Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who Is a Christian?

Some Thinking Friends responded to my postings of Aug. 20 and Aug. 25 by raising the question about who, really, can be legitimately designed as a Christian. Let’s think some more now about that important matter.
From a sociological, as opposed to a specifically religious, viewpoint, it seems to me that if a person (a) is a member of a Christian church, (b) self-identifies as being a Christian, and/or (c) publically makes a statement of faith in Jesus Christ, it seems to me that it is legitimate to designate that person as a Christian.
But then there is the matter of religious evaluation. Some would classify others as Christians only if they belonged to a “true” Christian church or “really” followed the teachings of Jesus. TF Craig Dempsey’s comments about the 8/25 posting expresses that position well. According to the latter test, what one does determines whether that person is a Christian or not. Thus, Craig wrote, “The person carrying the cross may well be a Christian. The person driving the nails certainly is not.
Along the same line, but much more provocatively, a (relatively) young Canadian TF writes, “Hitler and Bush were both ‘Christian’ (according to themselves), but their lying, thieving, murdering ways clearly exposes their hypocrisy. The fact that Obama had the gall to justify American . . . warmongering in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech marks him as the same. He is therefore neither Muslim nor Christian, if you ask me.”
A related comment, in another e-mail received after my previous posting, says: My cynicism would lead me to ask if any President can be a practicing Christian based on what he knows and must do in that position.” Although I had never thought of them as being cynical, that was the position of the sixteenth century Anabaptists: “it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate” (from the Schleitheim Confession, 1527).
From the opposite side of the political spectrum, Glenn Beck claims that liberation theology is at the core of the President’s “belief structure,” and then remarks, “I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it” (Washington Post, 8/30/10). Ann Coulter goes further. On September 1 she declared that the President is “obviously an atheist,” and then she went on to assert, “All liberals are atheists.”
Concerning Beck’s statement, my own view is that the President’s religious views are far closer to those of Jesus than are Glenn Beck’s. But what about the charges that those who do not faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus, as the Anabaptists sought to do or as my Canadian friend thinks we should, are not Christians?
When we get right down to it, if living like Jesus is what it means to be a Christian, perhaps the Austrian Catholic theologian Adolf Holl (b. 1930) is correct. The English title of his book about Francis of Assisi is The Last Christian (1979, 1980). If being a Christian means living completely like Jesus and putting the teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount into practice literally, perhaps, indeed, Francis was the last Christian.
Note: The Vital Conversations discussion group will be talking about the life of Francis of Assisi at their regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 8, beginning at 1:00 p.m. at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Gladstone. Visitors are cordially welcome.


  1. Indeed, one of the things worldviews do is define who's in and who's out. Thus I suppose that it's fair game for us to reflect critically on how our own worldview (Christian worldview) accomplishes this. What interests me is how in the end it does seem to boil down to moral behavior and not exclusively to intellectual assent to doctrines. (I have not read Holl's book; he might say this.)

    I would say that the sermon on the mount of Matthew's gospel is only a beginning point, though. Even the writer of Matthew seems to think the same as he has Jesus himself affirm the Jewish scriptural traditions, which Christians later adopted themselves: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill..." And even more pointedly : "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."

    In a word, the sermon on the mount is not a complete enough tradition in and of itself to suffice as a practicable moral system. Its principles are suggestive, but it is also remarkable for what it leaves out. Therefore in many areas disciples of Jesus are forced to supplement it in their moral reflections. Briefly, to follow Jesus, then, requires that for moral guidance Christians interpret Jesus' words by appealing to other, fuller, moral systems of thought. The apostle Paul's ample draught of Stoic moral thought is suggestive, here. Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics might also function as helpful supplement.

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  3. Thanks for another good post. I am studying the Gospel of Mark right now, and it has occurred to me that if being a "Christian" means truly following Jesus' teachings and message in every way, maybe the world has yet to see a "real" Christian. Even Jesus' original disciples (especially as portrayed in Mark) failed to truly follow and understand Jesus' message.

  4. I've struggled with this a lot lately. It seems difficult to point fingers and say "That is not Christian, that is not fruit produced by one who follows Christ."

    Is this ever okay? I feel that surely there has to be a limit to what we recognize within the Christian community as acceptable behavior. A recent experience with a more conservative friend of mine confused me: I was saying of his actions, "That's not what Jesus wants," and my friend said to me, "Who are you to decide what Jesus wants?" (Please see my blog post on the incident at

    It is a delicate business on deciding "who is Christian." To paraphrase and adapt a saying of the Desert Fathers: If you find someone who hates his neighbor, do not judge him. For remember, the one who said "Love your neighbor," also said, "Do not judge."

  5. You have got me thinking, Dr. Seat. At the risk adding yet another link, Peter Rollins, an Irish philosopher, was speaking at Mars Hill church about many of the issues that you have touched upon in this and earlier blogs. I think you and maybe others on this list would find his interaction with one of the pastors at that church to be thought-provoking...

  6. Dr. Glenn Hinson sent these wise words via e-mail:

    "Let us hope that being Christian does not mean to be without fault. Insofar as I can see, not even saints can be thought of as perfect persons, persons who made no mistakes. Our culture shapes the best of us in its mold. That includes those Anabaptists."

  7. This is typical human behavior. We want to be a part of a group, so the people in the group determine what it means to be a member of that specific group by either putting in writing or through coercion behavior codes that define the group. This lends identity to those in the group which offers protection both physical and emotional. It also allows others be excluded because their behavior does not fit the implicit or explicit codes of the group. As a result it becomes easy to identify a person in a group instead of being able to identify anything that truly distinguishes that person as an individual person. This grouping behavior is not unique to Christians or for that matter even humans, because it enhances the chances of survival by being a part of the group.

    If the above loosely defines the purpose of groups than what Christ left behind was not so much a group as collection of disparate individuals that coalesced into a group as they determined for them what it meant to be followers of Jesus. It took years and years before a label was determined for "The Way". The written works through the ages represent what those groups in those times understood to be followers of Christ. These were not monolithic and changed from age to age and place to place and even within given communities. They are still fluid today with a multitude of views of what it means to be "Christian".

  8. One irony of the debate over the use of the term "Christian" is that the Bible tells us that it was first used by outsiders to describe members of the "The Way." As we read in Acts 11:26 ". . . it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians.'" Later, in Acts 26:28, the word is used again, this time by King Agrippa, in response to Paul's lengthy testimony. Paul himself, however, does not use the word once in the exchange.

    The outside world that created the term "Christian" has a rather elastic definition of the word, and I think both humility and charity would call on us to honor that source. Those who want a narrower definition should find an appropriate term for their position, and conduct their test of purity under that term. History has left us a raft of such narrower terms, such as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Mormon, Episcopalian, and Pentecostal. Many of these terms were first coined by outsiders, and not necessarily as complements. Through acts of faith and courage, the names were born again as proud labels.

    There is something profoundly unchristian about attempts to hijack the term "Christian." It sounds so political, echoing prior debates about what or who was "American" or "un-American." If Glenn Beck and friends do not want to use the obvious term, "Fundamentalist," then let them chose another term, just not another stolen from others. Stealing is so "un" in all religions!