What is a Christian and Who Gets to Decide?

The other night I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a Baptist friend of mine over the meaning of the word “Christian.”  She said she found it offensive when groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are called “Christians” because what they believe about Jesus differs greatly from her understanding of him and the meaning of his story.

Because being Christian is an important part of her identity, and she understands the word to mean a certain thing, she does not like having views that she does not recognize as Christian associated with her and her church.

I agree with the argument that if the word “Christian” is defined as “whatever anyone says is Christian” then it is meaningless.  The question then becomes though, who gets to define what is and is not Christian and what perspectives that label includes?

My view is that an individual or religious group that bases its theology on Jesus, generally as understood through Biblical text (more on the Bible part in a bit), could be defined as “Christian.”  Whether they ultimately are also depends on self-definition: whether the group or individual in question accepts the label.

While Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, they do not consider him to be THE prophet.  He is not the center of their theology and thus Islam is not a Christian religion.

The Mormon church has Jesus’ name right in its title:  “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”  Putting aside anything else they believe, Jesus must be central to their theology.

The statement of faith of Jews for Jesus is hard to distinguish from the statement of faith of any mainstream protestant, but apparently their Jewish identity is important to them and they define themselves as Jewish followers of Jesus rather than as Christians.  This is a bit confusing in modern terms (although it wouldn’t have been surely in St. Paul’s day) but if Jewishness is an important part of their identity and they think of themselves as Jews, who am I to say they are not?

(Please don’t draw me into the What is a Jew? argument here.  I have personally witnessed Jewish friends arguing passionately about this all night long, and I will leave them to it and get back to my What is a Christian? debate.)

My friend disagreed with my more expansive view.  The Mormons have their own sacred text, The Book of Mormon, which disqualifies them because they are not Biblically based, and their later saints reduce the role of Jesus.  The Jehovah’s witnesses do not believe in salvation through Christ as the Baptists understand it.  Rather than a vision of heaven open to all believers, they envision of Kingdom of God on Earth that will be inhabited by a limited number of people.

Her definition of the word “Christian” corresponds with what the Episcopal Biblical scholar Marcus Borg defines as the “heaven and hell framework.”  Man is born in a state of original sin (thanks to Eve and that apple), but God sacrificed his son Jesus on the cross in order that those who believe in him shall have eternal life in heaven.

I am sure that there are many people who would agree with that minimal definition of “Christianity.”

There are, however, a number of scholars and theologians, who consider themselves to be Christian, who argue that this conception of Jesus was not what Jesus and his followers would have understood and that the idea of “salvation” as a substitutionary sacrifice was not what the Biblical writers conceived.  In other words, that’s not what they meant. Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian and many of his other works elaborate this concept.

Quaker minister and author Philip Gulley’s book If the Church Were Christian is typical of a genre of popular theology books that argue that the modern church is out of step with authentic Christian teaching as expressed by Jesus himself.  The Red Letter Christians are similar in wanting to get back to the fundamentals of what Jesus taught rather than the years and layers of interpretation by later writers.  These views are very popular with the so-called Emergent Church.

If authors like Borg and Gulley are correct and the modern church is out of step with what Jesus and the Biblical writers had to say, would that mean that this interpretation has more right to be called “Christian” than the later one?  Or does the fact that the “heaven and hell framework” is what most people think of when you say “Christian” mean that this has become the only meaningful definition of the word?

If you agree with the first concept then Baptists would not be true Christians.  If you accept the second then Borg and Gulley would not be.

It seems ridiculous to say Baptists are not Christians, whether you believe their theology is correct or not.  I, however, do not think you have to make a choice between the Biblical scholars, Emergent Church and Baptists.  They are all Christians.

Christians have never been united in their understanding of what the story of Jesus meant.  One of the great debates of the early Christians was whether Jesus should be understood as fully human, fully divine or some combination of the two.  Bart Ehrman’s Lost Cristianities provides a good history of some of the schools of Christian thought that did not win out and become orthodox.  Each of these groups had passionate adherents who thought they were the “true Christians.”

Julian Doyle author of Life of Jesus/Brian put it in the rather cheeky way:  “We know that Jesus was not the Son of God for 300 years after his death, when at the Council of Niceae it was decided by a vote that he was in fact God’s son.”

Similar decisions were made along the line when the various texts that make up the Bible were compiled.  What was left in, what was kept out, what versions of the many existent texts were to be included and considered canonical?  (The word “canon” incidentally, meaning approved law was invented by Bishop Athanasius who oversaw the council of Hippo which made the selection of what to include about 400 years after the time of Jesus.)

Even after the initial Biblical contents were codified there remained differences between what books were considered canonical in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Churches.  That is even before we get into things like the Book of Mormon.

Even the books themselves differ from one another based on what copy was used as source and how it was translated.  As Bart Ehrman wrote: “there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

“Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular. There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been. The Bible has always been legion, a multiplicity of forms and contents, with no original to be found,” wrote Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

So if you want to define a Christian as someone who follows the Bible, both old and New Testaments, you run into the “what Bible do you mean?” problem.  Then there is the problem of what believing and following the Bible mean.  Is it a literal historical understanding or a metaphorical and mythological one?  Is the Bible a book of rules for life or a book of questions to ponder?  There are Christians who come down on either side of these questions.

Let’s put that particular issue aside though.

Once something like a closed Bible was set, and as the Christian church began to have political power, those who wished their interpretation to be orthodox got to work stamping out dissenting views as heresy, sometimes through force.

I am not arguing that the fact that orthodoxy silenced the other voices means that its view was necessarily untrue, nor can I say that the fact that it won out historically by itself makes it more true.  I am just wondering if the dead and diminished early conceptions of Christ have less claim to the label of “Christian” than the one that became dominant?  What about a new form of Christian belief?  Does its newness make it unchristian?  Would an old dead form of Christianity be more “Christian” than a new but untraditional living form?

If we decide that some of these views should be considered Christian, and others should not, who gets to make that call? On what should the decision be based?

Ultimately the question comes down to this:  Who does the story of Jesus belong to?

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