Sunday, January 10, 2016

So what is the basic definition of Christian, then?

Have you ever tried to have a really awkward conversation in a public place?

I do this on a semi-regular basis.

My friend Donna was raised on an Indian reservation in the mountains of New York. And, mind you, she is older. So all in all she comes from a rather different world. Sometimes things that are understood to be impolitic for general conversation don't strike her the same way.

And it's hard, on occasion, to convince her that maybe we should talk about these things at a later time. When we're not in a crowded theater waiting for a movie to start, for example.

Which is how I wind up trying to explain things quietly.

Today it was about Christianity.

Mind you, Donna was raised Episcopalian. She considers herself to be a Christian, though her education in such was basically - 'this is what we are, we do ABC'. *shrug*

The conversation started with her asking me what a Christian was. And I'm pretty sure that we've had a conversation about this before...actually I know that we have. There was a very long, late night discussion over why a person who believes that Jesus was the literal son of God (in the Greek/Roman gods sort of definition) couldn't be a Christian. The Trinity featured heavily in that one.

She was asking, this time, because of a plaque that she bought for decorating her apartment. When I was over there the other night we were talking about design ideas and she was showing me her fathers' fencing foils. Donna planned to mount them on her wall and I suggested that she get a family crest kind of thing to go beneath them to help complete the look.

Donna took my suggestion and found a coat of arms online that she purchased. It is, from her description, one that has a lion and a lamb on either side of a cross, with the banner reading 'Christian' over top. She bought that one because she is a Christian and while some of her family does originally come from England, they certainly don't have an actual familial coat of arms or crest. She was happy with her purchase until she saw an news story about the son of a gay couple who was denied access to a private school because his fathers are gay.

She was very upset that the school denied this boy due to the fact that the school was 'Christian' and she wanted to know if it was an actual Christian stance that homosexual couples are forbidden. Because if it was, she was going to have to un-declare herself a Christian.

Happily I could tell her that while it is the stance of a certain section of the Christian population there are plenty Christians who do not hold to this belief and so she can continue to be Christian without compromising her belief in marriage equality.

However, I'd have been even happier if we could have had this conversation almost literally anywhere else.

That, of course, is not the actual point. Just a side-note of 'my God, she's lucky I love her' kind of friendship angst. :)

Donna wanted to know what the definition of a Christian was, as I said before. And while I think we cleared up the actual heart of the issue, she still wanted to know what the definition actually was.

I told her the most basic definition is that of a 'follower of Christ', but that for the most part people accept as the base level of faith that a Christian is a person who believes that Christ was God (in some way) and that he was incarnated and sacrificed to expiate the sins of all of humanity.

Which, to me, is the most basic definition. I mean, okay, I know that there are a lot of different forms of Christianity and I'm sure somewhere out there there is a branch that doesn't believe some aspect of what I just said. But, honestly, to me? If you don't believe in the divinity of Jesus then...then you're not a Christian. You're not a bad person, by any means, and hey, call yourself what you like, but you don't meet the definition of Christian that I understand.

Mind you, I don't meet that definition of Christian, so throwing no stones here.

The conversation did make me wonder though, what is the most basic belief that a person would have to espouse in order to meet your definition of Christian?


  1. I love your conversations with friends! Such fun, interesting friends! :)

    I'm like you in that the most basic definition is a follower of Christ, but I can think of someone in particular who calls herself "a free follower of Christ" who would not describe herself as a Christian. Maybe labels aren't so important...I don't know.

    I also agree that "Christian" does imply a certain set of beliefs about Jesus although this varies so much between people who *would* argue that they *are* Christians, I would rather just go back to the simple definition: follower of Christ. Or little Christs.

    And if by following Christ, you realize he *is* part of a Trinity, divine, fully human yet fully God, GREAT.

    If we can believe Matthew 16, humans don't convince people of who Jesus is. It's something God reveals to us.

    1. *Ugh* It ate my first reply!

      Now we're getting the lazy reply.

      So, I would say, though, that the common Christian belief is that in order to be a true 'Christian' you have to hold a certain set of beliefs about Jesus. Most importantly that he was a part of the Trinity and therefore divine. If you just 'follow' Christ - doing what he has instructed people to do, etc. but do not have faith in his divinity, does it even matter? If he is really God and you deny his divinity then it would seem like you're relying on the works that were instructed to get you into heaven rather than any faith you have.

      It reduces Jesus to a simple teacher which I hear being railed against all the time as a concept.

      So I guess I'm saying that I'm not sure being a 'follower of Christ' without at least a little of the theological background works.

  2. You got mine right there: "Follower of Christ." If someone wants to call themselves a Christian, they probably are. "Probably" just because I'm sure some people claim the title for political/social/whatever benefits. But anyone who actually identifies with Christ and wants to be one of his followers, I'd say that's a Christian.

