A Christian Is . . .

People001Some people are understandably confused about what defines a Christian. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, there are more and more people claiming to be Christians while holding views that have little to do with what Christ actually said and did. There have been various visitors here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction who claim to be Christians but who say all manner of things inconsistent with what Jesus said.

What I’ve recently learned, however, is that this situation is not unique to Christians. I had occasion to ask someone in a different faith community if they ever encountered atheists, and the response was, yes, within our faith community.

Say what?

The individual went on to explain that there are people in the community purely because of the culture, the tradition, but there is no actual faith.

That answer sounded all too familiar. Any number of people in the US identify as “Christian” and yet they believe very little when it comes to the essentials of Christianity. Others treat Christianity as pot luck–pick what you like best, and leave the rest.

What are the essentials that actually define a Christian, and how can they be determined since so many people who believe widely diverse ideas put themselves in the category of Christ follower?

The easiest answer is to look at the historical creeds, or sets of beliefs, ascribed to by the church from early on. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote the most basic list of things he called “of first importance”:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4).

From this, it’s clear the Scriptures are the touchstone of truth, Christ died for our sins, and He was buried and raised the third day, which means He is alive.

Two specific extra-biblical creeds come to mind that add to this list of basics—the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The former came out of a council held at Nicaena by Christian leaders in 325. The latter also dates from the fourth century and is traditionally associated with the twelve apostles. These two statements enumerate the core beliefs of anyone who is a Christian.

Other documents have come to the forefront adding to these basics, especially after the Protestant Reformation. Some of these, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Baptist Confession of Faith, written in the seventeenth century by Puritan leaders, include things not widely believed today. Yet key points covered in these confessions represent essentials for Protestants—specifically sola scriptura and sola fide.

Bibles002The first of these, Scripture alone, communicates the idea that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. The second, by faith alone, declares God’s work of justification, which pays for sin, to be a free gift, in no way earned by works but simply believed by faith.

Christians disagree on a lot of things, and some of those seem important to us, but they don’t change the fact that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our own works. That’s still at the core of the Christian faith. We know this, as Paul said, by what has been written for our benefit. For Paul that meant the Prophets recorded in what we now refer to as the Old Testament. But as early as the first century, Peter equated Paul’s words with Scripture:

just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 – emphasis mine)

From that verse, and from what Jude said and various passages Paul wrote, it’s clear that false teaching grew up right along side the truth. From the beginning of Christianity, then, there’s been a need to discern what is truth and what is error.

Lots of people have claimed to have a newer version of the truth or a sure word from God. However there are a couple things that make it easy to identify those as false: first, they contradict something in the Scriptures Paul and Peter referred to. Second, they elevate something or someone to a position above God’s Word.

For example, the Mormons claim Joseph Smith received a later revelation from God. Never mind all the problems associated with his claims, we know the work is false because it elevates itself above Scripture and in places its content contradicts Scripture.

No surprise, then, that the Bible itself has been under heavy attack for the last century or so. No wonder there’s growing confusion about who a Christian actually is.


  1. Hi Becky, you seem to be suggesting that the confusion over what Christianity is, is a new phenomenon. I would be more inclined to think that there have been wildly varying interpretations from the outset.

    I’m also interested that you place such emphasis on Paul, who didn’t spend much time with Jesus. Are the reported words of Jesus not the most important bits to go by?


    • I don’t think the confusion is a new phenomenon. The writers of the New Testament spoke on several occasions about “false teachers” or “false prophets” or about “a different gospel,” so clearly there were challenges to “orthodoxy” right from the start. Later there were heretical schools such as the Gnostics, and of course Martin Luther made his bold statement (or 93 of them) about the ways the institutional church at that time had strayed from Apostolic teaching. (For example, there’s nothing in Scripture that could be remotely construed as an endorsement for selling indulgences)

      Maybe because of the Internet and the ease with which we can know what other people are thinking, it seems as if there are a growing number of false truth claims associated with Christianity, or maybe there actually are a proliferation of false ideas. I could name a handful of preachers and their false ideas without half trying. They fly the flag of Christianity but don’t measure up to what God says in His Word. Take the “health and wealth” camp–people who claim God wants His people to be healthy and wealthy, so we simply have to claim his promises. If we are poor and sick, then it’s because we’ve sinned.

