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Religious Tolerance logo

Who is a Christian?

Which definition is correct?
Which one does this web site use?

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Which definition is correct?

This question assumes that there is one and only one correct definition of the term "Christian." However, depending upon your understanding of the nature of truth, many definitions may be "true" to various groups:

  • To conservative Protestants, a Christian is often defined according to their salvation status. Their definition is "true" to them, because it agrees with some of their foundational beliefs: that the Bible is inerrant, that salvation is by grace, and that one must be "born-again" to be saved and avoid eternal punishment in Hell after death.

  • To Roman Catholics, a Christian is often defined according to their baptism status and the presence of any unresolved mortal sin in their lives. Their definition is "true" to them, because it agrees with their fundamental beliefs about the nature of sacraments, their understanding of the Bible, the declarations of many Church Councils, the statements of many popes, and their church's tradition.

  • To many in the very early Christian movement, a Christian was defined as a person who was baptized and proclaimed "Jesus is Lord." Their definition was "true" to them because it agreed with their understanding of their religious belief at a time when the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) had not yet been written and assembled.

  • And so on, with other faith groups.

Each group has their own definition of "Christian" that agrees with their own beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, church tradition, written text, evolved theology, the cultures in which they are implanted, etc. There appears to be no way to compromise on a single definition that is acceptable to all.

One apparently cannot call on a higher power to resolve the problem, because there seems to be no way to assess the will of God on such matters. If there were such a method, then the tens of thousands of Christian denominations and faith groups worldwide would have been harmonized centuries ago. People would simply have prayed to God and asked Him to define what a Christian is. Then, a consensus would exist today on the true meaning of the word "Christian."

There is no consensus on what the "correct" definition of "Christian" is. There is only a near consensus within individual faith groups. Therefore questions like "Are you a Christian?" or "How many Christians are there in the U.S." are only meaningful:

  • Within a single denomination, or among a group of similarly-minded denominations.

  • In a public opinion poll where the definition of "Christian" is either clearly stated or left up to the subject to define.

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The definition used on this web site:

There is a common belief held by every Christian that we have met: they all believe that they are attempting to live in accordance with Christ's teachings. Perhaps this is a good starting point from which to create a definition.

One problem is that different Christians and different Christian faith groups interpret biblical passages and Jesus' teachings very differently.

The two religious/spiritual/ethical/moral topics of greatest current concern in North America appear to be:

  • Equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including access to marriage by loving, committed same-sex couples. Some Christians feel that excluding sexual minorities from having the same rights and protections as loving, committed opposite-sex couples is one of their major responsibilities. Other Christians feel that homophobia and transphobia -- acts to restrict civil liberties of sexual minorities -- are the main evils in the culture.

  • Access to abortion: In the U.S.:
    • Some Christians feel a zygote -- commonly referred to as a "fertilized ovum" -- is a human person and that reducing or eliminating access to abortion is a prime responsibility. Others feel that human personhood is attained later in pregnancy or at birth. They often see their main task is to try to reduce the number of unexpected, unwanted pregnancies, and thus reduce the abortions rate to levels found in other developed countries. Still others feel that access to abortion should be generally available and the decision to have an abortion should be left up entirely to each individual woman.

WWJD ("What Would Jesus Do") and WDJT ("What Does/Did Jesus Teach) are questions that Christians ask, meditate over, and pray about. But they come to opposite conclusions. One might wonder if a Christian can actually assess the will of God through prayer; the answer may be no.

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Definitions of "Christian" that we have used:

Our original definition in the year 2000 was:

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ)."

In 2011, changed to this definition:

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be attempting to follow the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as they interpret those teachings to be."

We realized that we are defining Christians in terms of being Christian. As one person Emailed us, that is like defining a parrot as "something that has the characteristics of a parrot." But since there is no consensus on what the teachings of Jesus are, we saw no other choice.

In 2016, we simplified the definition to:

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully believe themselves to be attempting to follow the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as they interpret those teachings to be."

We would appreciate your comments about this change. Please click on the "Contact Us" link at the bottom of this essay.

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In North America there are over a thousand Christian faith groups including the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, other conservative, mainline, liberal and progressive Christian faith groups; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, Christian Science, progressive Christians, and other religious organizations. They all feel that they are trying to follow Jesus' teachings; they all identify themselves as Christian. In fact, many regard their group as the only "true" Christian church. Yet these groups, and their followers, have very different beliefs about the life, events, teachings, actions, sinlessness and expectations of Yeshua.

Also included within our definition as Christians are those who regard themselves as being followers of Jesus even though they do not affiliate themselves with any particular religious group. They form part of the "NOTA" believers: those that are NOT Affiliated. They appear to be growing in numbers as increasing numbers of older teens and young adults in North American are abandoning religion in favor of a personal spirituality or a secular world view.

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

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Copyright 2000 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update and review: 2016-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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