Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What is a Christian?

A lot of energy is spent by Christians trying to tell one another what a real Christian is. This is not a new phenomenon. It's eerily similar to political mouthpieces trying to say who really represents the beliefs of one party or another.

Were you to ask people What does it mean to be a Christian? or What are the minimal requirements for someone to qualify as a Christian? You could get any number of responses. Some common essential properties of being a Christian you might hear are:

A. Believes the Bible (Or some variation on in what way someone "believes the Bible.")
B. Goes to Church (For Catholics, I would enlarge this to include certain practices like eating fish on Fridays, etc.)
C. Believes "Jesus died for my sins."
D. Believes Jesus was/is God
E. Believes only Christians go to Heaven
F. Believes "You cannot make it to Heaven on your own."
G. Believes in the Resurrection
H. Is a member of my denomination
I. Believes God created the world in 6 days

(What answer would people you know give?)

It seems to me that most, if not all, the above have serious problems. For example, "E is self-referential...saying that a Christian is someone who believes that only Christians go to Heaven does nothing to define who a Christian is. If I believed I was a Christian and believed I was the only one going to Heaven, then "E" would apply to me...but yet I have done nothing to explain by that belief what it means to be a Christian.

Many of the above make no sense historically. We have to assume that the early apostles and their churches should count as "Christians," yet they did not have "The Bible," (indeed, the Church disagreed among itself for centuries as to which books belonged in the Bible and which did not) so one could hardly say that a requirement for Christianity is that you believe the Bible [though one could draw the conclusion that the Old Testament, at least, was accurate, as we see no account of Jesus suggesting otherwise.]

Similarly, the doctrine of atonement in its current state didn't even exist until the 11th century, and early believers did not have the trinitarian formulas the modern church holds so dear. Indeed, Origen, the most important Christian theologian of the 2nd century, would not even be allowed in the church today by that standard.

In addition to historical problems, significant biblical problems stand out from the above list as well. Where do we see early evangelists stressing to non-believers any of these things? If you want to see what makes a Christian a Christian, I think you should look at what the early apostles preached to non-Christians in an effort to have them join the Faith.

A study of acts can be rather revealing here. I've put together the following chart to illustrate what teachings you find in Acts regarding Christianity. I'm focusing on Acts because that is the only book where the focus is on Evangelism to non-believers and new believers.

in Acts
Jesus is
is King
Jesus will
Judge All
Repent!Believers go
to Heaven
go to Hell
2: 14-41xxx

3: 12-26xxx

4: 8-12xx

5: 30-32xxx

5: 42x

7: 1-53x

9: 22x

10: 34-43xxxx

13: 16-41xxx

14: 14-17


17: 2-4, 6-7xxx

17: 18-31

18: 5x

18: 28x

20: 20-22


22: 1-21xx

26: 1-29xx

Based on the above, I'd say that other than emphasizing the Resurrection, the church has rather struck out when it comes to defining who or what a Christian is.

It seems, at least if Paul, James, Peter, and Stephen are good sources, that a Christian is someone who has chosen to follow Christ's practices, repenting of unloving acts that God hates, and believes Jesus is the Christ (as shown by his Resurrection) who has been given power over Heaven and Earth, including the office of Judge.

While none of the above are things that most Christians would disagree with, they are also unlikely to be the first thing out of their mouths when asked What does it mean to be a Christian?

I think Christians in general do not like the idea that repentance is an absolute requirement as opposed to a goal. I would further say that merely believing Jesus is the Christ who sits in power over Heaven and Earth would strike many as "too easy," allowing too many fringe groups in. And in particular, the idea that "Christians, and only Christians, go to Heaven" is such a basic tenet to many that seeing it as not a required one just seems odd. The truth is that the word for Hell does not even show up in all of Acts. One wonders what that says about modern day evangelists and missionaries who start off their message with "Do you know where you are going when you die?"

But what do you think? What does it mean to be a Christian? Are there any passages you believe suggest there is some aspect fundamental to being a Christian that is missing from the message given by the apostles in Acts?


Keren said...

Hi David!

Thank you for visiting the blog. Your style is for sure thought provoking as well as this post..

and for me, since my husband..... who was raised in a southern baptist family, but doesnt really subscribe to any thing of an organized Christian sort (and has more of a mathematical mind than I do),,this is certainly a gift which I will print for him.

Some people do have more a a number sense, or a "how things add up" sense. I love it. We are all differnt but united in the peace and love of our Lord.

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Couldn't those veriations be fluctuations in probability too?

Anonymous said...