      That position violates so many principles of Scripture it isn’t funny, but these slick mega-church pastors sell it as the real deal. It isn’t the real deal, yet the media, for some reason (probably because of the number of followers) camp on guys like that as “spokesmen” for Christianity, especially Protestant, evangelical Christianity.

      But you also asked about my emphasis on Paul. I don’t see the reported words of Jesus as more (or less) important because I believe all Scripture has been inspired by God. It’s a weird doctrine, I grant you–it requires belief in a sovereign and omnipotent God. But believing that He created the whole world, that Jesus is God incarnate, that God raised Him from the dead, what’s a little inspiration of Scripture? 😉

      So Matthew was inspired to write what he did about Jesus, but Paul was just as inspired to write what he did, and for that matter, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was just as inspired as all the others. In other words, they have equal weight.

      The people I mentioned earlier who approach Christianity as a smorgasbord have reasons for picking and choosing what they believe, and some do so by weighting Jesus’s words more heavily. (Obviously that’s not the approach of those health and wealth people because Jesus told one rich guy to sell all he and and to follow Him! 🙄 )



  2. This past week, I heard a radio interview with a missionary whose family ministered in one of the most heavily Muslim-populated provinces in Southeast Asia. She said that the family referred to themselves as “followers of Jesus” rather than “Christians”, because all Westerners are thought to be Christians, regardless of lifestyle, behavior, or adherence to Biblical teaching.

    The term “Christian” has been co-opted, besmirched, and twisted over the millennia, to the point that it doesn’t mean what we assume it means. We could intend it to mean “follower of Christ”, while someone from a totally different culture understands it to mean something entirely different, even something the polar opposite.

    I know that it’s natural, and often even necessary, to apply labels and categories, but I am becoming more and more reluctant to use the term “Christian” for myself, because even fellow believers have differing definitions of what it means. But, really, there’s probably not a solution to the problem. No matter what we call ourselves, there will still be folks who make free with the name while disregarding or misinterpreting Jesus and the Bible.


    • Yes, this idea that all Westerners are Christians undermines the true meaning of the word. But I think you’re right. We’ve tried other terms to distance ourselves from the pretenders: born again, Bible-believing, and in the 70s Jesus people. Eventually those terms become just as co-opted, besmirched, and twisted, until they are finally left off.

      As it is, a lot of the “progressive” Christians, who are liberal “higher criticism” Christians who don’t believe the Bible except for the parts they want to believe or in the way they want to believe it, have already co-opted “Christ follower.”

      Until Christ returns, we’ll have the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the tares among the wheat, I think.



  3. We take the word “Christian” from Scripture, but most of us don’t remember the context. Literally “the Christ ones”, this was a mocking term coined at Antioch to refer to the believers who talked about Christ all the time. They didn’t call themselves this. Jesus referred to the inhabitants of the kingdom of heaven as servants and family members, and the later letters that make up the New Testament use either “brethren” or “saints.” We’ve moved a lot of definitions around, to where saints are anointed by men and Christians are called by God. I don’t know about you, but I would rather God thought I fit into His home than match anybody on earth’s definition of what it is (or is not) to be called by His name. This, I think, is why Jesus told the parables about the wheat and the tares and about the sheep and the goats. It’s the same field, the same flock, just very different blinders everyone’s wearing.

    This hymn was written by a Scottish Sunday school teacher, when her students asked “Who is a saint?” The answer the world would give isn’t the same as the answer the Scripture would give, and we sometimes forget which one is ultimately more important. 🙂 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6oZJxaCSTo


    • Good thoughts, Lex. I definitely agree that we should not let the world define us. And thanks for the YouTube link.

      Interestingly, Peter did use the term “Christian” in his first letter. I checked Strongs to see if this was the word he used in the original, and apparently it was. The verse (and context) reads

      but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.
      (1 Peter 4:13-16 – emphasis mine)

      Thayer’s Lexicon goes on to say that by the second century the term was accepted by believers as a name of honor, but this verse in Peter makes me think he, at least, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, no less, already had accepted it and was admonishing believers to use the name as a way to glorify God.

      It makes sense to me that Christ’s name should not be misused. Does it matter if we’re known as Christ followers or Jesus followers? Not really, but I don’t want “Christ followers” to be despised simply because Christ’s name is attached to it.



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