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Who is a Christian?

Problems defining the term "Christian."

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Range of definitions of "Christian:"

There are many distinct definitions of the term "Christian" (pronounced 'kristee`ân). Different people have defined a "Christian" as a person who has:

  1. Heard the Gospel in a certain way, and accepted its message, or
  2. Become "saved" -- i.e. they have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior), or
  3. Been baptized as an infant, or
  4. Gone to church regularly, or
  5. Recited and agreed with a specific church creed or creeds, or
  6. Believe that they understand and follow Jesus' teachings, or
  7. Led a decent life.

Following these different definitions, the percentage of North American adults who are Christians currently ranges from less than 1% to about 75%.

Within a given denomination or wing of Christianity, there is usually a consensus about who is a Christian, and who is not. However, there is often little agreement among members of different denominations on a common definition of "Christianity."

Visitors to this web site send us many E-mails daily that comment on its contents. About 80% are positive. But among our negative and sometimes angry Emails, and occasional death threat, the two most common topics are the proper definition of "Christian" and our use of BCE and CE format to identify years instead of BC and AD.

What people can agree on, and what they cannot:

With a bit of effort, one can sometimes collect a random group of adults and have them reach a consensus on a definition of:

bullet Who is an Evangelical Christian, or
bullet Who is a Roman Catholic, or
bullet Who is an Eastern Orthodox believer, or
bullet Who follows the Historical Protestant faith, or
bullet Who is a Pentecostal, or
bullet Who is a Mormon, or
bullet Who is a Jehovah's Witness,
bullet etc.

But it is probably impossible to have any large group of adults reach a consensus on precisely who is a "Christian," and who is not.

There are on the order of 1,500 denominations, para-church organizations, and other groups in the U.S. who consider themselves to be Christian. 1 Added to this are thousands of independent Christian congregations which are not affiliated with a denomination. They all trace their faith tradition back through many schisms to Jesus and the twelve disciples. But they use many different paths to link back to Jesus.

Many Christian groups regard their own faith group or denomination to be the only one that is truly Christian and free of error; they regard others who claim the name "Christian" to be sub-Christian, non-Christian, etc. And so, for example, we have The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- who believe that the other Christian faith groups went terribly astray back in the late 1st century CE. Meanwhile, those other groups believe that the Mormon church went so far astray when Joseph Smith founded The Church of Christ early in the 19th century that the Mormons are no longer Christian.

One could assemble a random group of adults and ask each individual to sort 1,000 faith groups into two piles: those which are "truly" Christian, and those that are not. In some cases, an individual will select their own faith group as the only truly Christian denomination, and define all of the other 999 as sub-Christian, quasi-Christian, or non-Christian. Other individuals might say that all 1,000 denominations are Christian. Most likely, a given individual will select most of the 1,000 groups as Christian, and reject the others. There is no possibility of reaching a common definition which would identify which groups are "truly" Christian.

And so we are left with an amazing range of definitions of the term. A lot of Christians hold very tenaciously to their personal definition. They have no doubt at all that their definition is the correct one -- the one that is clearly explained in the Bible. Yet they differ greatly.

Perhaps the most common is: "A follower of Christ and his teachings." This sounds simple and meaningful until you realize that there is a great diversity of beliefs about what Christ actually taught. There is general agreement on what Jesus said, but little consensus on what Jesus meant. One needs only to consult the books printed by InterVarsity Press, Zondervan, and other publishers with names like "Four views on salvation ... ."  They describe the full range of conservative Christian beliefs about important religious topics. In these books, a number of leading evangelical Christian writers explain their personal views on a specific topic, and critique each others beliefs as being false. Each of the authors is intelligent, sincere, serious, devout, thoughtful theologian and is quite confident that their own belief is the only one that is biblically based. Yet, the authors' conclusions conflict with each other.

Problems arising from exclusion and inclusion:

This web site needed to adopt a definition of "Christian." Otherwise it would be impossible to organize our essays on various faith groups. We decided to not invent a new definition, because that would merely add to the confusion. We decided to adopt the inclusive definition that is used by public opinion polls and government census offices: 

Anyone who seriously, thoughtfully, sincerely, prayerfully considers themselves to be a Christian is considered a Christian for the purpose of our essays.

And so, we consider Christian Scientists, Eastern Orthodox members, Jehovah's Witnesses Mormons, Progressive Christians, Roman Catholics, even a small percentage of Unitarian Universalists, and members of hundreds of other denominations to be Christian.

The alternative is religious exclusion. This involves defining some individuals or their denominations as sub-Christian, quasi-Christian or non-Christian. This approach has led to serious conflicts. In some countries, such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland, discord has resulted in mass murder and even genocide. Recent religiously based conflicts throughout the world have shown that if the political and/or economic climate is highly stressed, some believers find that it can be only a series of small transitions to go from "You are different from us," to "You are not a real Christian," to "You are sub-human," to "You have no right to live." 

Fortunately, there is a great reservoir of tolerance in North America that has prevented intra-Christian and inter-religious friction from degenerating into widespread violence. However, there are a few trends that may cause the religious climate to change in the future:

bullet Religious diversity in North America is increasing.
bullet Fear of terrorism is playing an increasing role in the lives of many North Americans. Many adults associate terrorists with the religion of Islam.
bullet The percentage of persons who identify themselves as Christian, currently about 75%, is dropping almost one percentage point per year. That is not much of an impact over a single year. But it represents almost ten percent a decade!
bullet The percentage of "NOTAS" (none of the above; those who do not identify themselves as affiliates of any religious group, is increasing).
bullet The beliefs of Americans are becoming polarized along geographical lines, with the South retaining its conservative Christian identification, while much of the North East becomes secular and religiously liberal, while the West becomes increasingly eclectic and experimental.

We may be in for some tough times ahead.

Reaction of visitors at our web site to our inclusive definition:

We receive many Emails which criticize the excessive inclusiveness of our web site. They complain that we accept too many denominations as "Christian."  One person recently wrote that "Roman Catholicism is a Pagan religion, and is not part of Christianity." Another, stated that "Mormons are Gnostics, not Christians." Other readers have objected to the inclusion of The Family, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, United Church, Unity Church, and many other faith groups as Christian denominations. At best, the E-mailers consider those groups to be sub-Christian, or quasi-Christian. At worse, they are considered destructive cults. These visitors are saying that they thoughtfully and sincerely believe that people whose beliefs are too different from theirs are not real Christians. This is not a rash decision on their part. Many are totally convinced of the accuracy of their position after many years of Bible study, perhaps drawing on the statements of the founders of their denomination, and other theologians.

We are continually accused of purposefully spreading disinformation, and/or being ignorant and lacking in truth. We try to explain that we are simply using a different definition than they are use to. However, we are rarely successful.

Reference used:

  1. J. Gordon Melton, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions." Various editions have been published in the past decade.

Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Introduction > Definition > here

Copyright © 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update and review: 2009-MAR-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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