What counts as "Christian"?

Recently I was in an online discussion about whether a group of people and the ideas they represent are "Christian". My initial response was that if they have been baptized into Christ, and they do not renounce that baptism, then they are Christians. They may be faithless Christians, bad Christians, hypocritical Christians, uninformed Christians, unjust Christians, but they are still Christians.

Others pushed back on this because they argued that the values represented by these people were not "Christian". Yet, this confusion is precisely because "Christian" is used in our culture in at least four senses, sometimes using multiple senses at the same time. We could talk about "Christian" in a sociological sense (what group we belong to), an epistemic sense (what we know/believe), an ethical sense (what values we support or oppose), and a soteriological sense (who is "saved" or not). 

The most clearly defined sense is the sociological sense: The vast majority of Christians through time have identified someone as "Christian" based on being baptized into, and being accepted by, the Church. In most Christian practice, Baptism is minimally seen as the rite of adoption and new birth into the Body of Christ. Once adopted and named, someone remains part of the family even if they are really bad family members. The same is true for Christians being adopted into the Family of God through Baptism. Once adopted, you are part of the family for life.

In an epistemic sense, there are very few core beliefs that are uncontested as "Christian". That small list is pretty much defined by the propositions found in the Nicene or Apostles Creeds: An understanding of one God as somehow Triune in which one of the "Persons" of God is embodied in Jesus. But as you may know, outside of this minimal list of beliefs, Christians disagree wildly on everything from evolution to end times. 

In an ethical sense it is even more contested, and this is extremely frustrating for me given how clear the core of Jesus' ethical teachings are. Some advocate universal inclusion in love and compassion in the Name of Christ, and some advocate hyper nationalism, hate, and warfare in the same Name. In the same Name gay marriages are blessed as others gather outside of the Church with banners proclaiming God hates them and they are hell bound. 

In the final, soteriological sense, we might say that anyone who is "saved" in the end is Christian. Narrow visioned Christians might imagine that this includes only their sect or clique. But if we envision the universalism of Saint Paul, we might say that all will ultimately be called "Christian", because "as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (cf. 1Corinthians 15). 

The truth is we live in an in-between time for Christianity and all of the Great World Religions, when our faiths are being "hijacked" as political tools to exclude and oppress and harm others. I hope that Martin Luther King Jr. is right when he says that the moral arc of history is long, but it tends toward justice. But, until that time when we achieve a society that more fully approximates Divine compassion and justice, these values will be contested, and along with them, the descriptor "Christian".

I personally would opt for Christian to be used only as a noun and only in a sociological sense: As someone baptized into Christ and accepted by his Church. I would reserve adjectives such as "Christward" to speak of beliefs that point us toward the reality of Jesus Christ, and "Christlike" to describe actions and values which imitate Christ's life and values. Yet, I doubt my usage (or anything like it) will become vogue, and thus Christian will remain contested. So, as we dispute what counts as "Christian", let us not forget the many senses it may be used in. 
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.