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Who is a Christian?

Definitions used by some faith groups

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Note:

The definition of the term "Christian" probably triggers more irate Emails from visitors to this site than any other topic, other than our use of BCE and CE to identify dates.

It seems that countless people have their own specific definition of "Christian." They differ greatly from each other. But, to judge from the Emails we have received, many Christians believe that their definition is the only true one, and is the only one defined in the Bible.

Perhaps the most popular definitions of "Christian" are:

bulletA person who follows Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) teachings, or
bulletA person who attempts to be like Yeshua.

Unfortunately, although there is general agreement on what the Gospels and the rest of the Bible says, there is little agreement on what they mean. Early in the history of the Christian church, there were groups who believed that Jesus was a prophet and 100% human; others believed that Jesus was God and that his body was just a phantasm ; still others believed that he was God and man. So there is little agreement on exactly what Christ was like and what his specific teachings were. The next 17 centuries have done nothing to decrease the diversity of beliefs about Yeshua.

In this essay, we show a wide range of definitions. We had hoped that by listing some of them, the number of irate Emails would decrease. Unfortunately they haven't.

Evangelical Protestants: 

A person becomes a Christian through being saved -- by being born again:

Some definitions:

bulletWhen Matthew Bell, an Evangelical Christian, engaged in a debate with a Roman Catholic, he offered the following definition:

"A Christian is an individual whose life has been transformed by the Grace of God from a hellbound sinner, to a heavenbound saint, this being made possible and accomplished by and through the Person of Jesus Christ and his efficacious sacrifice."

That seems to imply that a person becomes a Christian solely through the actions of God, Jesus, and Jesus' death by torture. That is, no personal effort is needed.

bulletOther Evangelicals use a simpler definition related to the process by which a person is believed to become a Christian: a Christian is a person who has been "saved." This is defined in a number of ways:
bulletA Christian is a person who has sincerely repented of their sins, and who accepts Jesus as her or his personal Lord and Savior.
bulletSome conservative Protestants delete the need for repentance because it is a human action -- a "good work." They believe that salvation happens only through faith and not works. Thus, it is dependent solely upon grace offered by God and is not brought about as a result of even the slightest degree of personal effort.
bulletAnother commonly held definition is that a Christian is an individual who has personally accepted Jesus Christ to come and live in their heart.

These definitions seem to imply that church sacraments or rituals do not save a person -- only a specific declaration of trust and faith in Jesus, perhaps preceded by repentance of sins. Such definitions would probably classify most Roman Catholics as non-Christian.

One poll has found that about 39% of adult Americans say that they are "born again." This is by the individual subject's own definition of being "born again." They might not match any of the definitions that others use.

More definitions:

bulletA Fundamentalist Christian wrote us by E-mail that the only "true Christians" are those who have been saved or "born again.": i.e. have been filled with the Holy Spirit and are thus part of the Body of Christ. The E-mail continued by saying that most Americans are not Christians, because they are "not filled with God's Spirit and anyone not filled with His Spirit is in opposition to God..."
 
bulletAnother site visitor defines Christians as anyone who believes that Jesus died for their personal sins.
 
bulletAn individual identifying themselves as a conservative Baptist offered the following minimum definition:

"A person who believes that the Bible is God's Word, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, was born of a virgin, was crucified for their sins, was raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven."

This involves the use of some cardinal Christian beliefs to define who is and who is not a Christian.

bulletA simpler definition relies on just a single cardinal Christian belief: that Jesus Christ is God. This represents a problem, because Jesus' followers formed a faith group in Jerusalem after his execution. They are now referred to as Jewish Christians. They were led by James the Just, the brother of Jesus. They apparently considered Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, a fully human person. Thus this definition would mean that the immediate followers of Jesus -- those who knew him best -- would not be considered Christians.
 
bulletAmanda Christian Bookstores' definition is more restricted than the preceding, by requiring the individual to exhibit behavioral changes:

"... a Christian is a person who is totally full of Christ, occupied by Christ, living for Christ, living out Christ to express Christ, and even living Christ. By this definition, most people who call themselves Christians actually are not. They might have believed and received Christ, yet they are not living as adherents of Christ." 1

bulletJeff Bonser, writing for the British Broadcasting Corporation, stated:

"Being a Christian is not about keeping rules and regulations, performing rituals, or even going to church. It's about a friendship - a friendship with Jesus Christ. Jesus said that knowing him is the doorway to a special relationship with God." 2

This is a common expression among Evangelicals: that Christianity is not a religion; it is a personal relationship with Jesus.

bulletChristian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) writes:

"Theologically speaking, a Christian is someone who has received the Lord Jesus as Savior (John 1:12), trusts Him alone for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 4:12), has put not trust in His [sic] own efforts (Isaiah 64:6) to please God, and repented from his/her sins (Mark 1:15). Experientially speaking, the life of a Christian does not consist only of theological knowledge....we have a living and open relationship with the Lord Jesus. We experience Him through His indwelling Spirit." 3

bulletDavid C Pack of The Restored Church of God finds a definition of "Christian" in the writings of Paul:

Romans 8:14: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God"

Romans 8:9: "But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His"

He concludes:

"It is that simple! One either has the Spirit of God, and is a Christian, or does not have it, and is not a Christian --- is 'none of His.' All those who are truly converted must have the Holy Spirit in them." 4

There is a problem with this definition. Christians may be certain that they are personally possessed and led by the Holy Spirit. Yet they often reach entirely conflicting conclusions about Christian beliefs, such as predestination, female clergy, hell, divorce, the rapture, sanctification, salvation, eternal security, etc. A series of books is published by Zondervan and InterVarsity Press on these topics, and more, demonstrates this. The books feature multiple Evangelical leaders with conflicting beliefs debating their views with each other. Each believes that their views are Bible based. Presumably, if they were led by the Holy Spirit, they would quickly reach a consensus on these topics.

