Today’s Question: “What Makes A Person A Christian?”
My Answer: This is a great question, Friend, and I’m so glad you asked. I’m going to start teaching you with the Socratic method, and return a question for your question…
Tell me – what is a bush? Describe a bush to me.
This problem was presented to our class at Northwest Christian University by Dr. Herb Works, our Missions Professor. It proved to be a diabolically clever question! We tried really hard to give him a good answer.
Student: “It’s like a small tree.”
Dr. Works: “So, is a one-year old tree that only comes up to my knee a bush?”
Student: “No. I mean, when it’s full grown, a bush is smaller than a tree.”
Dr. Works: “So, all bushes are smaller than all bonsai trees?”
Student: “No. A bush is like plant, but it has a woody stem.”
Dr. Works: “Trees have woody stems. Are trees bushes, too?”
It was very frustrating. We tried and tried to define a bush, but every description we gave was incomplete, and included things that no one would call a bush.
“Oh, Dr. Works, just point to any plant, and I can tell you whether it’s a bush or not! But I admit I can’t define it.”
And that, Friend, was Dr. Works’ point. Definitions are very slippery things.
So, back to your question: what makes a person a Christian?
There are several definitions, and all of them are imperfect. Here are a few for you to consider.
Definition #1: A Christian is anyone who belongs to a Christian organization.
This is a fair definition. There is no one global standards body with the authority to certify authentic Christians. The Roman Catholics have one standard for the definition, the Greek Orthodox have another standard. So does the Anglican church, and the Lutherans, and the Methodists, and any number of Baptist groups. I’ve heard Baptists say Mormons aren’t Christians, and I’ve heard Mormons tell me they are.
Definition #2: A Christian is anyone who says they are.
Again, this definition is perfectly fair. Some people who call themselves Christians have chosen not to belong to any of the Christian organizations mentioned above. These people may be ex-members of a Christian organization; this scenario is fairly common. Less common are people who call themselves Christians, but have never been a member of any Christian organization. Still, such people do exist.
Definition #3: A Christian is anyone who subscribes to one of the Christian creeds.
I almost didn’t list this definition. Generally such a person will be in one of the two categories already mentioned, and so at first I thought it was redundant. But then I decided to list it anyway, because there are people who have been debarred from a Christian organization, but who still subscribe to that organization’s creed. Different Christian organizations have different terms for debarment: some churches excommunicate, some withdraw fellowship, some call it shunning. Some of these people may feel that, because of excommunication, they are no longer Christian. Some of them, on the other hand, will consider themselves to still be Christian, and only view excommunication as loss of membership in the organization. So, this definition is kind of in a gray area. You know – like my example of describing a bush.
Definition #4: A Christian is anyone who is a student of Jesus and who follows Jesus.
This definition is most in keeping with what we can read in the Bible. The first use of the word “Christian” in the Bible is in Acts 11:26, where we read, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Up until this time, what were they called? Look at the verse again: they were called disciples. This word means, “student.” They were disciples, or students, of Jesus.
From Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
The term “Christ” is technically a title, not a name. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” The Christ, or the Messiah, is the Anointed One. To be completely proper, we would say, “Jesus, the Christ,” rather than, “Jesus Christ.” However, the use of the combined term, “Jesus Christ,” is now so common in English that no one makes a fuss about the technicality, including me. You’ll find many instances in my writing and speaking where I have used the term, “Jesus Christ,” as Jesus’ name.
But I digress. Back to the fourth definition: the disciples, as they were called, were the students of the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. And since these disciples considered Jesus to be the Christ, they were, by extension, students of Jesus.
There is something else that must be added here, and that is the idea of acceptance or adherence. A disciple, or student, in the Greek culture of the period covered in the Book of Acts, didn’t just commit to an intellectual analysis of the teacher’s philosophy. The student was a follower of the teacher. The student lived out the teacher’s way of perceiving the world and responding to it.
So, we have these terms, any one of which may be exchanged for the others:
disciple of Jesus
student of Jesus
follower of Jesus
disciple of Christ
student of Christ
follower of Christ
Oh, my! Do you see? A new dilemma has been created. Here it is: someone may belong to a Christian organization (Definition #1), but not be Christ-like. Someone may say they are a Christian (Definition #2), but not be Christ-like. Someone may subscribe to a Christian creed (Definition #3), but not be Christ-like.
This dilemma, I’ll guess, is why you asked me your question. There is, in the world, a disparity between what Christians do and how Jesus Christ lived. There is a disparity between what Christians say and what Jesus Christ said.
This is why, in my writing and speaking, you will find this urgent plea over and over again: “Follow Jesus. Follow him!”
I don’t care if you call yourself a Christian. I call myself a Christian. Sometimes. With a certain degree of caution and reluctance. I consider the term “Christian” to be risky, not because of its historical meaning, but because I don’t want to be associated with some of the other people who call themselves Christians today. More often you’ll hear me say, “I follow Jesus.”
And so it is that in this article too, I express my urgent plea: follow Jesus! Whatever you call yourself, or whatever you refuse to call yourself – follow Jesus.
And, one last thing. Would you do me this kindness? If you follow Jesus, would you tell me so? Just put it in the comments. It’ll be a great encouragement to me. Thanks.
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