Franklin Graham, Jr. scandalized the talking heads on “Morning Joe” earlier this week when he appeared on the program and suggested that President Obama might not be a “Christian” (see video below). I appreciate Rev. Graham and his bold commitment to Christ, but I think there was much in what he said that was muddled and inconsistent and that probably did very little to win folks over to his position. I for one wish that the conversation had gone differently.
Having said that, one item that needed to be clarified was exactly what is meant by the term “Christian.” It was very clear that Graham and his interlocutors were operating on two totally different views of what it means to be a Christian. For Graham, being Christian is synonymous with being born again and with all that the new birth entails. For the “Morning Joe” crew, being a Christian is simply about being personally affiliated with a church or a group that professes to be Christian. The former is a normative definition while the latter is a sociological one. Which definition is right? The normative or the sociological?
In terms of common usage, the term “Christian” can have both meanings. When someone says that Prince Charles is a Christian prince, they are using the sociological sense. They are not trying to say that he has been born again and professes the true faith. On the contrary, everyone knows that quite the opposite is true. Charles’ Christian affiliation is one that he was born into. It is a historical connection more than a personal conviction. There are many people who would claim to be “Christian” in this sociological sense.
As Christians, however, we are concerned mainly about the normative definition of Christian, and our witness is compromised when we fail to distinguish it from the sociological sense. In other words, we desire for unbelievers to get beyond mere sociological descriptors so that they can understand substance of what Chrsitianity is. So we cannot be satisfied with the sociological sense that we hear in common parlance and in forums like “Morning Joe.” If sola scriptura means anything to us, we must take our normative definition from scripture.
The term “Christian” actually doesn’t appear in the Bible very many times (only three times), but where it does appear it’s clear that it’s referring only to those who have been born again.
Acts 11:26 “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
The name “Christian” applies here only to “disciples” of the Way. In other words, it is a term defining those who are followers of Jesus. In Luke’s theology, a disciple is one who is willing to take up his cross and follow Jesus to the death (Luke 14:27). This is no casual association with Jesus. These “Christians” were committed followers of Christ. Luke says that the Christians in Antioch were believers who had “turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). All of these descriptors can only be applied to those who have been born again.
Acts 26:28 “And Agrippa replied to Paul, ‘In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.'”
Agrippa is a Jewish ruler who is a puppet of Rome and no follower of Christ. Paul comes close to convincing him to become a Christian, which in context means that Agrippa came close to believing all that the prophets have said about Jesus as the messiah (Acts 26:27).
1 Peter 4:16 “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God.”
In 1 Peter, those who suffer as “Christians” are those who glorify God in the name of Christ (v. 16) and who “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pet 4:19). Again, this can only be true of those who have been born again by the Spirit of God (1 Pet 1:23).
The normative witness of scripture tells us that a Christian is one who believes in Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, who is willing to suffer persecution for that belief, who trusts God in the midst of persecution, and who glorifies God in the name of Christ. In short, a Christian is a disciple. A Christian is one who has seen and entered the kingdom of God and thus has been born again (John 3:3, 5).
It is important to remember that in conversations with unbelievers, love requires us to seek to understand what the other side is saying and to clarify ambiguities where they exist. In this case, we have to remember that not everyone is using the term “Christian” in the normative sense. That was a great source of the confusion on “Morning Joe.” Rev. Graham tried to clarify the meaning of Christian, but it got lost in the dispute about President Obama’s faith.
As Christians, our job is not to enforce shibboleths, but to get people to see the normative claims of the gospel upon their lives. And sometimes that means telling them what a Christian is in the biblical sense. It means dispelling the illusion that sociological Christianity in any way leads to eternal life.