    Getting down to a sort of basic bare-bones belief, though. Although I don't think you need to believe in the divinity of Christ to be a Christian (or hold any specific beliefs, for that matter), I don't take much issue with that. The inclusion of "in some way" covers a lot. A common explanation I've heard was that God is in all of us but that Christ lived completely in alignment with God's nature and therefore was unique as an incarnation of God. *shrug*

    The sacrifice bit raises more flags for me. There are several theories of atonement generally accepted within mainline Christianity. His death may be seen as a consequence of sin, for example, his victory over it is what saves people. So I might amend that to "and through his life, death, and resurrection (physical or spiritual) he provides salvation from sin and death."

    I don't often have theological conversations in public anymore...or at all. I miss that. Thanks for this!

    1. "Although I don't think you need to believe in the divinity of Christ to be a Christian (or hold any specific beliefs, for that matter),"

      See, this...this is where I get caught up. If you don't believe that Christ is God then what makes you a Christian? There's nothing specifically different enough about Christianity to mark out a follower except for the belief in the divinity of Christ. Everything else is borrowed or at least echoed in other faiths.

      "A common explanation I've heard was that God is in all of us but that Christ lived completely in alignment with God's nature and therefore was unique as an incarnation of God."

      Isn't that rather Buddhist in nature?

      I admit my wording about the 'sacrifice' of Jesus might be flavored by my own perspective on this. I am having a hard time viewing the crucifixion as something other than human sacrifice. So...language.

      His victory over death couldn't happen without his death, which still makes the crucifixion a necessary part of the attonement/foregiveness dynamic.

    2. Well, what sets any religion apart? It doesn't have to be divinity. Buddha isn't a god. What makes you a Christian as opposed to anything else is that you identify Christ as your teacher and/or savior.

      The problem I have with any particular belief as a litmus test is that all these beliefs evolved over time. Jesus' earlier followers likely didn't see him as divine. From a Jewish perspective, that's blasphemy, and there's just no way his Jewish disciples jumped to a blasphemous explanation right out of the gate. These things had to be worked out over time and through much discussion. So using anything but association with Christ as the line means there were no Christians until after the first creeds were written and the community started to define who they felt belonged.

      So I think we're actually looking at two different things here, but calling them the same. From an individual perspective, a Christian just has to identify with Christ. But the Christian community (and Christian communities on a smaller scale) has developed more specific barriers. So you can be a Christian but not a part of Christianity, if that makes any sense.

      You mention the Trinity above, does that mean you would say Unitarian Christians weren't Christians? That's a whole lot of people who defined themselves as Christians, lived their lives according to strongly held Christian values, and worshiped in Christian communities. If we start saying that doesn't mean anything and they were all wrong in naming their own religion, we run into a lot of problems. Since there are so many different Christianities, who gets to make the one true definition?

      For me it just comes down to who or what they follow as the base of the religion (Christ) and the community that informs their interpretation of that (any of the various flavors of Christianity).

      Eh, I think the person who first gave me that explanation identified as a Taoist Christian. It doesn't really sound like Buddhism to me (the inclusion of God alone makes that a bit sketchy), but I can see what you mean. Inspired by Eastern religions, probably. Then again, I think early Christianity was influenced by Eastern religions too and probably couldn't have existed otherwise, so.

      I'd agree with death being an important part of it, that's why I said through life, death, and resurrection. The issue for a lot of people is the idea that God demands sacrifice and saw killing an innocent as proper payment. That's not a God they can follow. (Me either.) So their view of atonement is about an end to sacrifice, life rather than death being the thing that overcomes sin. I've also heard that the crucifixion is meant to be so horrible it makes people see that sacrifice and violence can't be salvific and that they have to end that view of religion.

    3. I guess another question is why anyone is trying to define Christianity at any given time. I'm not sure there is a single set-in-stone definition. It's a label, and labels are only useful in context. When people at my church growing up said other denominations "aren't really Christian," they meant from their assumed perspective of God, that these people weren't really saved because they didn't believe the right things. When someone commits an act of terror in the name of Christianity, Christians can say that person doesn't represent true Christianity and isn't really part of the community, but from an objective standpoint a news anchor has to discuss it in terms of how that person identified and deal with the fact that their interpretation of Christianity led to this. There are times when self-identification is the important factor and times when community-identification is more important. Narrowing down a definition depends on context.

    4. The specifics of their belief system, yes? But in order to have that delineation there needs to be a core set of beliefs that members of the religion adhere to. It doesn't have to be divinity, no, but in Christianity the belief in Jesus' divinity is a defining belief. It sets Christianity apart from Judaism rather extremely, and Islam as well.

      See, I would say that it's the belief in Christ as savior that identifies you as a Christian. Muslims believe that Christ was a prophet and a teacher. That doesn't make them Christians.

      True that they didn't see him as divine from the get go, but if the Biblical narrative is to be believed (which it is to one extent or another by Christians) then by the end of his time on earth they had come around to that way of thinking. Other aspects of the faith came over time, the creeds, sacraments, etc. though they can be seen to have evolved from elements of Christ's life contained within the Bible but that does seem to be one belief that evolved rather quickly within the lifetimes of the people who knew him.

      As an individual, you can call yourself anything you like and that's fine. Doesn't make it true.

      I see what you're saying, I do. I just...if your beliefs don't mesh with what the Christian community believes can call yourself a Christian and be wrong about it.

