Friday, May 22, 2009

Define "Christian", Please

As I've shared my emerging knowledge of myself as a UU Christian, and my growing belief that "redemption through Jesus' death" is not primary in my personal theology, friends and relatives have posed the question, "Then how can you call yourself a Christian?"

Pause... Exactly the question I've asked myself. Because deep in my gut, I see myself as a Christian, but I don't fit the definition. But then, I've heard quite a few definitions. There are usually three requirements in most definitions, but sometimes not. (This is sounding more Unitarian Universalist all the time!)

Definition 1: A Christian believes that:
  • God exists.
  • The Bible is the Word of God.
  • Jesus was equally human and divine; Jesus was God.
  • Humanity's sins were redeemed through the sacrifice of the cross.

I've heard and read this definition in various forms all my life. This is what I call a "mainstream" definition, but even within that framework there is a spectrum of religious diversity that rivals rainbow colors. What concept of God? Literal or non-literal biblical interpretation. What's the emphasis on--humanity or divinity? Who was redeemed? What are the requirements? Is there a Trinity involved?

Definition 2: Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperCollins, 2003. pg. 37-8. Borg contends that there are three affirmations central to Christian faith. A Christian...

  • Affirms the reality of God.
  • Affirms the utter centrality of Jesus.
  • Affirms the centrality of the Bible.

Lots of wiggle room here, too. This list doesn't define what to believe about each of the affirmations. Borg is showing us that we, as Christians, have this core in common. Common ground on which to begin conversations and from which to build a vision of what life on this Earth should look like.

Definition 3: "Christian", The American Heritiage Dictionary. 3rd Ed. 1996.

n. 1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. 2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.

Well, this is interesting. Notice that #1 says "...follows THE religion...", not A religion or ONE of the religions or one of the denominations. THE religion. Christianity. And a Christian can profess belief OR follow the religion--nothing in this second part about beliefs--"...based on the life and teachings of Jesus." [Emphasis mine. not about Jesus. Hm-m-m.]

Then there's #2. "One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus." This is the one that matches the tag lines of the UUCF: "Simply Following Jesus" and "Following Jesus in Freedom". In the UUCF, I've met several people who state firmly that they do not believe in the reality of God or a god. That kind of threw me. I mean, Jesus believed in God. No question of that. So how can you follow him and not believe in God? Hm-m-m.

Then I attended Revival and considered what I know of my own Christian fellowship. Here are people who don't accept the reality of God, but are striving to live with the teachings of Jesus engraved on their hearts. With love and compassion. Works for me. The last dictionary definition is the most inclusive and lies within the framework of the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles. What does your belief lead you to do? What does your faith look like?

"But as for me (Joshua 24:15)...", I'm a Definition 2 kind of girl. I feel the presence of God a lot in my life, so God is real. Jesus is my central teacher, and I'm always tuned to new ways of understanding how his teachings can guide me. I was raised with the Bible, so it's central. I can't often quote chapter and verse, but I have a few passages under my belt and a strong sense of the parables and reminders of God's encompassing love.

Are you a Christian?

I've added a few books to the LTS Amazon bookstore (link on the left), including Marcus Borg's Heart of Christianity. Take a look. Share with us what books or DVD's have influenced your journey as a Christian.

Blessings on your day!


  1. Question 17 in the Transylvanian Unitarian Catechism askes: "What do we name those founding their faith on the teaching of Jesus?" And the answer is: Christian. In Acta 11:26 we read about a congregation where the disciples for first time were named "Christians". Before that followers of Jesus simply said to "follow the road". "The road" (or "the way") was the first name for those sharing the teaching of Jesus.

    You know, the problem with today's definitions that refer to the Bible is that the very first followers of Jesus did not have the Bible as we have it. They had the Jewish Scriptures. So all definitions based on a church's understanding of who is and who is not Christian, may always be disputed. The New Testament would later - as mention above - tell us that those following the teaching of Jesus are Christians or simply followers of the road. And then we man of course engage in never ending discussions of what does it mean to follow the teaching of Jesus.

    In my opinion this is not necessary simply because the faith is the gift of G-d and this faith is given each one of us so that we best to our individual abilities may follow the teaching of Jesus. If this gift sends us into the trinitarian churches, well, G-d is also found there. If it sends us to the Unitarian churches, well, G-d is also found there. If it sends us in another direction, well, G-d is always to be found where good is found.

    To follow Jesus is to live the Christian way in whatever direction it sends us. Depending on the direction the name will be Christian or something else. It does not matter. We follow Jesus anyhow :-)

  2. I don't think any of us can formulate good definitions about what is Christian and what is something else. The current issue of "Good News," has two slogans: "Witnessing the Transforming Power of the Holy Spirit in our lives" and "freely following Jesus," which means we need a statement on God as Father to at least forge a Trinity. The late Jack Winter emphasized God the Father also is a source of God's love.

    You don't have to be a Christian to benefit from UUCF membership. That is one added plus of belonging to UUCF. Believe impossible things before breakfast.

  3. I'm a christian according to all three definitions. I think the third definition is the closest to the truth though, because the first two make no mention about any need to follow the teachings of Jesus and in truth, we find in the gospels many places in which Jesus tells His disciples that unless they take up their cross and follow Me, that they are not worthy of me. We are not christians therefore, unless we are truly following Jesus and doing the things He did.

    I'm a roman catholic and I know by faith that the RC church is the true church instituted by Christ. But I also know that those outside the church who are following Jesus are true christians too (so long as they actually following Jesus) just as well that people inside the church who don't follow Jesus are not truly His disciples.

    The one who takes up his cross and follows Jesus... the one who does the things that Jesus did by serving others and obeying God... that one is a christian, and we all need to strive to be that person.

    God Bless,

  4. Universalist minister J. W. Hanson wrote this definition for his 1892 "A Pocket Cyclopaedia"

    Christian: All Those who who accept Christ as an authoritative teacher, in whatever altitude of being they may locate him or whatever extent to his mission they may give, are entitled to be called Christian. Christians are those who accept his claims as they understand them, and are endeavoring to be his followers.

  5. "I don't think any of us can formulate good definitions about what is Christian and what is something else."

    I can. . . People love to water down the meaning of words. Look what happened to the word "Unitarian" as just one example. I think that the simplest and most straightforward definition of the word "Christian" is -

    A person who believes Jesus was the Christ aka Messiah

    If one does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ aka Messiah then one is not really a *Christian* even if one believes that Jesus of Nazareth was a great prophet and follows Jesus' teachings. Non-Christian followers of Jesus might want to consider calling themselves Jesusians or something.

  6. Well, Robin, as a former Evangelical-Lutheran pastor in the Norwegian State Church I can surely say that your definition is good and valid Lutheran Christendom. It is actually so good that it is possible to use it to lock out all Unitarians trying to be Christians.

  7. Great comments! Thank you all. Another idea that layers over this discussion is what Marcus Borg calls the "Pre-Easter Jesus" (what Jesus was before his death, a Jewish mystic teacher) and the "Post-Easter Jesus" (what Jesus became after his death, a Jesus of experience and tradition). Some Christians describe themselves as 1st Century Christians as a way to identify with and follow the Pre-Easter Jesus. For other Christians, the Post-Easter Jesus brings the deeper meaning and transforming power into their lives. Borg states that both perspectives are equally valid in our search for The Way.

    Perhaps we Christians can never agree on a definition. Indeed, wars have been fought over just this question. But I'd argue that we do need to respect each other's beliefs and see how those beliefs show themselves in behavior. And each of us will have to determine what to call ourselves and live with the consequences.

    God, grant us all new vision. Amen.