One might think that defining a Christian would be simple. Websters Dictionary defines the word Christian to mean adherent of Christianity, or relating to or professing a belief in Christianity or Jesus Christ. Simply put, a Christian is defined as one who believes in Jesus Christ.
The Encyclopedia Britannica states:
writers of Christian history normally begin phenomenologically when discussing Christian identity; that is, they do not bring norms or standards by which they have determined the truth of this or that branch of Christianity or even of the faith tradition as a whole but identify everyone as Christian who call themselves Christian. According to Britannica, a revered source in continuous publication since 1768, a Christian is plainly defined as someone who calls themselves a Christian.
Some Refute the Defining of a Christian
Despite the simplicity of the aforementioned definitions, there are some individuals and institutions who sternly contend that there are self-described Christians, and in fact entire sects of self-proclaimed Christian religions, who should not be considered Christians at all. As odd as this may seem, such allegations are common and emotionally charged. The website religioustolerance.org attempted to define a Christian and described the exercise as a lightning rod, and that the conclusions they came up with generated many emails from angry Christians who denounce it, especially among Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Protestants. The FCS encourages visitors to examine the content generated by religioustolderance.org on the subject of defining a Christian .
Reminiscent of the Pharisees of old, the contentious individuals and institutions who deny the Christianity of others often utilize their personal interpretation of scripture and synthetic dogma to support their assertions. They contend the privilege of earning the Christian label is dependent on such things as being born again, believing in the Triune God, accepting certain creeds, and/or belonging to a particular faith community. The absurdity of the dynamic reaches its pinnacle when those who bear testimony of their devotion to Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Redeemer are rebuked and denied the Christian marker by those who disagree with their religion and/or theological beliefs. It causes one to ponderwhat would Jesus do?
The word Christian appears three times in the scriptures, all three in the New Testament. Acts 11:26 reveals that the Disciples of Christ were first referred to as Christians in Antioch, indicating those who followed Christ were starting to be referred to as Christians. Before that time it was common for those who followed Christ to refer to one another as brothers (or brethren), disciples, or believers. In Acts 26:20 King Agrippa tells Paul Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian, likely indicating the term Christian was beginning to be used (perhaps even regularly) to refer to a believer in Christ. In 1 Peter 4:16, Peter refers to those who would suffer as a Christian, signifying that those who consider themselves Christian should be happy in their persecutions and trials. In all three scriptural references that use the term Christian, not one denotes any further requirement to be a Christian other than believing in and following Jesus Christ.
In the Greek language (ancient and modern) its common to refer to a group of people by taking the root geographic location or ethnicity of that people and to add the suffix anos. For instance, those from the Cretan village of Spili are referred to as Spilianos, and a follower of Mohammed (Moameth in Greek) is referred to as Moamethanos. The reference to Christians in the original Greek translation of the New Testament is Christianos, meaning a follower of Christ. Although the term Christianos is historically believed to have been used in a derogatory sense by unbelievers, the meaning of the word remains.
When one combines the three New Testament references to Christian, the historical context of the time, and the linguistics of the original Greek, one must conclude that a Christian is simply one who follows and/or believes in Christ. Should one desire to create a deeper definition of a Christian using 1 Peter 4:16, then the most far reaching conclusion that can be drawn is that a Christian is one who not only follows Christ, but more deeply puts their trust in him, is reliant upon him, and seeks to live a life that exemplifies himall difficult traits to quantify and thus of little value in defining a Christian.
The Testimony of an Apostle as a Litmus Test
One would never doubt the testimony of the apostle Peter, despite the fact he had his own moments of weakness during the trial and Atonement of Christ. When asked by the Savior But whom say ye that I am? Peter boldly replied, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus Christ confirmed Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven (Matt. 16;15-17). Perhaps we can use Peters testimony as a litmus test for all prospective Christians: do they believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God? If the answer is affirmative, then they are indeed a Christian.
