What is a Christian?

I want to begin by asking each of us to reflect on this simple question – what is a Christian?

If we were in a position where someone asked us to provide a definition of what it means to be a Christian, what would we say? What words, phrases, and images would we reference in our attempts at putting together a definition? What core elements would we emphasize? Where would we derive our information?

What may at first appear to be a fairly straightforward request can at the same time place us in something of a conundrum. We probably thought to ourselves ‘this will be easy,’ only to discover that the answer may not be as obvious as we first imagined.

Why? For a number of reasons no doubt. Not the least of which would be the plethora of voices, experiences, and nuanced definitions we’ve accumulated over time; voices that may cloud our definitions and witness.

Let me give you a few examples.

What is a Christian?

Some people, if not most of us, have at one time or another defined the word ‘Christian’ within the framework of a certain denominational (or non-denominational) affiliation. For instance, if you were to ask someone, ‘are you a Christian?’, they would probably say things like, “I’m Catholic,” or “I’m Lutheran,” or “I’m Pentecostal,” or “I’m Reformed.” For many of us, we have come to associate Christian identity almost exclusively along denominational lines.

When asked to define the word ‘Christian’, others may point to a certain theological category. For example, I’ve encountered numerous people who would say, well yes, “I’m a Calvinist,” or “I’m an Arminian,” or “I’m an open theist." They view these categories as the basis on which they create a self-understanding of Christianity.

Then there are those who make statements that speak of a certain theological orientation. “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I’m conservative”, or “I’m liberal”, “I’m progressive” or “I’m Evangelical” (which can be an all-inclusive phrase).

Further still, others define ‘Christian’ through their identification with a unique theological position. The conversation may go something like this. “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I believe in Spirit baptism”, or “I adhere to biblical inerrancy” or “I’m egalitarian”, or “I’m complimentarian.”

Some choose a more spiritual path. When asked the question, “are you a Christian?” they say things like, “Yes, I’m contemplative”, or “I’m pietistic”, or “I’m a naturalist."

And then there are those who define Christianity by their allegiance to a certain social position. Responses such as “I’m pro-choice’, “I’m pro-life”, “I’m a feminist” or “I’m a pacifist” reflect some of the possibilities.

Finally, some people define Christianity through political membership. That is, a Christian for some people is synonymous with whether or not they are “Republican”, “Democrat”, or “Green." In our Canadian context, Christianity can be defined as “Conservative (PC)”, “Liberal”, or “New Democrat."

With all of these responses in mind, I’ll ask the question again – What is a Christian?

Can we use any of these descriptions to define what a Christian actually is? Do any of them provide us with an accurate definition? Or, do they actually serve to cloud our understanding of the phrase, causing us to lose focus on the central claims inherent within the term?

All and none

Without moving into a detailed and long-winded response, let me start by saying that a Christian is none of these things because adhering exclusively to one or more of these categories and using them to form a definition of what it means to be a Christian is a prime example of ‘missing the mark’.

When we align ourselves with any one of these categories, positions and/or orientations, we effectively reduce the word ‘Christian’ down to an unrecognizable, severely mutated, and unfaithful version of the real thing.

While I see value in each of these terms, categories, and positions, I can also see how each of them can become the lens through which we come to understand and define Christianity. When this happens, we short-circuit the term ‘Christian’.

I may carry the evangelical, open theist, charismatic labels, but is this all there is to being a Christian? Labels? Can Christianity be defined by what political party I belong to? Or, vice versa, can we fall outside the parameters of the definition if we adhere to one or more of the other labels, like liberal, feminist, or pietistic?

I think a Christian can be all or none of these things. Why? Precisely because of definition.

If we take just a moment to peel back the layers we’ve accumulated over time and enter back into the founder of the Christian faith, we may begin to rediscover what a Christian is. And, if we can do this, every label, category, and position will continue to hold varying degrees of value, while at the same time begin to lose significance.

Like the other question I’ve been reflecting on lately, ‘what is the gospel?’, the question ‘what is a Christian?’ ends up in the same place. The answer to the gospel and Christian questions is one and the same. It includes all of the categories above and none of them at the same time. On the one hand, it is liberal, reformed, egalitarian, republican, and contemplative. On the other hand, it is none of them at all.

Questions answered

What is the gospel?

What is a Christian?

Simply Jesus.

He is the gospel.

He is Christianity.

How do I know this? Because both would be nothing without him.

Period.

I am a Christian if I follow in the footsteps of Jesus and allow his life, teachings, and witness to order my own.

I fall into the gospel if I fall into Jesus – the gospel embodied in human flesh.

Jesus – not denominational affiliations, theological categories, orientations, positions, spirituality, social agendas, or political memberships – lies at the center of both gospel and Christianity.

He – and no other – defines the gospel.

He – and no other – defines Christianity.

What would happen if we allowed this definition, the person of Jesus, to usurp our definitions?

I think everything would change.

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About the author


Senior Editor and Staff Writer

Jeff is the Senior Editor of ChristianWeek, a public speaker, blogger and an award-winning published writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. He also blogs at jeffkclarke.com