What defines a "Christian?"

(Peter David McNaught) #1

Talking with an agnostic friend of mine, he mentioned his desire to be a Christian but questioned where the line is drawn because he models his life after the person Jesus Christ but does not believe He is divine, or that the Bible is true, or that there is a god. It is a mere personal moral decision, really, that everyone should try to resemble the most loving character in history. In our conversation, I mentioned the spiritual state of Christians I know personally who seem to ride the opposite extreme: they believe in the absolute authority of the Bible, Christ’s divinity, and fundamentally the existence of [the] one true God; however, they don’t model their lives after Christ, nor do they want to.
This interested me: Is it inaccurate to call my friend a “Christian?” Is it an overstatement to call those routine congregants “Christians?”
Traditionally, I can guess the answer to both and would probably agree (No to both) but my reason for inquiry is to discuss the working definition of a “Christian.”
What basic doctrine would we expect someone to agree with that earns them the title “Christian” (doctrine of the Trinity, divinity of Christ, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, etc.)? Does the lack of spiritual fruit, or lack of interest in spiritual fruit, imply backsliding?
I don’t know. I’m not trying to draw the line of God’s grace for Him, but my friend and I are truly curious as to when the title Christian is earned?

(Sandy) #2

@Pete love your honest question! I’d point to two simple but wholly encompassing statements from Jesus, whom he wants to emulate.
John 14:15 - Jesus said “If ye love me, keep my commandments”.
And the greatest commandment? He said…to love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

‘Christian’, though not a word Jesus Himself ever used, we understand to be a name given to those who “believe” on Him, whom God has sent. Since that time, yes, many have ‘taken’ the name. But we do as Jesus told Peter in John 21, “…you follow me”. To be Christian is to have the Spirit of God dwelling within…having received His Salvation…His Yeshua! The evidence is a transformed life. (Let God be true and every man a liar) It’s not that it’s hard to be a Christian…It Is Impossible…without Christ Himself living it out within us…after we’ve come to repentance toward God.

How has your friend even heard of Jesus to decide he wants to model His life - if not from the Word that he doesn’t believe is true? That is…unless he’s made up his own idea of Jesus.

(Anthony Costello ) #3

This is an incredibly important and difficult question. I have been trying to tackle this one a lot recently, because clearly not everyone can be identified as a Christian based solely on saying the words “I am a Christian.” There has to be some minimal content upon which we all agree; and, we also have to leave room for people who profess that content, yet fail morally (because none of us, in this life, will carry out the commandments perfectly). For more on that minimal content, please see the discussion we are having on the early creeds of the church.

Regarding your friend, I would only encourage him to further pursue his study and interest in Christianity. If he is attracted to the person of Jesus, then the sort of heavier metaphysical beliefs about the truthfulness of Jesus’ divinity, His resurrection, or even the existence of God, may very well follow that initial attraction. That is what apologetics is for, to give us confidence that our beliefs are reasonable and warranted. But, often just the desire for Jesus, is the initial step to a more robust, intellectual Christianity.

So, perhaps you just keep his status in tension right now. Only the Lord knows if your friend is a true follower or not; all the while you can just keep encouraging and loving him at the point he is at. Eventually, it will likely be an actual encounter with God that will usher him into this fuller sense of God’s reality, and his salvation. I lived years as a sort of cultural Roman Catholic with various agnostic beliefs; until I stepped into an Evangelical church at the age of 34 and met Jesus Christ in person. When your God concept gets shattered, and God becomes a reality, then you know that you can believe in Jesus’ deity, the reliability of the Scriptures, etc.