      Not necessarily? I mention the Trinity because well, that's the Christianity I was raised with and it's the Christianity of the majority of Christians. That being said, I don't find the Trinity explicitly spelled out in the Bible and I can see the arguments for Unitarian Christianity. So I wouldn't say they weren't Christians, but the ones who don't believe Christ was divine? That's where I run into the problem.

      But...if they deny the belief that Christ is God (something that can be said to be directly referenced in Biblical text) and they don't hold that the Bible was corrupted/changed/etc then they are rejecting a part of the teachings of Christ. Which makes them bad followers of Christ?

      Likely. Buddhism is, of course, a bad example. This is what I get when I write too fast and don't think about what I'm saying.

      I also have this issue. But even if they focus on the resurrection part, you're left with the fact that this is a God who apparently decided He needed some human sacrifice. Just that one last time. There's no getting around that fact in Christianity. Of course they don't phrase it that way. :)

    5. You would be defining Christian in order to know what one is, I suppose.

      In this case Donna wanted to know what a Christian was so she could know if she was still willing to be one or if homophobia was a required belief so she could nope on out.

      In this case the definition provides the context.

      It's due to the variety of Christian beliefs that she feels comfortable continuing to call herself a Christian. However, if she asked me if it was acceptable to be a Christian and believe in...Vishnu for random example, I'd have to tell her no. Because that goes against a tenet that (I think, but who knows anymore?) Christians of every denomination would agree on.

      Knowing the community-identification allowed her to have a self-identification with the faith.

    6. "Knowing the community-identification allowed her to have a self-identification with the faith."

      So in that context, it's definitely important to have a set of beliefs accepted by at least some group within Christianity so she knows she belongs. It's not about bare minimums anymore, but statements of faith. So I think you're on track with defining the term more specifically.

      The Vishnu example made me think of something. Paul talks to people about meat sacrificed to idols, and has to state that it's really okay because of course the idols aren't real. Like, he had to reassure them because when they heard from others that they weren't supposed to eat that they thought it meant that the meat was claimed by other gods or something. They believed in those other gods and Paul corrected them. I think an important part of Christianity is that all you have to do to be a Christian is put your faith in Christ. You don't have to have all the theology worked out right away, there's no test to pass or board to convince or ritual to perform. Those things might come later, but you're part of the group from the moment of decision. So there's being a Christian as a personal decision that happens at once without any particular beliefs, and there's being a member of the Christian community, which happens as you continue to grow and learn from others. I assume that if one day you hear about Jesus and decide that sounds awesome and become a Christian, but then down the line you realize everything every church around you teaches sounds wrong, you wouldn't remain a part of the Christian community even if you still believed in Christ. You might still call yourself a Christian (and I'd argue could still be one, because that's how new denominations start), but I think you'd have to provide some clarifications if you say that to other people. It would get to the point where it's "I'm a Christian BUT everything you think Christians believe is the opposite of me," at which point it's just easier to say you think Jesus is cool.

    7. (Sorry for multiple posts, as far as I can tell Blogger still doesn't let people edit their comments.)

      I just realized the problem I'm having. All this time when I've been talking about what it takes to be a Christian, I was using it more or less the way my churches growing up did. A Christian = Someone who is saved. And salvation happens as soon as you believe and accept Jesus as your savior. So from that perspective, that's the end of the story and that's all that's required, but then they would take it further and say if you're really REALLY saved, God will help you learn the right things, and if you don't learn the right things and you leave the community it means you didn't really believe in the first place. *headdesk*

      So obviously I didn't subscribe to that part. But I think it bothered me a bit to consider that you need something more on top of that to be a Christian. My whole childhood theology is based on the idea that God accepts everyone with the single most minimal requirement. And since everyone God accepts is a Christian, there can be no more boundaries on that. But obviously if I think about it I don't think my churches were right about their whole concept of salvation and "is a Christian" isn't actually just another way of saying "is saved." It's definitely better to define it as being a member of the Christian religion, so recognition and acceptance by the group (for example, joining a church and agreeing to the statement of faith) matters more especially for an outsider definition. Huh.

      Now I have to go scrub my brain. It's so weird finding these fragments of screwy theology still stuck in there.

    8. I've got to say, reading your last two comments, I think it's clear that a part of this is the different kinds of churches we grew up in.

      I get what you're saying, that someone is a 'Christian' from the moment they believe that Jesus is God, but even if that is what the churches *say*, that's not what they mean in practice. After all, one is only a Christian if God leads them to follow the same practices and beliefs of that particular group, in reality. There are plenty of churches who declare this or that denomination as 'non-Christian' because they don't have the right practice or belief.

      Even though they all claim to believe in Christ, it's the actually nitty-gritty details that determine socially accepted Christian labeling or not.

      And I'm used to that.

      I'm used to having a set of particular beliefs and practices and knowing that if someone subscribes to these (or closely enough) then they 'count' and if they don't, then they don't.

      Even the ones that are close, more often than not I'm familiar with the attitude of, 'Well, they *say* they're Christian and they probably are, but they're missing so much. One day they'll figure it out and join the true Church.' And that's not only a Catholic attitude. I know it from my Lutheran childhood too.


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