Christianity,  Theology/Bible

What is a Christian?

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.


  • Dillon

    I also wish Graham would have done a better job with this. Actually, I wish that would have spoken his mind with conviction instead of stumbling around trying not to offend anyone. What a tough spot to be in though. Four people sitting around with ear pieces and then having people whisper in their ears trying to catch your every supposed contradiction. Yuck.

  • Sue

    I sense that you are defining a Christian by Luke 14, which is a very high standard indeed.

    “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

    I appreciate that you did not give a formulaic response.

    1) being a disiciple as in Luke 14
    2) believing what the prophets say about Christ ie the Hebrew Bible
    3) suffering for doing what is right, having a clear conscience

    I realize this is a simplification, but nonetheless, I like this post.

  • Alex Humphrey

    They worked really hard at the end to discredit everything he said with a few cheap shots. While he was a lot more “wishy-washy” than he should of been, I think he overall handled himself well. As a Christian, I can tell what he was trying to say but after years interacting with non-Christians, he should have known that his words would go completely over their head and he’d need to explain himself and correct them when they took what he said completely incorrectly.

  • Roy B

    Does the bible really teach “FAITH ALONE” doctrine? Which specific verse in the bible can we find justification by “Faith Alone”? How do you explain the following passages in the light of “Justification by Faith ALONE”?

    1. For he will repay according to each one’s DEEDS: to those who by patiently DOING GOOD seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom 2:6-7)

    2. For it is NOT the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the DOERS of the law who will be JUSTIFIED. (Rom 2:13)

    3. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have WORKS? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also FAITH of itself, if it does not have WORKS, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

    4. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for GOOD WORKS, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.(Eph 2:10)

    5. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every GOOD WORK. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

    6. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your GOOD DEEDS and glorify your heavenly Father. (Mt 5:16)

    7. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my WORK for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and DEED. (Rom 15:17-18)

    8. The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to GOOD DEEDS; these are excellent and profitable to men. (Titus 3:8)

    9. See how a person is justified by WORKS and NOT BY FAITH ALONE. And in the same way, was not Rahab, the harlot, also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD. (James 2:24-26)

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