Interestingly, the word “Christian” only appears three times in all the Bible. I guess the disciples or followers of Jesus had to name themselves, but it is not evident that this name was in anyway God designated.
Within our society the term “Christian” has a variety of meanings and connotations, some good and some not so good. The issue of exactly what defines and identifies a “Christian” has never been fully resolved by the institutional church. There are nearly as many definitions of who is and is not a Christian as there are denominational groups. In fact, the very existence of so many branches or varieties of “Christianity” derives from the differing opinions about who is a Christian and how Christians should act and worship. On the one hand, “Christianity” teaches that only “Christians” can go to heaven, but then when it comes down to deciding how to become a Christian or who is a Christian, the institution promoting “Christianity” cannot agree on the most basic question imaginable. Is there any wonder that many folks just ignore the “church” as hopelessly confused and therefore irrelevant?
In attempting to define “Christianity” a great many churches want to prescribe a ritual by which one becomes a “Christian”. If one has done the right things, then one is a “Christian”. In this paradigm, Christianity is a decision one makes by following a prescription for entry into that religious affiliation. One group says an individual must accept Jesus by praying a “Sinner’s Prayer”. Another says you have to be baptized for the remission of sins. Yet another requires a public confession of faith and the evidence of miraculous powers before a person can be recognized as a true believer.
If being a Christian is a requirement and the Bible supposedly explains how to become one, then why can’t someone simply read the book and find an obvious answer. Apparently there is no obvious answer, which leads one to question whether the Bible was ever intended to be a book describing a procedure for becoming a “Christian”. If that was the purpose, why all the confusion? I am confident that honest, sincere people arrive at all the differing opinions about how to become a “Christian”, so the problem in understanding is baffling. Baffling that is till one considers the possibility that the Bible was never intended to convey how to become something different, but rather a source of knowledge about what God has already made every man. In other words it is not and never was an instruction book explaining what man must do to be what God requires.
The term “Christian” would seem to imply one who is first and foremost a follower of the teachings of Christ. Adherence to the principles inherent in Christ’s message strike me as much more important in identifying those who would be affiliated with Him than any possible initiation ritual. Of course, becoming a follower in this sense is obviously a gradual process extending over time, which defies the orthodox picture of a salvation moment, an instant in time when one passes from the state of being a non-Christian to that of a Christian. This whole notion of a binary spiritual state for all humanity is the basic reason why the church is stuck back in the theology of the medieval Dark Ages.
If one were to define as “Christian” one who honestly tries to internalize and therefore activate the basic teachings of Christ in their daily lives, I am afraid we might reach the same conclusion about Christians that the skeptic Mark Twain did. He is quoted as saying: “There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him — early”.
What distinguished Jesus’ message? Was it the requirement for obedience and the certainty of judgment? Would such a doctrinal statement have made Jesus any different from many others? No, the significance of Jesus lay in His counterintuitive call to love your enemies, to judge not that ye be not judged, to follow the golden rule, to gain one’s life by losing it. How many who claim the name of “Christian” can be seen to practice these virtues? I certainly wouldn’t qualify, and probably most others would not either. What then is the real identifier of a “Christian”? Is it the rituals they practice; the church they attend; the doctrine they uphold? Or is it the selflessness and love they demonstrate? To hear the churches speak, you’d probably conclude the former. To hear Christ speak, I conclude the latter. Be your own judge. I don’t think it is hard to imagine that God respects people who attempt to live however imperfectly in accordance with the Golden Rule much more than people who claim the name because they were “saved the right way”.
It’s time for a whole new assessment of what being a follower of Christ means. It is not and never was about being in the right church or getting saved in the proper fashion. Those are all manmade constructs. By the evidence of our thoughts and actions we should be known as followers of Christ. On that basis we are all woefully weak examples of disciples. Thankfully, the Father loves us anyway.