With regard to who we call “Christian” in conversation, however, I would say something like this. We should always try and give people the benefit of the doubt. If they identify as Christian, okay, we should simply believe them at the outset. However, it is not like conversations aren’t going to follow. We do have to engage with people about their actual beliefs. And, as I said at the beginning, just saying “I am a Christian” doesn’t mean much, if, for example, you believe that Jesus never existed, or that Mohammed is God’s final prophet. Some people may believe those things and yet claim to be a Christian, but at some point we do have to push back and question why they even call themselves such. We do, after all, have an historical faith that goes back to some real people (the Apostles and Gospel writers) who had particular beliefs about Jesus. We do need to be standing in some kind of continuity with what they proclaimed to be true. There is enough in the Bible to agree upon, even if we have denominational distinctives.

Finally, perhaps we can separate this question into two distinct categories: salvific minimalism, and orthodox minimalism; or, “what does it mean to be saved?” versus “what does it mean to be an orthodox Christian?” All kinds of people might be saved who have very little knowledge about Christianity, or even the Bible. So, with regards to salvation we can have a big tent, because we believe God can have all kinds of ways of bringing people into His church. However, when it comes to defining what Christianity is, then I think we have to do some intellectual work. We have to know what the sine qua non is about this particular system of beliefs. After all, it would be odd if someone claimed to be an atheist, yet believed that God existed; so would it be the same for us.

Hope this helps.

in Christ,
Anthony __

(Jimmy Sellers) #4

You might want to consider following this link. As I understand @anthony.costello objective it will likely address you question in more detail.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #5

I recommend you pick up a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He takes the reader step by step into the Christian faith based off of the essentials in Christian doctrine.

(Jimmy Sellers) #6

I wonder if it would be worth asking you friend why he would want to imitate Jesus. As a skeptic I would be suspicion of the claims of Jesus. He did miracles he forgave sins, he claimed to be equal with God, he quoted OT scripture, he claimed to be King, he was crucified and then resurrected. I believe that it was C.S. Lewis that said Jesus was either, liar, lunatic or Lord, if a liar to be punished, if a lunatic then pitied, if Lord then worshipped. I don’t know how you could pattern your life after such a man as this.
Would it not make more sense to imitate Gandhi or Martin Luther King or maybe Mother Teresa they are real historical people.

(Anthony Costello ) #7

Thanks for linking that Jimmy; I still don’t quite know how to use all of the technical features here on Connect. I’ll be posting the next installment of that series soon.


(Jimmy Sellers) #8

I think @Pete 's question is in around about way the impetus for the creeds.:grinning:

(Omar Rushlive Lozada Arellano) #9

Hello, Peter (@Pete). What you shared reminded me of two quotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

  1. Timothy Keller:

“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

In light of the quotes, I would like to say that it’s inaccurate to say that your friend is a Christian. The term implies that a person who professes to be one is a sinner saved by the grace of God, through the work of Christ, which is God, on the cross. Is it inaccurate to call those routine congregants as Christians? Well, we don’t know the heart of each congregants. So we leave that up to God, in case we have solid reasons to think otherwise that a person is not a Christian.

It seems to me, that the good thing about your friend is that he finds Christ beautiful, because he wants to model his life to Christ. That existential element can help you in being able to more meaningfully share about Christ. It just begs the question to me from where did he get about what he knows about Christ, if Jesus is not divine, and also if the Bible is true. I say this, because the Bible if looked at as a historical document is the best source from where we get to know who Jesus is, and from there, we could see that He claimed to be God, and that His disciples believed it to be so. Christians who followed, like the Early Church Fathers believed it to be so as well.

Maybe you could ask him if he would believe that Jesus is God, or that the Bible is true, if he’s provided with evidence? Since he has that desire to follow Him, and he finds Christ worth emulating. If this is beautiful which makes him want it to be true, we could help him by showing that it’s indeed true.

