Definition of a Christian Defined

by Peter

The thoughts in this post are incomplete without its sequel, Definition of a Christian Revisited.

In a past post, I offered the following definition for a Christian:

To be a Christian is to be in communion with the God who revealed Himself through His Scriptures and through His incarnation in the person of Jesus in the context of the Church striving toward personal and universal salvation.

It prompted so much dialogue that I promised a post defining the terms I used in the definition for the sake of clarity and better conversation. This is that post. I plan to do two things: first, in this post, I will work through this definition piece by piece, explaining the thoughts behind it as thoroughly as I can. This will be in order to allow the previous post’s conversation to be continued at least in that I directly respond to it. Second, in a post to follow I will, as I hinted in the last post, offer a slightly revised definition and summarize my understanding of the entire discussion.

It is important that before I begin, however, I state the goal of making such a definition. A proper definition ought to be inclusive to things that belong in it and exclusive to things that do not. This seems intuitive, but it needs to be stated to help avoid either definitions that include things that don’t belong (as, for instance, “people that believe that Jesus was a great man,” which is characteristic of Christians, but could be used to describe many non-Christians as well) or to exclude things that ought be included (as, for instance, “people that attend Genericville Bible Church”). It is easier, I think, for us to err on the former side than the latter.

It is important that we do not err by holding an over-inclusive definition, however, because, as we talked about in one of my classes recently, a true understanding of Christian unity cannot exist without an understanding of heresy. Semblances of unity with parts or persons that more properly should be divided is no unity at all. It is monstrous at best (think two forms unnaturally joined) and fraternization with the enemy at worst. This is why some churches, for the sake of unity, do not give communion to anyone except those in their denomination, lest they claim unity where there ought to be separation. For the sake of unity, other churches offer it to anyone. These two opposite actions with the same goal are illustrative of the balance that must be maintained in forming any definition by being inclusive where it ought and exclusive where it ought.

With that covered, I begin my explanation of the first definition.

To be a Christian is to be in communion with the God who revealed Himself through His Scriptures and through His incarnation in the person of Jesus in the context of the Church striving toward personal and universal salvation.

First, a parsing of the phrases. I have tried to demonstrate how each of the different pieces relate and refer to each other by bracketing them:

To be a Christian is {to be <1> in communion with–>[the God who–> (revealed Himself through–> ||the Scriptures| and through |His incarnation in the person of Jesus||)] <2> in the context of the Church <3> striving toward personal and universal salvation.}

The most important thing to note from this rendering is that “who revealed Himself through…in the person of Jesus” is a phrase that is subordinate to and descriptive of “the God” (that is, its primary purpose is that of identifying God). Thus, the definition could be said “To be a Christian is to be in communion with God in the context of the Church striving toward personal and universal salvation,” if by the word “God” the Christian God and no other god could be signified. That said, it is pertinent to note that I did include them. My reasons for doing so will be explained hereafter.

I now proceed to an explication of the different terms and thoughts I employed or attempted to employ in my definition. I shall begin at the beginning, a very good place to start:

“To be a Christian is to be in communion with…” By communion I mean to express the idea of unity between beings rather than the Eucharist or socialism. “Relationship” is a term that is similar in meaning to the “communion” I have attempted to employ. I chose to use “communion” rather than “relationship” because it is a much more intrinsically loaded word, with “com-” meaning with (which implies multiple beings), and “-union” meaning one-ness. Along with the inherent signification of the “many being one” concept, there are also many positive communicative (notice “com-” “-uni-” -cative) and social implications tied to the term generally. I felt that, by using it, I could get all the benefits that the term “relationship” would have gotten me and then some. It also avoided having to deal with the unfortunate fact that “relationship” is becoming more and more cliche as a spiritual term.

“…the God who…” I did not here stop at “God,” but rather went on to identify which God very specifically not because God needs it (there are no other gods beside Him), but rather to effectively exclude those people who ought not be referred to as Christians. People who ascribe to a belief in a god, no god, or many gods other than the Christian God must be excluded.

“…who revealed Himself through His Scriptures and through His incarnation in the person of Jesus…” The way I chose to identify the Christian God was by His revelation in the Scriptures, that is, the Bible. On advice, I further included the incarnation of Jesus (said in such a way that Jesus could not but be understood to be God as well as incarnate). This former identifier allowed for the exclusion of those people who do not accept the Christian canon as God’s primary tool for the revelation of Himself to men. The latter identifier excludes those who do not accept the Christ which that canon declares. Between these two identifiers, I thought to be able to close the loopholes to anyone who might desire to claim Christianity yet did not deserve that name. By this method, for instance, both Moslems and Arians would have been effectively excluded from being called “Christians.”

“…in the context of the Church…” The main idea here is that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Each Christian is a part of a kingdom greater than themselves, and as such must live in such a way that accepts the blessing and responsibility of connection to the Church throughout space and time. A self-sufficient Christian is not a Christian.

“…striving toward personal and universal salvation.” This sounds worse than it is. No, I am not a universalist. I believe that some will be damned with the devil and his angels to bottomless perdition while others will dwell with God eternally. Now that I have comforted you with my affiliation with brimstoneism, allow me to explain what I do mean. In that first post, I said in reference to these two ideas, “the former may be thought of as holiness, while the latter may be thought of as the kingdom of God (or something along those lines).” This was decidedly unhelpful. I will take this somewhat lengthened definition in parts.

First, for “striving toward personal salvation.” We are taught by the Scriptures that those that are in Christ, that have the seal of the Holy Spirit, and that exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (those three are really all one thing) have been/are/will be saved. This, then is personal salvation: to be in Christ, filled with the Spirit, renewed and transformed by the Spirit. And “striving” is positive activity and work toward a certain goal. Thus, striving toward personal salvation would look like actively seeking communion with Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit (these both involve not allowing anything to quench them) and being characterized by virtue and godliness. This was what I initially characterized as “holiness.”

Second is “striving toward universal salvation.” This is a sort of sentimental combination of the Great Commission and the fact that God would that none should perish, but that all might have eternal life. God loves everyone and therefore desires their ideal, though will give what is best/most proper for them. In the same way that God desires that all should be saved, so ought Christians to desire that all be saved. Though the fulfillment of this desire is impossible, it is the farthest thing from being futile (the two concepts are, in fact, very dissimilar). So, to strive toward universal salvation is to wish for and act toward everyone’s acceptance of Christianity.

That is enough, I think, and more than enough for this post. I have probably trampled this definition into the ground; I hope that all the explication questions asked of it have now been sufficiently answered.

In the next post, I will explain how it seems to me that the definition ought to be expanded and changed. Don’t worry, it will be shorter than this one.