What is a Christian?

Adrian Warnock has written a post called What is a Christian? and asked me to comment, he seemed surprised that I was not supportive – when will some people learn ;-)

More seriously I do have concerns with attempts to define exactly what a Christian is (and in the same vein Adrian is promising to do the same for an evangelical).

My concerns are in  3 areas:

  • who should define?
  • how should define?
  • inflexibility

Who should define

Call me a traditionalist or a pawn of a denonination. However, I do not think it is particularly helpful for a single person to feel they can define what a Christian is for everyone else.

If the definition of a Christian is to be redone (beyond traditional creeds) then this is not the role of individuals but needs to be done much more widely. There are plenty of avenues available to explore this and ways of doing so that are far less dogmatic and excluding than the way Adrian writes.

It seems to me obvious that definitions of what is a Christian require us to involve Church leadership, academic theologicans, practical theologians, liturgists, pastoral care teams, all ages, people who identify themselves as Christians and those who don't. It is a work that should be deliberately and consciously ecumenical and interconfessional.

Obviously if redefining what is a Christian should take place then individual bloggers should be welcomed just as everyone else. However, here we see another attempt to define what is a Christian by a blogger who has a long history of excluding others and pandering to extreme US conservative "celebtrities" so I feel it is unlikely to be very helpful or relevant to most people.

How should define?

I think it is potentially important for some that a definition of "What is a Christian?" be agreed, although for the reasons I give in my 3rd point it is not something I would want to commit much time to.

However, if this is to be done then let it be done well and robustly. Adrian's use of resources is incredibily minimal (it started with 3 sources only – his own book, the Nicene Creed and looking up the word "Christian" in a concordance). Here as just a couple of obvious sources:

So how about considering what the World Council of Churches have to say:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Or how about this one from the ReligiousTolerance website:

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be attempting to follow the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as they interpret those teachings to be."

These two examples show that work already exists that is widely accepted by Churches all over the world and that there is work being done by those who do not consider themselves to be Christian. The latter is particularly helpful as a response to cultural Christian (such as the way the BNP claims to believe in Britain as a Christian nation).

Adrian, if you want to do this then fine, but please engage a lot more widely and more sensitively.


By this I mean that tying down your definition of what is a Christian can become a millstone around your neck. I suggest that in reality we need to hold multiple defintions all time time.

I encounter and indeed expect people to have different defintions of what a Christian is. A few examples should make this obvious.

Lets start with an assembly at a local primary school where a definition such as "A Christian is someone who follows Jesus" would seem apppropriate. If, however, I am meeting someone who is exploring a call to ordained ministry within the Church I am going to expect something very different and that shows a depth of spirituality, an interest in theology and an understanding of people and Christian community.

If we think about common encounters with people then it should be obvious that we should use different defintions when engaging with a couple seeking to add a wedding blessing to make a civil ceremony more like their understandsing of a "traditional" wedding compared to a couple wanting to explore becoming Church members.

When I talked with a friend at work who was a faithful Sikh the defintions we would work with would be very different to when talking to another colleague who was of no faith and uninterested in faith.

When we use fixed defintions then we run the risk of hurting and alienating some. I have referred before to my first encounter with a Christian Union at University who at a "Welcome" event told me that I was not a Christian (I was an active, full member of the Methodist Church at the time, had previous powerful experiences of God and could quite happily have signed their doctrinal statement). Turns out I was using the "wrong" language to describe myself.

When we use fixed definitions we are unable to help people change and move deeper. Suddenly Christian faith is not a journey of discipleship but an on/off switch. Not only does that exclude people who are exploring and making steps towards faith but it hampers the journey of those who have made a faith commitment as it does not draw them deeper.


6 thoughts on “What is a Christian?

  1. Tim Chesterton

    I actually found Adrian’s starting with discipleship very encouraging. I didn’t find his post as objectionable as you did. The only thing I would add to it is that the evangelistic sermons in Acts usually include an invitation to baptism.

  2. Adrian Warnock

    See Tim, you wanted me to add a further restriction, Dave thinks I said too much! Actually nothing I say is not in the main creeds that the denominations all accept, and I read more documents than I referenced. Dave has the unique privilege of being the only one so far who totally rejected my definition, but I suppose I should not be surprised!
    He will like my “What is an Evangelical?” even less I suspect!

  3. Dave

    It is not true to say that I have “totally rejected my definition”. That is not what this post says.
    I do think it sad that your definition excludes some who consider themselves Christian but would struggle with physical resurrection while including others such as the JW’s.


    Most people will tell you they are but in reality they are only
    religious people following the words of man come Saturday or Sunday.
    lets do the math on earth today there are over 3 billion people claiming to be christian of those 3 billion there are over 3000 different religions teaching there version of there god be it catholic Muslim Mormon or whatever they are all products
    of man not the true god. Christ is the church and at this time he sets at the right hand of God any church on earth built and started by man was made corrupt by both man and Satan. Christ tells us (oh how they worship in vain preaching for truth the doctrine of man. ) the only truth is in Gods words Christ said man cannot live by bread alone but by every word of God. Gods words are in his book given to us so we may no the truth. the world will never know the real God until they give up mans religion. And even now I know that only a very few people will understand this because they are to busy pointing there finger at others and claiming there right. When none are right no not one for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Christ will return one day soon and he will gather his flock and build his church here on earth and all others will be destroyed. Learn to seek the truth now do not take my word for it read your bible and learn for yourself but you must first seek Christ be Baptized and read in an honest search for real truth do not just take mans word no mater what or who they are your preacher is only as good as the religion that schooled him. Gods book is truth and all the answers are in it you will not need mans interpatation ask God he will show you the answer. God is the light and truth Satan is darkness and lies so think about it with over 3000 different religions don’t you feel a lot like your in the dark and being lied to. Remember there is only one God not 3000 gods. Satan will not let go untill the last second so let go the chains of religion or you will never find truth. may God help you understand this and send you down the narrow path that leads to Christ Amen.
    If you find this fills that empty feeling you fill every saturday or sunday please pass this information on to as many as you can the world needs to know. Thank you Andy. Please help us spread the word if you can send a donation to;
    p.o.box 9532
    Yakima Wa 98909


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