What is a Christian?

A discussion has been taking place on a number of blogs regarding the criteria that should be met in order to qualify for Christian fellowship. Brian LePort starts things off with the thesis that the Apostle’s Creed is the minimum. Nick Norelli ups the ante, asserting the Ecumenical Creeds are necessary. Diglot is a “doctrinal minimalist” who states that belief in the resurrection of Christ is all he should need. Rod of Alexandria argues it is the canon that forms the foundation of Christian community. Joel Watts sees no other requirement in scripture but humility and the recognition of Christ crucified. I’d like to comment briefly on fellowship and at more length on what makes a Christian.

Latter-day Saints don’t use the word “fellowship” in the same sense it’s being used in the above posts. We think of fellowship as an inner-congregational concept rather than inter-congregational. We don’t really occupy a consistent place in Evangelical Christian fellowship, and there are a few reasons. First, Latter-day Saints view the communion (we call it sacrament) as an ordinance that renews baptismal covenants and has to be administered by a specific authority, which means they’re not going to feel they’ve renewed those covenants if they’re not participating consistently in LDS sacrament meetings. This isn’t to say Latter-day Saints feel they shouldn’t visit other churches—many of them regularly attend the services of other denominations and religions. They just have limited time. I’m always happy to go visit other groups (when I have the time, which I haven’t lately), and I always learn something from them about Christ. This brings up the next impediment to fellowship: many Evangelical groups reject Latter-day Saint participation in the Christian fellowship. If I go to a Protestant meetings the odds are pretty good I’ll find most people trying to convince me that my faith is a fraud.

Now, regarding the identification of Christians, there are a few different methods for such an identification, with some having more value than others. From an etymological point of view, a “Christian” is a “servant of Christ.” In that sense, anyone who believes they serve Christ can call themselves a Christian. When the term was first coined, it was no doubt employed in this general sense, irrespective of a person’s alignment with particular doctrines, but its usage has changed over the years as a result of the development of orthodoxy. Quickly it became a crime to be a Christian, and the method of identifying a Christian was (1) ask them if they are Christian, and if they say no, (2) demand they offer a sacrifice or incense to the gods or the throne (the authorities had been assured that this was something no Christian would do). Persecution contributed Christian self understanding, and the boundaries of Christianity began to crystallize at this point around orthopraxic considerations. Fundamentally, a Christian was someone who served (followed) Christ and refused to serve any others (see Mark 9:38–41).

Orthopraxy gave way to orthodoxy in the second century CE because of an assimilation of Greek philosophical worldviews. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? When the “Jerusalem” gospel needed to be legitimized for the “Athenian” intelligentsia  it required a re-couching of the Semitic gospel in the vernacular of the philosophers. Justin Martyr is one of the first clear examples of this vision of Christianity, which was beginning to be described according to its similarities with, and differences from, Greco-Roman ideologies. They asserted their opposition to Greek ideologies, but they were forced to adopt Greek intellectual methodologies to do so, and they inevitably adopted some ideologies, even as they decried and belittled others. Note, for instance, Origen’s reason for rejecting belief in a corporeal deity (from the Homilies on Genesis):

The Jews indeed, but also some of our people, supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance. But the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions.

When the battleground became one of concepts and ideologies, the opponents became those who disagree, irrespective of their fidelity to Christ or to Christian orthopraxy. This throws up entirely new boundaries and gives birth to sectarianism. With sectarianism, the boundaries are usually defined according to who you want to keep out, not what fundamentally defines your belief. It seems to me that the more criteria one stacks up for identifying Christians, Jews, Muslims, or any other group, the more their definition is designed to keep specific people out. To use the metaphor of the body of Christ, this is one hand telling the other it has no need of it.

The vast majority of scholars who deal with religious identity agree that the first criterion that merits consideration is self-identification. If a person self-identifies as Christian, that ought to carry the most weight. This isn’t to say that it is a trump card, but if a person sincerely identifies as a Christian, some serious mitigating circumstances should have to be marshaled to undermine that. I would agree with early Christians and their opponents that Christians ought to be identified as people who follow, or serve, Christ. Since everyone has a different idea of Christ’s exact attributes, the notion that some groups follow a “different Christ” (mystically described in the exact same verses of the exact same texts) is simply ludicrous. People may also follow Christ in different ways, but all people who serve Christ do so because he’s their savior. Christ’s eternity or his relationship with the Father are really peripheral concerns that only became significant because they were the defining concepts in early Christianity’s battle for orthodoxy.

Based on these considerations, I would have to side with the “doctrinal minimalists” regarding identifying Christians. No first century Christians accepted the Creeds (they didn’t exist), and few, if any, would have done so if they could have seen into the future. Christ said that no one who offers a cup of water in his name will lose his reward, whether or not they follow the apostles. Extending the Christian umbrella to all who do so only creates problems for me if I’m worried about keeping others in line, and that’s ultimately not my job. I think the following lines penned by Edwin Markham are apropos:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

Christian fellowship is a different, derivative, discussion that I will leave it to others to decide ultimately. I’m used to not being invited to that party.


8 responses to “What is a Christian?

  • Joel

    Don’t bother us with history and facts, Daniel – nor the idea that by Nick’s standards, we couldn’t fellowship with the Apostles or the Apostolic Fathers or anyone who died before the magical year of 325.

  • Joel

    Oh, and allow me to add – excellent post.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thank you gentlemen. I think this is an interesting topic. Thanks for getting it started.

  • diglot

    Good post Daniel. I think people can get mixed up easily on this topic because some believe that denying fellowship to someone is the same as denying that they are Christian, but for others this is not necessarily so.

    As you mentioned, for me to have fellowship with someone (in a religious context), all I am overly concerned about is whether that person believes in the resurrection and lordship of Christ.

    I would naturally prefer to have my regular Sunday fellowship with people who are on the same wavelength with me regarding other various doctrinal issues. So if there was a Mormon church and a Methodist church down the road, I would choose to go to the Methodist church (due to me disagreeing with Mormonism on way more issues that I disagree with Methodists).

    Some may call me a heretic for this, but I guess I don’t really care, because no person, creed, council, or statement of faith is the dividing line as to whether someone is going to inherit eternal life.

  • Paul D.

    Good post. I’d point out that Jesus didn’t appear to care one whit what his followers believed. So long as they followed him and lived lives of compassion, he was happy.

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