Who is a Christian?
Definitions used by some faith groups
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
Perhaps the most popular definitions of "Christian" are:
|A person who follows Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) teachings, or|
|A 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
A person becomes a Christian through being saved -- by being born again:
|When Matthew Bell, an Evangelical Christian, engaged in a debate with a Roman Catholic, he offered the following definition:
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.
|Other 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
|A Christian is a person who has
sincerely repented of their sins, and who accepts Jesus as her or his personal
Lord and Savior. |
|Some 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.|
|Another 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.
|A Fundamentalist Christian wrote us by E-mail that the only
"true Christians" are those who have been
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..." |
|Another site visitor defines Christians as anyone who believes that Jesus
died for their personal sins.|
|An individual identifying themselves as a conservative Baptist offered
the following minimum definition: |
"A person who believes that the
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
This involves the use of some cardinal Christian beliefs to define who is and who is not a Christian.
|A 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
|Amanda 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
|Jeff 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."
This is a common expression among
Evangelicals: that Christianity is not a religion; it is a personal
relationship with Jesus.
|Christian 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."
|David 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"
"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.
The "invisible church:"
Conservative Protestants often teach of an
"invisible church." This is made up of saved individuals
"... 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
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."
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..."
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."
"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
"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
"The universal church."
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "What Is A Born-Again Christian?," Amanda Christian Bookstores, at:
- Jeff Bonser, "What it means to be a Christian,"
British Broadcasting Corporation, at:
- Matthew J. Slick, "Salvation: What Does it Mean
to Be a Christian?," Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, at:
- David C. Pack, "Just what is 'The Unpardonable Sin'?" The Restored Church of
- Michael Pomazansky, "Is There An Invisible Church," at:
- Glenn Frank, "We Are The Bride of Christ," at: http://hisplace.com/hpcf/Library/bride.html
- "The Communion of Saints: All Who Are In Christ: Introduction, Definitions and Explanation,"
- The Encarta Encyclopedia is online at: http://encarta.msn.com/Default.asp
- James Clement Taylor, "A Christian Speaks of
Wicca and Witchcraft," at:
- Archbishop Paul of Finland, "The Orthodox
Christian," The Orthodox Page in America, at:
- "The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)," Regional Church (Pacific
Copyright © 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update: 2009-NOV-10
Author: B.A. Robinson