To say, “I am a Christian” is a very confusing thing. People think it implies a whole bunch of things. Maybe you’d say a Christian is someone that believes in God, or goes to church, or thinks certain things about Jesus. Maybe, it would imply a whole lot of negative things for you like, they are a bible basher, or they hate homosexuals or they are hypocrites who don’t practise what they preach.
In the end, the title “Christian” may seem a little meaningless. It can be used by anyone to mean almost anything, and so because of it’s ambiguity or the baggage it can carry, some people ditch the name altogether. Not because it does not accurately describe how they personally i
dentify themselves, but because if they called themselves a “Christian” it would fail to communicate what they really mean.
I do this myself sometimes. For example, if your go to my “About” page on Facebook, under my “Religious Views” status it doesn’t say “Christian”. It says “Follower of Jesus”. But what am I trying to say by doing this? Am I trying to distance myself from the coldness of traditional Christianity even though I happily believe pretty much all the doctrines that traditional Christianity professes? Am I trying to express what it means to be a Christian more practically – in that it means to be a disciple of Jesus, following him in word, belief and action? Or do I just want to sound cool? I don’t know. Probably the second one, with unfortunate touches of the third, with an acknowledgement of the first.
In the end, anyone can tick the “Christian” box on the census, and of those people many can articulate what they mean by that label. For example, one of my work colleagues once explained that they are a “Christian” purely on the basis that years ago they went to a religious high school, even though now they scoff at the idea that God exists.
There are others, of course, who call themselves Christian, but have absolutely no idea why they are or what that means. They only know that’s what they’ve always been.
My dad once said that many people are “Christian” who don’t know it because they live good lives. This definition of “Christian” focusses on living like “Christianly” and if you live like a Christian (or maybe, like Christ would want you to) then you have earned the title of “Christian” like a gold star on your report card. I disagreed with my dad, and replied to his comment by saying, “Actually dad, I think there’s a lot more people who call themselves Christians, who aren’t actually Christians.”
Come to think of it, with my dad’s definition, he might have agreed with me. There are lots of people who don’t act like Christ would have them, yet who claim the title of Christian. Jesus actually warned of this in Matthew 7:21-23 (as well as other places) when he said…
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The big problem is, in this culture where words and definitions are so subjective and everyone has the right to call themselves whatever they want, it is culturally taboo to say to someone, “You aren’t a Christian”. I experience this taboo when I try to explain what Christians believe. When I say, “Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate” or “Christians believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God” or a more controversial one like, “Christians believe that sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sin” or even “Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus”, I am met by some who would say I am being arrogant or narrow-minded or just plain wrong.
On one level, I’m not really telling the whole story when I say those things. There are many Christians who don’t believe in the incarnation or the resurrection, and even more that don’t hold to the sexual ethic I believe in. In fact, I guarantee you if Iwrote a comment on my Facebook wall saying “Christians believe X” the one person who called themselves a Christian who didn’t believe X would write a comment. So what should we say? Should we say that the definition of “Christian” is completely subjective and all encompassing? I think to do that would be ridiculous. If a word does not have any definition that can be defended, then the word becomes nonsensical. I might as well call myself an African-American, vegetarian lesbian, and simply say my definition of those words is just different to yours.
But what’s the alternative? Well, the extreme alternative is to simply say, “You claim to be a Christian, but you are not.” Now, that is really dangerous. To tell someone they are not something that they believe they are is seen as the height of arrogance. In our self-actualising individualistic culture our personal concept of our identity is valued very highly. It would be seen like the child who says, “Mum, dad. I’m gay” and they reply with, “Don’t be silly, son. You’re straight.”
To deny someone’s self evaluation is a very dangerous thing. But in some situations it must be able to be done. A person with cancer may believe they are completely well despite what the doctor says. Someone you break up with may not get that they are no longer your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”.
Just because a child believes they are Superman doesn’t mean you should let them jump off that building. Sometimes people believe they are something when they are not. Sometimes there really is a correct definition of a word or a title and it should be explained and even defended. I believe the title of “Christian” falls into this category.
What I mean by this is, I think there is a true definition of what it means to call yourself a Christian. I think some people who call themselves a Christian aren’t really Christians and I believe it is right (and even loving) to help people see this.
My wife told me of a conversation she had years ago with a friend who called themselves a Christian. After Cat had explained the gospel to her, her friend concluded with, “Well, I guess if that’s what a Christian is… then I guess I’m not a Christian.” This was an important moment of realisation for her and she remains “not a Christian” to this day. I find this actually a wonderful story. Not because she remains a non-Christian today (I hope that this will not always be the case), but I love a story where true Christianity is clarified and explained. Where all the crap and misconceptions and packaging and traditions and labels get pealed off, and raw, simple Christianity is left.
It also brings me joy that my wife’s friend will not be one of those that Jesus warned us not to be – who call Jesus “Lord, Lord” but will be told by Jesus that he never knew them. What a tragic mistake that would be! If you are in deep trouble with God then it is better to know it upfront so you can respond to God’s offer of salvation, rather than get to the end thinking God is your friend and meet him as an enemy.
So clarifying Christianity is important. But it’s also important not to have such a small definition that it shuts out people who are really Christians simply because they do not tick all your boxes of what you think a Christian is or believes. Jesus actually also warns of this when his disciples met some Christians who weren’t part of their group…
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)
The challenge is working out where the boundaries are. To not be too exclusive and not too inclusive in the definition. I’d love to write more about what markers I use to define Christianity (and therefore “Christians”). I’ve thought through how we work out what is peripheral and what is core, and how much we screw up when we get those categories wrong. If you’d like to know my thoughts on some of those topics, I’ve written a couple of blogs that might be of interest to you.
