What makes a Christian a Christian?

By Barbara Kugle
Special to The PREVIEW

“Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.”  — G.K. Chesterton

I had fun researching the various definitions for “Christian” online. The following is just one of the more amusing ones I found, though it may ring more true in today’s world than we would like. It is from the The Roycroft Dictionary:

“christian – 1. One of a sect that despises and rejects the race from which its founder sprang. 2. A person who thinks he believes in a certain creed that he does not believe in, and thus is pied mentally, morally and arithmetically. 3. A man who keeps one day in the week holy and raises hell with folks and fauna the other six — sometimes.”

This next definition comes from a religious tolerance website espoused by most liberal Christian denominations, secularist and public opinion pollsters:

“We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be attempting to follow the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as they interpret those teachings to be, (which includes) fundamentalist and other evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church members, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc. Using this definition, Christians total about 75% of the North American adult population. Also included … are those who regard themselves as being followers of Jesus even though they do not affiliate themselves with any particular religious group… abandoning religion in favor of a personal spirituality.”

They go on to suggest that if one could determine a true definition from God Himself, there would be just one universally accepted definition for a Christian. Do you see how one’s worldview can define the term Christian and what makes a Christian a Christian?’

Someone wrote the following response in view of the definition by the religious tolerant:

“The term ‘Christian’ literally means ‘little Christs,’ i.e., followers of Jesus. If this is still too difficult for you to figure out, then here’s a few similar examples;

• People from California are called Californians.

• People who follow Buddha are called Buddhists.

• People who practice law are called lawyers.

See how that works?”

And then there is this from the Webster’s 1913 Dictionary:

“chris´tian – One who believes, or professes or is assumed to believe, in Jesus Christ, and the truth as taught by Him; especially, one whose inward and outward life is conformed to the doctrines of Christ. The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”

As I mentioned in the previous piece on worldviews, Christian theism uses the Bible as its plumb line for truth. For me, it is the only authority I can accept with absolute certainty. So what is the Bible’s definition of “Christian?”

The word “Christian” occurs only three times, and in each instance it’s synonymous with the word “disciple.” However, one must understand that in the day of the apostles, the word “Christian” was a derisive term used by those who mocked the Christian faith, and meant it to be an insult.

Acts 11:26 — The disciples were called “Christians” first at Antioch.

In the preceding verses of Acts 11:26, Barnabas had just arrived in Antioch to find the following characteristics in the “believers” there.

• Evidence of God’s grace in the way they lived.

• Remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

Acts 26:28 — “Then (King” Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’”

Here again, Agrippa’s use of the term was not one of endearment. The Apostle Paul, in the defense of his faith listed the following characteristics of true believers of Jesus Christ. (Acts 26:19-23)

• They were obedient to the Lord in sharing the word of God to others.

• They “turned to God, and proved their repentance by their deeds.” Paul himself had a radical change in life style (from persecuting Christians to defending the faith).

• They accepted the message of Moses and the prophets that Christ would suffer and die for His own people as well as for the Gentiles.

1Peter 4:16 — “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

Christians suffered because they chose a worldview that was not in conformity with the popular view of the day. Peter addressed his first letter to believers, calling them “God’s elect, strangers in the world,” and admonished them to “live their life as strangers [in this world] in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:1, 17). In these verses a Christian is;

• Willing to share in the sufferings of Christ in that they will be the subject of ridicule and abuse.

• Willing to continue in the good that sets us apart from others.

Depending on one’s worldview, it is possible for a person to claim to be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus Christ, that one can accept Jesus as Savior without accepting him as Lord (a word which means “Master”). But this perspective doesn’t line up with the Bible’s use of the term Christian. If we admit that the Biblical definition is true, then we must also admit that most people today who claim to be Christians aren’t. And if we accept the definition of those who claim the perspective of religious tolerance, then we must understand that we have reduced the word to something that is almost meaningless.

Here are some of the other words the Bible uses to describe a follower of Jesus: a disciple, brother (or sister), holy one or saint, the elect, the faithful, or a believer in Jesus Christ. Do these terms for “Christian” define who you are? Do they have much in common with most people who call themselves “Christian” today? Remembering that the word Christian means “little Christs,” the next big question should be who is Jesus Christ? Who do you say He is? Ah … a topic for another day.

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This story was posted on February 28, 2013.