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Religious Tolerance logo

Christianity: introduction and definitions


Who is a Christian? Simple question; many
conflicting, certain answers; no consensus.

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bullet"Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically." From Encarta's definition of "Christianity." 1
bullet Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car." G.K. Chesterton.
bullet"What is a Christian, anyway? Someone of European descent? A persecutor of Jews? Someone who votes for only the most conservative Republicans? At times all of these answers have seemed plausible. Some use these definitions to this day. In Christian circles the answers are no clearer. A Christian is sometimes said to be someone who has made a decision; sometimes, someone who belongs to a church; far too often, someone who confesses the right creeds." Mark M. Mattison 2

Important note:

This section seems to be a bit of a lightning rod. It seems to attract Christians who strongly disagree with what it says.

We get many Emails from angry Christians who denounce it.

Rather than send us an Email, please read what others have written us and our answers. It might save you the trouble of composing an Email to us.

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One of the more interesting, and frustrating, features of religion is the variety of meanings given to common words and terms. Many religious words have multiple -- often mutually exclusive -- meanings. For example:

bulletWe have found 9 meanings for the term "cult:" one positive, four neutral, three negative and one very negative.
bulletWe have found 17 meanings for the term "witch" - mostly unrelated to each other; mostly negative. 

There are also many distinct definitions of the term "Christian." Four examples are:

bullet Most liberal Christian denominations, secularists, public opinion pollsters, and this web site define "Christian" very broadly as any person or group who sincerely believes themselves to be Christian. Their definitoin would include, fundamentalist and other evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church members, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc. Using this definition, Christians total about 75% of the North American adult population.
bullet However, many Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Protestants define "Christian" more narrowly to include only those persons who have been "born again" regardless of their denomination. That is, they have repented of their sin and trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. About 35% of the North American adult population identify themselves in this way.
bullet Some Protestant Christian denominations, para-church groups, and individuals have assembled their own lists of cardinal Christian doctrines. Many would regard anyone who denies even one of their cardinal doctrines to be a non-Christian. Unfortunately, there is a wide diversity of belief concerning which historical Christian beliefs should be included in the list.

bullet Other denominations regard their own members to be the only true Christians in the world. Some are quite small, numbering only a few thousand followers. One Baptist denomination that is also a homophobic hate group -- the Westboro Baptist Church -- believes that their total membership of slightly under 100 believers will go to Heaven to be with God after they die; they believe that the other 7 billion humans in the world are all destined to go to Hell. 4

Different definitions on such a fundamental topic makes dialog and debate among Christian groups very difficult. It also makes estimating the number of Christians in the U.S. quite impossible. By some definitions, 75% of Americans are Christians; by other definitions, it is a small fraction of 1%.

Yet, from the negative Emails that we receive on this topic, there are many Christians out there who hold with fierce determination to their own definition of "Christian" as the only valid one. We wrote a special essay to address their concerns

Topics in this section about "who is a Christian?:"

bulletThe scope of the problem
bulletDefinitions according to
bulletVarious faith groups
bulletThe Apostles' Creed, one philosopher, dictionaries, and Google
bulletThe earliest Christians, secular sources, and this website
bullet Individuals posting to a "who is a Christian" discussion group on

bulletWhich definition is correct?   Which one is used on this web site?
bullet Emails from people who disagree with the definition that we use
bulletMore Emails from people who disagree

Closely related essay on this web site:

bulletLists of the cardinal beliefs of Christianity.

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  1. The Encarta Encyclopedia is online at:
  2. Mark M. Mattison, "What is a Christian," True Grace Ministries, at:
  3. JCSM's Top 1000 Christian Sites - Free Traffic Sharing Service! We were invited to exchange links with Jesus Christ Saves Ministries (JCSM).
  4. An essay on FreeThoughtPedia about the Westboro Baptist Church describes the Church's belief that "... the Elect may reach heaven only through the portal of The Place. ... [He] who runs The Place holds the keys to the gates of Paradise." ... Inside The Place, people were good and going to heaven."

    "The Place" is Phelp's term for his church. His son Nate is quoted as saying: "'Outside The Place they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world ever got us down, we were taught to find strength by imagining the terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside The Place'."  See § 7. "Nightmare on Twelfth Street," at:

Site navigation:

 Home page > Christianity > Introduction here

 Home page > here

 Home page > Glossary of terms > here

or Home page > Religious Information > here

Copyright © 2000 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update: 2011-APR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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