(Tina Vartis) #10

Hi @Pete. Thanks for your question. There are a lot of great answers to your question and I am not sure how much I can add to the discussion except to approach your question from a different angle. Rather than look at the issue as – “when is the Christian title earned?” think about it more along the lines of identity – “who do I identify as?” I think focusing on earning the title of Christian is approaching Christianity from a more intellectual level rather than focusing on Jesus from a relational perspective. Jesus is fundamentally a relational person not a checklist person. He asked his disciples “who do you say that I am?” If we accept his claims about his identity, and we identify as Christians then out of our love for what he has done for us then would it not be natural to desire to do as he says and follow his commandments and actively commit to modelling our lives after His? If Jesus’ isn’t who he claims to be then why identify with him and model your moral life after a Jesus who is effectively a liar, a moral failure? I think we need both faith and “works” (James 2) to identify as a Christian – the faith to believe in Jesus’ identity and responding to that truth through how we conduct our lives (“works”). For a person to identify as a Christian, it’s not about “either, or” but rather a question of who is Jesus?

(Anthony Hodge) #11

I would also like to recommend Mere Christianity. Your friend sounds open enough to at least hear what C.S. Lewis has to say, may people’s lives (including athiest) have been changed when they spent the time to read the book. Might I also suggest the below video which is 14 minutes long, it is a reading of a short essay by C.S. Lewis called “Man or Rabbit”. Well worth the listen for christian and non-christian alike!

(Jennifer Judson) #12

Great question. So many terms like Christian, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, mainline, etc. have become wide, over-generalized, and charged with emotion (good and bad) such that getting a clear understanding is difficult. Clearly the media often wrongly uses terms they do not understand and that exacerbates the cultural challenges of understanding one another.

With such divergent and wide views of word definitions, I’m wondering if it isn’t more important just to understand one another as accurately as possible on a one on one basis. If, in the context of a discussion, it becomes helpful to get a clearer picture of how the other person defines themself, then it’s worth a few minutes to understand their definition of “Christian.” I’d phrase it something like: “I’d love to hear more about your beliefs. So we’re on the same page with terms that have become so generalized, can you tell me how you would define Christian?” Or, “what you see as the characteristics of a Christian?”

I agree with @anthony.costello his desire to follow the morale teachings of Christ is a starting place filled with potential and perhaps a good opener to further study and discussion. I think it would be an important discovery to find out what he really knows about Jesus. Has he studied him? Is he recalling stories from Vacation Bible School when he was a kid? Has he read parts, or all, of the Gospels? Or, is it perhaps just a general cultural knowledge that Jesus is universally thought of as a great moral teacher?

Knowing a little bit more may give you an inkling of what might be a good next step for him knowing more about Jesus. Since he’s interested in the moral issues, maybe a look at one of the key parables would be a good starting place. I’d suggest the Parable of the Good Samaritan first, as it is extremely relevant in today’s polarized society and what makes a good neighbor. After that a great look into the character of Christ and a good entry into understanding God’s heart for the world is the progression of parables that end with the prodigal son: The lost sheep (the 1%), the lost coin (the 10%), the prodigal son (the 100%). These are such beautiful illustrations of Jesus heart and desire that none should be lost.

Since he is drawn to the moral nature of Jesus it’s likely he’s a person of real compassion. If that’s the case, then these particular parables may speak to his heart.

Another suggestion, if an opportunity presents itself, is the seeker bible study tools produced by Rebecca Manley Pippert: https://www.thegoodbook.com/blog/usefulresources/2016/05/17/becky-pippert-talks-about-seeker-bible-studies/

They are simple and created in a format to stimulate dialog in a relational setting (one-on-one, small group, etc). They are very inexpensive. I’ve purchased them so I have them on hand. The two available are: “Discovering the Real Jesus” (encounters with Jesus from the Gospel of John) and “Uncovering the Life of Jesus” (encounters with Jesus from the Gospel of Luke). I feel they do a great job of helping people see the person they thought Jesus was isn’t quite on point and helps them discover what, and who, is really there.

(Anthony Hodge) #13

I would also add to what I posted earlier, the Apostles Creed would be a good starting point for what is commonly agreed (by most that claim to be Christian) to be the foundational beliefs of Christianity.