“Jesus Christ – What’s in a name?” looks at what I think is core to Christianity, and “The Simple Gospel” is a an encouragement to not be too exclusive in how you define who’s in based on whether they believe everything a Christian should.
There is another option that I and other Christians have sometimes employed when we find the term Christian is too easily misinterpreted. That is to add a clarifying adjective to the noun. What I mean is, some people use the title, “Bible-believing Christian” or “Born Again Christian” or “Evangelical Christian” in order to distinct themselves from other Christians. This often appeases those that believe that you can’t say someone is not a Christian – just that they’re not your “kind” of Christian.
I understand the desire to employ these adjectives, and sometimes they are very helpful. For example, I would say that I am an evangelical Christian. This means primarily that I am focus on the gospel (“euangelion” means “gospel” in greek). It probably also implies that I believe in the importance and authoritative nature of the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but there are many Christians who are not evangelical who would also agree with this. Pentecostals for example, also believe this, but a pentecostal Christian would have more of a focus on the Holy Spirit and the supernatural works of the Spirit as seen on the day of Pentecost (speaking in tongues etc.). Now I fully believe that many pentecostals are Christians. (In fact, I was led to Christ through a godly pentecostal family and I attended for a few years their wonderful pentecostal church.) I also admit that many evangelicals may NOT be Christians. But I do believe that in some ways (mainly in their focus) evangelicalism is more true to Christianity than pentecostalism. So I may call myself an evangelical Christian as a helpful clarification.
Now this use of an adjective is more descriptive than divisive as it says that we are both Christians based on a shared belief and trust in the core elements of the gospel. We may be different, but we fully expect to be standing together as brothers and sisters in Christ in heaven. We are both “Christians”.
Other adjectives however can be quite unhelpful. “Born Again Christian” is one such term. To use that term implies that there are Christians who aren’t “born again”. But from Jesus’ perspective, this is never the case. As Jesus clearly states in John 3:3, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” So all unless you are born again then you are outside of the kingdom of God and therefore should not call yourself a Christian. Now, without going into exactly what it means to be “born again”, you can see how saying “I’m a Born Again Christian” may be unhelpful. It implies that you can be a “Non-Born Again Christian” – which Jesus says you can’t.
I have an uneasiness with the title, “Bible-believing Christian” as well, as it implies that you can completely disregard the Bible and still call yourself a Christian – just not a “Bible-believing” one. I think this is hugely problematic, as the very gospel that defines a Christian, not to mention the teaching and work of the “Christ” that “Christians” take their title after, is only found in the Bible. I understand that various Christians (who I believe are genuine Christians) interpret or apply the Bible differently, and also have a variety of ways of understanding what it means to be the “Word of God”, but I do not see how anyone could say they don’t believe in the Bible at all, and yet still call themselves a Christian.
So, sometimes using an adjective before saying you are a Christian can be helpful and sometimes it can be unhelpful. Sometimes it promotes genuine unity and expresses reasonable diversity, and other times it obscures the true definition of what it means to be a Christian.
So what do we do? Well, I don’t think we should be ashamed of saying “A Christian is this…” or “A Christian believes this…”. I believe God has been clear on a variety of issues and I believe the gospel that is explained by Jesus and the New Testament writers is the expression of true Christianity. With that conviction Christians should not shy away from expressing, explaining and defending those things that I believe are core or clear.
If you disagree with me, and you believe that true Christian believes different things, I encourage you to argue your case. I welcome it! I have been challenged many times and over the years I have valued the times I have been corrected. But our goals must be to see Christ more clearly, to represent him more faithfully and to communicate the gospel more effectively. If you have a goal that is different to that (like, being more politically correct or avoiding saying this that might offend) then we will be on different pages.
I also think we have a responsibility to not only define true Christianity, but to also expose false Christianity. We need a robust enough definition of what it means to be a “Christian” so that we can clearly see the false teachers and false prophets that Jesus warned us about (see Matthew 24:9-25). If the true gospel is “the power of God that brings salvation” (Romans 1:16), then a false gospel will lead people away from salvation. This is very serious and we must be able to see when a false gospel is being presented under the label of “Christianity”. The apostle Paul is ruthless in his encouragement to protect this gospel, even saying that if he ever changes the gospel and starts teaching something different, then he should be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9)
Having said all that, at the same time, we must also remember that the arms of Jesus are wide. He ate and drank with prostitutes and social outcasts. He was called “a friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). This does not mean he did not expect people to repent of their sin in order to be a disciple of him, but it does mean that he allowed people to follow him from all walks of life. Don’t be too exclusive or quick to judge someone as not being in the family of Christ. This was a big issue for Jews and Greeks trying to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ in the first century, and this issue of knowing how wide the definition should go has been a challenge for the last two thousand years. The boundaries are there, just remember to also try to have humility and grace when you are defining them.
Lastly, if you call yourself a Christian, stop and think about why.
Think about whether you understand what that actually means. And then I challenge you to second guess yourself. Don’t presume that your definition is correct, just because it feels right or fits with your own philosophy. Go back to the writings about Christ found in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament and see whether your definition fits with what is actually there.
You may come out with a clearer understanding of what the gospel is and how you can distinct a true Christian from a false one. Or you may discover, like my wife’s friend, that you should not call yourself a Christian after all.
If that happens, don’t leave it there. For as much as I hope that you find the true definition of “Christian”, my greater hope is that you would find that Christ is actually true.