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The "invisible church:"

Conservative Protestants often teach of an "invisible church." This is made up of saved individuals who

"... mysteriously exists in the midst of all the differences and mistakes and sins of men'a church that is holy, whose membership is known only to God..." 5

The term "Body of Christ" is often used to refer to those individuals who have been saved, (a.k.a. born again). One author writes:

"Whether we are Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Lutheran or Roman Catholic matters not at all...We are the body of Christ. We stand scattered among the world of unbelievers. We are even scattered among the religious who think they are Christians because they are a part of a church or because they work for Him." 6

Roman Catholicism:

A person becomes a Christian through a valid sacrament of baptism:

Roman Catholics believe that there are three groups of individuals who, in combination, form the "one Mystical Church and Body of Christ." 7 These groups are: "the Church Militant on earth, the Church Triumphant in heaven, and the Church Suffering in purgatory..." Further, they believe that "communication can take place between [sic] all three." 7

Purgatory is a place and state of being that some people experience after death. In Purgatory, the inhabitants are punished through various forms of torture until they are sufficiently purified and cleansed of the temporal consequences of their sins while on Earth. At that point, they can enter Heaven. These beliefs differ from those of Protestants, who generally reject the concept of Purgatory because, they feel, it is not mentioned or implied in the books of their versions of the Bible. Also, most believe that if Purgatory existed, it would negate the salvation promised in the Bible once one trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the sacrament of baptism as:

"the door of the Church of Christ and the entrance into a new life. We are reborn from the state of slaves of sin into the freedom of the Sons of God. Baptism incorporates us with Christ's mystical body..." 8

Eastern Orthodox Churches:

James Clement Taylor, a member of St. Mary's Eastern Orthodox Church in Calhan, CO defines a Christian as a person: "...who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who has made a personal, free-will decision to commit himself and all his or her life to our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ." 9

Archbishop Paul of Finland defines "Orthodox Christian" in his book "The Faith We Hold." Since there is little that is uniquely Orthodox in this definition, it might also suffice as his definition of the term "Christian." He writes:

"The Orthodox Christian has been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and follows the ideals and beliefs of both the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. He believes in a living and loving God, Whose Grace protects and guides him in the path of redemption. He believes that God has revealed Himself in the Bible through the Prophets and especially in the Person of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son who is man's Savior. He especially believes in the Incarnation of Christ as God-Man, in His Crucifixion and Resurrection, in His Gospel and Commandments, and in the world to come." 10

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): 

A person joins the denomination by concurring with a statement of faith:

Dr. Kenneth Teegarden, General Minister and President Emeritus of the denomination explains:

"Standing before a congregation of Disciples to confess faith in Jesus Christ and become part of the church, a person is asked only one question. It is usually phrased, 'Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and do you accept him as your personal Savior?' The person who responds, 'I do,' might have recently completed a church membership course. If so, the instruction will not have been to transmit a system of doctrines." 11

By answering in the affirmative, the person becomes a member of the Disciples of Christ, and thereby also of "The universal church."

See also lists of definitions of the term "Christian" as used by the earliest Christians, secular sources, and this website, and the Apostles' Creed, one philosopher, dictionaries, and Google.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "What Is A Born-Again Christian?," Amanda Christian Bookstores, at: http://www.hightruth.com/
  2. Jeff Bonser, "What it means to be a Christian," British Broadcasting Corporation, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/
  3. Matthew J. Slick, "Salvation: What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?," Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, at: http://www.carm.org/
  4. David C. Pack, "Just what is 'The Unpardonable Sin'?" The Restored Church of God, at: http://www.thercg.org/
  5. Michael Pomazansky, "Is There An Invisible Church," at: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/pomaz_invisible.htm
  6. Glenn Frank, "We Are The Bride of Christ," at: http://hisplace.com/hpcf/Library/bride.html
  7. "The Communion of Saints: All Who Are In Christ: Introduction, Definitions and Explanation," at: http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ61.HTM 
  8. The Encarta Encyclopedia is online at: http://encarta.msn.com/Default.asp 
  9. James Clement Taylor, "A Christian Speaks of Wicca and Witchcraft," at: http://www.wicca.com/
  10. Archbishop Paul of Finland, "The Orthodox Christian," The Orthodox Page in America, at: http://www.ocf.org/
  11. "The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)," Regional Church (Pacific Southwest) at: http://www.fcco-doc.org/

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: 2009-NOV-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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