traditional reliance on special interpreters magnifies the confusion and a general skepticism. The common denominational wrangling does not inspire faith in the church, and the special interpreters seem a bit too self important to be divinely appointed guides.
Next, we must deal with the fact that traditional church doctrine insists that there is only one way to be numbered as a Christian, to be saved, and to escape God's Wrath- compliance with church doctrine and the associated requirements. However, we see that in several ways the church makes exceptions to that hard rule, both explicitly and implicitly.
In the vast majority of funerals conducted in Christian churches, the deceased in given the benefit of doubt as to their eternal state, regardless of their actual compliance with that church's definition of a Christian. Occasionally a funeral orator might be so bold as to condemn the departed, but such is not generally acceptable even to staunch church members. No one may overtly say that the non-Christian departed family member or friend actually went to heaven, but the reluctance to say otherwise is telling.
Given the fact that people naturally recoil from the idea that innocent, young children could die and suffer God's Wrath, we witness the biblically unsupported doctrine of the age of accountability. The various attempts by the church to justify this exception by citing isolated Bible stories are exceedingly weak, especially when there is no agreement on when accountability begins.
In the same fashion, the church generally grants an exception to people of limited mental capacity. This again derives largely from the push back by the parents of such individuals. As in the case of young children, everyone recognizes the impossibility of some being church compliant in order to be a Christian. When enough members reject the implications of church doctrine, creative interpretation is always available.
There is an implied exception to the need to be a Christian in connection with deceased military veterans. In extolling the military role and in likening the dead soldier to Jesus in terms of self sacrifice, many churches apparently assume that all our military dead escape the divine wrath which accrues to other non-Christians. No one would claim that all soldiers are Christians by the church definition; and, concurrently, its hard to explain how anyone who is revered as a type of Christ could end up divinely rejected.
The bottom line to exceptions to the rule is that there is no rule. This sort of theological compliance is a matter of convenience. When it serves the purpose, church theology is sacred; when it is inconvenient in its outcome and implications, then it can be as flexible as necessary.
Finally, we must deal with the church's long standing insistence on itself and the secular government as the enforcement arm of societal morality as defined by church doctrine. This church/government interplay is everywhere exhibited in the rampant political involvement of the church. They constantly solicit the support of governmental figures in coercing compliance to their doctrinal dictates. Ironically this political activism is often justified as an exercise of religious freedom. How religious freedom is maintained or even enhanced by coercive measures is never really explained.
In reality the church's reliance on enforcement as the moral catalyst in our society is an explicit denial of the efficacy of the church's message. If what the church taught as transformative was persuasively and demonstrably true, there should be no reason to strong arm people into compliance. Jesus was no warrior or politician. He routinely rejected violence and sidestepped political arguments. Those who insist otherwise, must ignore the larger picture of Jesus in favor of isolated passages which they find supportive.
The whole idea that doctrinal compliance is the measure of acceptance or rejection by God demands clarity and conciseness in the divine revelation of that required doctrine. All those familiar with how church doctrine is formulated from the Bible know that clarity and conciseness are not involved. In order to develop and support various doctrinal points, scattered Bible passages are linked in some web of "logic" using a series of basic assumptions about the text and its overall meaning and purpose. Both the assumptions and the logic are always subject to challenge.
We all inevitably "cherrypick" the Bible. It's a lengthy and complex book, which despite the best efforts of countless students, does not readily lend itself to a consistent theology. That fact alone should demand a large measure of humility as we approach it and then present our personal understanding to the world.
An institutional world religion, based on rules it can't agree upon, exceptions it can't explain, and a coercive political stridency it can't justify, is not the ultimate answer. It might nudge us toward an answer, but the answer itself lies elsewhere.