Sunday Meditations: What is a Christian?

I got into an interesting discussion with some folks over whether or not anyone can make a blanket statement about “What Muslims Believe.”  I said I thought this would be extremely difficult if not impossible, especially considering the diversity that exists within my own religion (Christianity, in case you were wondering).  I doubt I could come up with solid statements about “What Christians Believe” that would describe all Christians.  I could tell you “What This Christian Believes” or “What I Wish All Christians Believed” or “What Did Most Christians Believe at a Given Point in History,” but I doubt that I could rattle off a list of Christian beliefs and expect that they would describe all Christians.

My point was that, ultimately, that it is harmful, misleading, and unjust to say things like, “Muslims believe all non-Muslim nations should be conquered” or “Muslims believe you should be killed for blasphemy,” because those statements do not cover all Muslims – perhaps in some cases even most Muslims.  You can’t use the most vocal or the most politically powerful Muslims as a gauge for what all Muslims believe any more than you could use the most vocal or politically powerful Christians as representatives of what all Christians believe.

This led us to an interesting discussion as to whether or not we could identify any sort of common core that would be definitive of Christianity.  In terms of what Christians actually believe, I’m not sure this can be done.  If you ask ten different Christians what the gospel is, you’ll get different answers.  If you ask ten different Christians what makes them a Christian, you’ll get different answers.

Some will say they are a Christian because they have confessed that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead.  Some will say they are Christians because they have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Some will say they are Christians because they have invited Jesus into their hearts.  Some will say it is because they have confessed that they are sinners and have asked God to forgive them.  Some will say it is because they belong to a certain church.  Some will say it is because they go to church at all.  Some will say it is because they are about Christ’s work in the world.  Some will say that all religions lead to God and Christianity just resonates with them.

One option is to stake out your territory and declare that everyone else is not a true Christian.  This is, in fact, historically the way Christians deal with diversity in their ranks.  There’s a scene in the movie “Fury” where Boyd “Bible” Swan asks the new recruit if he is saved.  The recruit replies that he has been baptized.  Boyd says, “That’s not what I asked you.”  To Boyd, you were simply not a Christian unless you were “saved,” which means praying the sinner’s prayer.  To the recruit, being baptized was what marked him as being saved (which is actually quite closer to the early church than Boyd’s view – not saying either are correct).

Personally, I don’t feel comfortable taking that option.  Nobody appointed me Grand Emperor of Christianity such that I get to declare who is a “real Christian” and who isn’t.  That doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion on true or false teaching, but it does mean that I need to understand the difference between my views and “what God says” – a distinction that seems to be rarely made in discussions.  I can think my view is correct and your view is incorrect without thinking that judgement is infallible.

Anyway, someone asked what my definition of a Christian would be.  I gave them the short answer.  What follows is a somewhat longer answer.

Usually, when people approach that question, they start with an individual.  What does this individual believe and, in some cases, what is this individual doing?  Do you believe the right things?  If so, you’re a Christian for the vast majority of the Protestant world, anyway.  Some might also expect to see certain actions consonant with that belief.

But I want to start with the story of God and His people in the world.

God wants to have a people in the world He created and, arguably, wants the world to be full of His people.  In the midst of the world when most worshiped created things rather than the Creator, God chose Abraham to be the father of His new creation in the midst of the old.  By being this faithful thing, he and his descendants would grow, prosper, bless the peoples around them, and ultimately lead the way for them to also follow the God who made the heavens and the earth and worship Him.

There were times when this went swimmingly and times it did not.  There were times God’s people were led astray and times when they jumped on the Astray Express without any assistance at all.  But through the cycle of ups and downs, God demonstrated that He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham, and despite all expectations, God would continue to save His faithful.

Like any other community, there were those in Israel who did not share Abraham’s faith nor his faithfulness.  Sometimes this was a small group.  Sometimes it seemed like almost everyone.  By the time we get to the Babylonian exile, Israel as a collective has generally become unfaithful and their leaders are power-hungry fleecing bastards.  The curses of the broken Sinai covenant kick in, and into exile they go.

It seems God’s promises to Abraham had been thwarted, ironically by God Himself.

But Persia conquers Babylon, and God stirs up the king to sent those Israelite exiles who want to go back to their land back to their land.  A fraction of Israelites want to go.  They go back to the land, restore the Torah as the Law of the land, and rebuild the Temple.  They reboot Israel.

It’s a good start, but it’s still not quite right.  They are still ruled by pagan Gentiles, and their ongoing history with the Greeks/Selucids will prove tragic under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes.  And then we get to the Roman Empire.

By this point, Project Abraham is still in dire straits.  Pagan Rome rules the people of God and proclaims their emperor as the deific Son of God who is the only one who can save them.  Roman eagles fly over the Temple that is staffed by Roman appointees – some of whom are not even Jewish.  Roman taxes have ground the vast majority of Israel into inescapable poverty that has taken all their land, and they live and labor on property that is no longer their own.  What few Israelites are well off are those who have ingratiated themselves with the power structure and become powerful themselves, and they have every interest in keeping things this way.

Into this dark night, just as He had in the past, God sends a special boy to Israel – a sign of His coming to save them.  This boy will go about the flotsam and jetsam that Israel has become and rekindle their faith in their God.  He will lead them into turning away from their sins and embracing their original mission of justice and compassion.  He will physically heal them as a sign that they are forgiven.  He will cast out the spirits that dominate them as a sign that their oppressors will fall.  He will reboot faithful Israel knowing full well that he will incur the wrath of the powers that be by doing so – restarting faithful Israel as a rival kingdom challenges both Rome and the unfaithful Israelite power structure.  And these forces will conspire and execute him as an insurrectionist.

What has become of God’s plan to save?

But, lo, the faithful sacrifice of Jesus moves God to be reconciled with His people rather than punish them.  He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and his message of a renewed Israel, who receives the promised Holy Spirit.  And as for Jesus – he receives all authority on heaven and on earth and sits at God’s right hand, victorious over those who killed him.

God will then move to destroy the unfaithful Israelite power structure using another nation.  And through the faithful testimony of renewed Israel, the Gentiles believe and also receive the promises (and mission) of Abraham, including the Holy Spirit.  Eventually, Rome herself – that terrible beast – will bow the knee to the Lord Jesus and those who persecuted his followers will be exiled, imprisoned, or put to the sword.

How do I define a Christian?  I define a Christian as someone who believes that God has done this through Jesus Christ and, as a result, has self-consciously joined the community of the faithful to bear witness to God’s new creation in the world.  This involves both belief and action and, fundamentally, trust – the trust that God will make good on His promises to Abraham even through the ups and downs of history.