Who is a Christian?
An essay donated by David Stone
I'd like to share some thoughts on the topic of, "who is a Christian?" I'm a follower of
1 so I don't
have a vested interest in any particular definition. I am however very familiar with the New Testament and the nature and beliefs
of different Christian churches, and I have made friends with, and attended services of, many different ones.
The way you deal with this question on your site, reporting as many different actually-used definitions as possible, is quite appropriate. However, if a person is to try to determine which definition they consider most appropriate, that is a different matter.
In general, I think a more inclusive definition is preferable to a narrower one. But not at the expense of relevant reality. Words
are symbols. They have no inherent meaning -- only the meaning people give them by common agreement. A crucial consideration is what
use we want to put the word to. Than can depend on the context. A tomato is considered a vegetable in a dietary context and a fruit
in a biological one. Likewise, it is perfectly legitimate for the word "Christian" to have one meaning in a theological
context, another in a sociological one, and yet another in a historical one. [Unitarians, by their own definition, are non-Christians
with a Christian heritage.] 2
My own view is that Catholics, Protestants,
Eastern Orthodox, and many others known to us all are Christians. But I do make
exceptions. I might consider Jehovah's Witnesses to be Christians, but I consider that very iffy.
Christian Science, to me, is simply
Eastern thought in Christian garb, and thus not
Christian. [My understanding is that it is
philosophically descended from the Transcendentalism
of Emerson and Thoreau -- the first popularization of
Eastern thought in the US.]
I definitely think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[a.k.a. the Mormons] is not
Christian. They have numerous additional holy
scriptures, and an interpretation of the Bible, and a
religious outlook in general, which does not fit into
any of the historical varieties of Christianity. The
Mormons bear the same relationship to Christianity
that the early Christian church bore to Judaism. The
early Church considered itself a part of Judaism --
but eventually realized that this was untenable. The
Mormon church does not yet realize this. If the
Mormons are Christians, then Christians are followers
of Judaism. 1
Your web site says that you consider as Christians all
who sincerely consider themselves to be Christians.
Even setting our opinions aside, from a taxonomic
viewpoint, I do not think that is tenable. Take the
Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. Its official
name is the "Holy Spirit Association for the
Unification of World Christianity." Yet would you
consider the "Moonies" to be Christians? Would anyone,
except for the Moonies? To answer "yes" reduces the
term "Christianity" to virtual meaninglessness and
But here's the acid test: after Hitler came to power,
German Christians divided into those who supported
Nazi ideology and those who did not. The former group
called itself the "German Christian" movement and said
that they stood for "Positive Christianity." The
leader of this movement said, "The Bishop has tried to
explain to me that Christianity is based on belief in
Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh." He
went on to define "Positive Christianity" as
synonymous with Nazism, ending by saying that "the
Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation."
You say that you consider as Christians all those who
sincerely consider themselves to be Christians. By
that definition, you must consider the person quoted
above, and those who believed as he did, as
Christians. That, in my view, reduces the term
"Christian" to utter meaninglessness and thus
uselessness as a word.
I'm not sure exactly how I think you should handle
this on your web site. For the reasons noted, it seems
to me that your definition is flawed. I'm not sure
what I would put in its place. I'm not sure, but
perhaps you should refrain from any statement at all
as to who you consider a Christian.
Your definition of "Christian" includes the Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, the Roman Catholic church,
and others. It excludes members of Church of
Christ, Scientist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the
thankfully defunct German Christian movement, the Unification Church,
and perhaps Jehovah's Witnesses.
However, if you interviewed a follower of any of the churches that you reject
as non-Christian, you will probably find that they regard their own faith group
as the only legitimate and true form of Christianity. Most will regard
all other denominations who call themselves Christians to be sub-Christian,
quasi-Christian or non-Christian.
From our consideration of this matter and from the Emails that we have
received, we have concluded:
All definitions of Christianity are flawed.
It is quite impossible to create a definition that is acceptable to all.
Many, perhaps most people regard their own definition of Christianity as
the only true one.
Some people define Christianity so narrowly that fewer than 1% of North
American adults are Christian. Others define the term so broadly as to include
about 75% of the adult population of the U.S. and Canada.
Perhaps the closest one can get to a universal definition is that a
Christian is a follower of Christ. However, beliefs about what Yeshua of
Nazareth (Jesus Christ) taught and expected of his followers are so diverse
and contradictory, that this definition is largely meaningless.
Our best bet is to use the same definition as public opinion pollsters
use: A Christian is a person who regards themselves to be a Christian. We
recognize that many, perhaps most, visitors to this web site will regard
this definition as excessively inclusive.
David Stone writes: "I am Jewish both by birth and by religion. Our use
of the words 'Jew' and 'Jewish' is confusing in that
it can refer to either birth or religion. That is why
I have used the term 'follower of Judaism' rather than
'Jew,' since the term 'Judaism' refers only to
religion [though occasionally I see confusion even
regarding that word]. In my view, ideally there would
be another word -- say, 'Judaist' -- to denote someone
whose religion is Judaism, regardless of other
Note from the Webmaster: "According to a 1997 survey of individuals who attend congregations
affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, only 9.3%
regarded themselves as Christian. The largest
group, Humanists totaled 46.1%."