Summary: So what is a Christian? The answer is not as easy as you might think. Everything depends on how you define the word.
What is a Christian?
A friend sent me an email telling about a question posed to her by a co-worker. Here is the exact text of the question:
How is a Christian defined? It used to be that if you were not Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist, you were a Christian, whether Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist. But it seems now that the word means something more specific. Is it considered to be an actual religion other than Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist or whatever. If so, what makes it different?
That’s a very good question. It shows that the person has been doing some seriously thinking about spiritual issues. It also reveals that she has penetrated to a core issue that has long confused millions of people--What does it really mean to be a Christian?
This question was in the news a few days ago when the Reverend Al Sharpton caused a theological kerfuffle during a public debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens. At one point he seemed to imply that Mormons don’t really believe in God, a riposte which drew a sharp response from presidential candidate Mitt Romney who called Sharpton’s statements bigoted. Sharpton later said his statement had been misinterpreted. Meanwhile CNN’s Anderson Cooper picked up on the controversy with a program called What is a Christian? I can simply say that anyone watching would likely be more confused at the end than at the beginning.
So what is a Christian? The answer is not as easy as you might think. Everything depends on how you define the word. You can’t really tell who is a Christian and who isn’t until you know what the term means. To muddy the waters further, recent polls report that 92% of all Americans believe in God while 83% call themselves Christian. If you went to any major American city and asked, "Are you a Christian?" you would get all sorts of answers.
"Of course I’m a Christian. I was born in America."
"I was raised in a Christian home."
"I’m a baptized Catholic."
"I’m a Methodist."
"I go to Woodland Park Baptist Church."
"I read my Bible every day."
"I walked an aisle, said a prayer, signed a card, raised my hand."
Or you could make it simpler and say, "A Christian is anyone who calls himself a Christian," which is basically how the pollsters came up with that 83%. It’s very American to say, "I’m a Christian if I say I am." That reminds me of Humpty-Dumpty who said, "When I use a term, it means whatever I choose it to mean--nothing more, and nothing less." I found a fascinating essay that ultimately comes to the same conclusion:
We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. Included are: the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative, mainline, and liberal Christian faith groups; The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah’s Witnesses and a thousand or so other religious organizations that identify themselves as Christian. Also included are those who consider themselves to be Christian even though they do not identify themselves with any particular religious group.
The writers of the essay acknowledge the reality that by making the definition so broad, they have virtually emptied it of meaning. You are a Christian if you say you are a Christian. But, they say, since there is no consensus on what the word means, they have no other choice. You’re in even if someone else says you’re out.
As I have pondered this question, I realize that I can give my own answer on several different levels. First of all, it’s perfectly fine with me for people to identify themselves any way they like. If you say you are Hindu, I won’t say that you aren’t. If you say you are Muslim, I accept that at face value. If you call yourself a Christian, far be it from me to argue with you. Second, acceptance doesn’t imply agreement. I can be friends with many people who hold divergent views about ultimate reality. And I can have a conversation with someone who says things I regard as absurd. To accept you doesn’t imply that I agree with you. Third, since I try to base my faith on the Bible, I want to know what the Bible says about what it means to be a Christian. And right at this point we have a problem because the Bible only mentions the word Christian three times:
"And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26).
"In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26:28).
"Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name." (1 Peter 4:16).