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Who is a Christian?
An essay donated by David Stone

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I'd like to share some thoughts on the topic of, "who is a Christian?" I'm a follower of Judaism, 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 thus uselessness.

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.

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Webmaster's response:

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:

bullet All definitions of Christianity are flawed.
bullet It is quite impossible to create a definition that is acceptable to all.
bullet Many, perhaps most people regard their own definition of Christianity as the only true one.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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  1. 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 factors."
  2. 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%."

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Originally posted: 2006-DEC-24
Latest update: 2006-DEC-24
Author: David Stone

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