What Is A Christian?

I find this a really interesting question in ecumenical (inter-denominational) discussion.  What does it mean to be a Christian?  How wide or narrow is the definition?  Some might say that anybody who wants to be called a Christian is a Christian.  Others lay out very specific guidelines for theological beliefs that must be held in order to be a “true Christian” (of course cutting out many others who call themselves Christians).  Some evangelicals might say that substitutionary atonement is an essential doctrine to be a Christian.  Other churches like the United Church of Canada have atheist ministers – whether God even exists is not essential.  I’d like to think there is an answer somewhere in between.

One of my profs expressed it this way.  Each denomination – or even each congregation or each person – is a river.  Some rivers are much wider, and others are much narrower.  One thing that is in common is that they all do have banks.  Somewhere there is a boundary that is not a part of the river.  Yes, even the United Church has boundaries.  So how wide is your personal river of what constitutes a Christian?  What’s your denomination’s river?

Here’s another way of putting it I heard recently.  There are three levels of doctrine and practice.  At the core level, there is some things that must be common to all Christians that tie us all together.  For example, a belief in the existence of God I think most would put in this category.  At the second level, there are some things that we can still respect and understand the reasoning for but that just doesn’t work in practical ways to stay in the same congregation.  For example, infant baptism vs believer’s baptism – both have good arguments for why and generally both are respected by the other, but it doesn’t work to have some parents in the congregation baptizing their kids and others not.  Then on the third level are the things strictly outside of Christianity.  And again of course everybody has a different view of what falls into each of those three categories.

I’m always tempted to look at the meaning of the word to try to figure out that central level.  We call ourselves Christians, literally meaning something like “little Christs” or “ones who look like Christ”.  It’s lost that meaning to most as it is more of a cultural thing a lot of the time, which is why many young people now call themselves Christ Followers instead of Christians.  I’m not sure how much that really helps – I’d rather reclaim the original word.  But in any case, affiliation with the Christ should be central by definition.  Doesn’t mean I think you’re a terrible person if you don’t affiliate with the Christ as I believe in, but just by definition I don’t think it works to call yourself a Christian.  But what is the Christ?  Christ means anointed one, and in the culture someone would be anointed primarily as a King.  To me then, it means saying that the Christ is your King.  So what if you have someone else you think was the Christ other than Jesus?  Well I guess technically it would still count, but it would definitely be confusing terminology after 2000 years of the term Christian being affiliated with Jesus as the Christ.  I would add that Jesus has to in some way be divine, and that is just because it doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a guy who lived 2000 years ago is still our King if he is not alive in some way.  But even with that, I would be open to calling somebody a Christian who thinks the Son is less than the Father, for instance, assuming they want to be called a Christian, although I personally would affirm the early church creeds of the Trinity and of Jesus as fully God and fully human.  I always want to add more than that, but I’m never quite sure how much farther I can go than this definition of a Christian as one who has “chosen to follow God who took on human flesh in Jesus”.  Or something like that.  That will also of course end up with aiming for specific implications like loving your enemies that are fairly blunt teachings of our mutual king.

All this to say, I am very cautious about saying who is a Christian and who is not.  I will still engage in many theological and practical debates with other Christians who I don’t agree with and of course I’ll even try to convince them my understanding is closer to Jesus.  Of course sometimes they’ll convince me, too.

My big challenge to you is this: even if you have a fairly narrow “river”, a theologically narrow definition of who qualifies as a Christian, at least have a wider river of dialog.  And to be blunt, usually those with the narrowest definition also have the biggest emphasis on evangelization to get more people into their river, so that means you have to at least talk to others about what you think, right?  Just try to extend the courtesy back to them to listen to them, too, instead of just saying your spiel and then running away in case they say something wrong.  You won’t be struck by lightning to hear somebody say something wrong – trust me.  There are some groups that call themselves Christians that I wouldn’t, but I’m not going to yell at them for their heresies – I’m going to discuss our differences of opinion in as friendly of a way as possible.  Often we’ll go our separate ways still disagreeing, but we’ll understand each other better.  And that’s how we all grow.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.