A Christian is someone who believes, follows, and demonstrates through their actions that they believe, follow, and live by the examples and teachings of Jesus/Christ/Yeshua. As our relationship with His spirit grows closer we gain a deeper and more demonstrable understanding of what it means to believe in, and follow him. If we are doing it right people can't help but notice that we are different from the world, as He was/is. Take a good look around any "Christian" congregation and it will be obvious that once they leave the building, most Christians are no different than the rest of the world. Most people attend church like they would attend a social event or business club, when the doors open they burst out to their cars, rip out of the parking lot cutting off traffic, and zip home to cook dinner or plan how they can get the upper hand in the meeting or deal they're working on tomorrow. There seem to be a million ways to justify (deny) the fact that once they are out the door of the church it's business as usual. There will be many who will be shocked to death literally when He says, "I don't know you."

David Rudel said...

I totally concur with that last comment.

John Gardner said...

Interesting, isn't it? None of the evangelists in Acts (Stephen, Peter, James, Paul) stated a Creed. Fast forward to 3rd/4th C - Creeds aplenty. And plenty of caustic Hellenistic style debating about the substance of God, lots of vicious infighting & anathemas- culminating in Nicea. Now the Creed overtakes and squats firmly atop the Church. Lots and lots of heterodox Christians and Jews are killed, exiled or silenced for Creeds. Islam rises out in the Arabian desert with the proud and unfortunately accurate claim that they are at least single mindedly monotheistic. Now, centuries later, it astounds me that Christian churches continue to venerate "old" Creeds and generate new ones daily. When will it be ENOUGH?

Why couldn't our forefathers and we just go with this formula: Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him (1 Cor. 8:6)?


Rick Shaffer said...

Reply to What is a Christian?

I believe a Christian is a person who acknowledges that he lives in sin and is sorry enough about his offense to God that he wants to do something about it. Here is my testimony!

I was a heavy drinker, a drug user and a seller of drugs, attempted suicide, hated my own
father for abandoning me, committed
fornication and adultery, cursed God and Christ daily, lied, stole,
coveted, and deliberately hurt people physically and mentally and committed much more evil.

On February 19, 1974 about 10 PM under a traveling gospel tent, I knelt and cried out in repentance to God to forgive me for living as I had and I asked him to make me the kind of person who loved others more than I loved myself! I knew that I was forgiven so much so that I could only sit and say "Wow!" over and over for the longest time. I felt the power of God flood my mind, heart and body so fully that I knew beyond any doubt that I was clean throughout!
I have been loving and serving the Lord Jesus Christ since.

The elements of my salvation were unknown to me then, but now I know clearly what they were.

1 - The Holy Spirit convicted me of my sinful heart and my wicked way of living.

2 - I accepted that conviction in my heart (not just my head) and I acted on it by crying out to God with all my heart for forgiveness.

3 - God knew that I was fully real in my confession and repentance so he made it abundantly clear to me that he heard me and changed me in that moment of time and he proved it by touching me in every part of my being in such a way and with such force that I can never doubt that it was done.

He also turned my wicked, self-centered heart to loving him and serving him and in that great love he taught me that serving others and loving them was a great part of what Christianity was all about. From that day to this I have been blessed with spiritual abundance and power that transcends
anything this world has to offer, and it has resulted in praying for people to be healed and seeing them healed instantly, casting out demons from houses and people, a very strong anointing in teaching and preaching at times, wonderful times of weeping in the presence of God for lost souls, precious times in God's presence that were so overwhelming that I didn't want to leave, many prayers that I never spoke to anyone but God about being answered, and marriage to a wonderful Christian woman who God has blessed to bear seven very special children who have also come to know and love Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

I didn't know anything about the Bible before God transformed my life in 1974. In 35 years of studying the Bible I still have to confess that I don't know much in comparison to what there is to be known, but I know that salvation comes through Christ alone, and all men are sinners and in need of Christ for as it says in the book of Acts, "There is none other name given under heaven among men whereby we MUST be saved." It's not optional - it's a must!

A Christian is one who has been convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit, acknowledged his sin and need of a Savior, asked God to forgive him because of what Christ did on Calvary, received that forgiveness, and lives to love God and serve him and to love and serve his neighbor (which I believe to be everyone within our sphere of influence while we live on earth.

In Christ's Service;


Dan Martin said...

Dave, this says it all:

In addition to historical problems, significant biblical problems stand out from the above list as well. Where do we see early evangelists stressing to non-believers any of these things? If you want to see what makes a Christian a Christian, I think you should look at what the early apostles preached to non-Christians in an effort to have them join the Faith.This paragraph, and your "evangelism matrix" (if I may coin a title) below it, are compelling evidence for the gulf between the "gospel" as envisioned by the early church, and what is purveyed under that label today. You're absolutely correct and I'm going to go highlight this article from my blog!

Keep it coming,