Jesus Christ in Humility was Inclusionary
Jesus Christ never administered any theological exams to his disciplines, nor established any notable prerequisites to being a Christian other than to believe on him as the Son of God. Many were healed of the vilest of infirmities by simply believing in Jesus Christ as one who had the authority to perform such healings. There is no mention in the scriptures that the healed were made whole because they embraced the doctrine of the trinity, nor because they were classified as born again, nor because they belonged to a particular sect of believers. They were healed because they believed, or were blessed to have a believer intercede on their behalf, that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus was never one to be exclusionary in his ministry, but rather inclusionary across a broad spectrum. This is beautifully illustrated in Luke 9:49-50 which reads: And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. Jesus did not ask about their specific belief system, nor what group of disciples they congregated with. Rather, Jesus proclaimed that those who act in His name are to be considered His disciples. Many Christians today would do well to understand this passage of scripture and apply it to their own actions towards others.
The World in Pride is Exclusionary
If Jesus was so inclusionary, why then do we have modern day Pharisees fighting so hard to narrow the definition of a Christianeven to the persecution of fellow Christians? Do these individuals, like the apostle John in the passage from Luke 9, seek for a more exclusive club and complain when others call themselves Christian but dont practice the same rituals or beliefs as they do?
The likely root of the reason for such passionate denials of Christianity upon others is pride and arrogance. Such pride can manifest itself into a fear of not clearly understanding the theological beliefs of others, nor taking the time to earnestly do so, thus resulting in the easier resolution of flatly denying to acknowledge anothers Christianity. There may be fear that such acknowledgement will lead to acceptance of anothers beliefs leading to a loss of membership or validity in their own religion.
Greed may play a role in the denial of the Christian label by ecclesiastical leaders resisting the loss of tithe paying members by employing a strategy of quiet slander towards other denominations. Additionally, one cannot rule out the possibility of Sauls Syndrome, where like Saul who persecuted the Christians of old out of his zeal for the law, well intentioned individuals seek to protect the faithwhen in essence they are fighting against the true will of God.
Excerpt from the article on Saul's Syndrome: in keeping others from the truth. Consider the Pharisee Saul before his radical conversion to the Lord when he afterwards became Paul. Through his disciplined spiritual education among the finest teachers in Jerusalem, and an unrivaled passion to protect the ways of the Lord as he knew it, Saul persecuted and fought against the spread of Christianityeven unto death among those he victimized. Paul was so blinded by his passion for what he believed to be right that he never considered that his interpretation of the scriptures and his spiritual belief system may be wrong. It wasnt until the Lord himself appeared to Saul that he relinquished his incorrect interpretation of Gods doctrine and embraced the true gospel. How many millions today suffer from the same syndrome as Saul where religious passion overcomes the promptings of the Holy Ghost?
No matter what the specific reasons are, the resulting fruits of such denials of Christianity are disunity in the body of Christ, the spread of misinformation, and the sowing of seeds of discord among brethren (Prov. 6:19).
Differences in Gospel Living, but all are Christians
Beyond being identified as a Christian, there is an abundance of doctrine in the scriptures that helps explain true Christian beliefs and practiceseven the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2: 9-10). Some Christian theology is simple to understand, while other theological concepts are more difficult. Paul to the Corinthians and Hebrews used the metaphors of milk and meat to indicate there were simple doctrines (milk) and more complex doctrines (meat) (1 Cor. 3:2 and Heb. 5:12), and that one must be able to digest the milk before moving on to the more difficult to digest meat.
Paul points out that there may be various stages of understanding of the doctrines of Christianity among Christians. This difference in doctrinal understanding, combined with the moral agency of mankind that can lead to good and bad choices, results in their being stronger Christians who live their lives according to the precepts espoused by Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:34-36), and weaker Christians who find it difficult to live their lives in accordance with the gospel (Matt. 7:21-23). Regardless of what stage there are in, both are Christians and both must individually exercise their moral agency to accept or reject the ordinances and principles of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Likewise, both must accept the consequences of their actions in the Day of Judgment. There will be Christians (valiant and less valiant) in all three kingdoms in the eternitiesperhaps even some who will end up relegated into outer darkness.
It is the hope and prayer of the FCS that the Christian world can unite on the simple principle of allowing everyone who claims Jesus Christ as their Savior to be respectfully referred to as a Christian without caveats. We can peacefully and considerately coexist as brothers and sisters in Christ, while ascribing to different Christian beliefs and church affiliations. Imagine what we can accomplish as a diverse Christian family working together to fulfill Gods purposes on earth.