What Does "Christian" Mean, Anyway?
And why do so many people insist I'm not one?
(Editor’s Note: This article continues my engagement with a series of YouTube videos recently posted in which I sat down with a non LGBTQ affirming theologian to have a charitable, kind, and respectful conversation. The goal of the video’s creator, Anchored North, was to model having a conversation with people we disagree with. The point was not to debate or to try and convince the other person of their error. Rather, Owen and I attempted to respond to the questions given us with honesty, and listen to each other with respect. It is a three part series, you can see part one here, part two here, and part three has yet to be released)
(Second Editor’s Note: This is one of my longer articles. Give yourself some time—or multiple times—to work through it. And/or, if you’d prefer, join me at 2pm PST today as I’ll share this same article, but LIVE with my real face and voice! Watch on Youtube or Facebook.)
According to the internet…
… I’m not a Christian.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but as of right now this video has over 115k views with more than 2,500 comments. And I’d say about 1/3rd of those comments are some iteration of, “the bearded dude in black is not a Christian.”
The bearded dude in question? That’s me (even though I’ve since shaved that mighty facial follicular fount!).
Apparently, after watching my conversation with non-affirming theologian Owen Strachan, it turns out butt-loads of people have concluded that I am, in fact, not a Christian.
Here’s just a few… (selected because these are the nicest iterations)
Though the subject that Owen and I discussed in the video was primarily centered around LGBTQ inclusion, I guess many people heard in my responses enough information for them to conclude that (as dametre williams put it),
As I wrote here, I will often read the comment sections on videos like this and truly the negative ones don’t bother me. So this article here, and those that will come in the following weeks, are not driven from a place of defending myself.
I have nothing to defend.
Rather, since I noticed a few common themes show up in the comments (such as how I’m not a Christian), it seems like it might be helpful to engage with some of the concerns and questions people have.
Therefore, here’s what I want to do in this article. I want to dig in to the word/term “Christian” a bit. Where it came from and why, and how it’s developed over the years. My hope is to provide a description of the word “Christian” (or at least, let you know what I mean by it).
Then, I want to explore why so many people—like the above examples—are insisting that I am not what I say I am.
Finally (and to respond to Domere Taylor), I, “Mr Beard,” will share why I still, after all these years, identify as Christian.
Christian as Both Noun and Adjective
First I think it’s important to point out that the word Christian is used as both a noun and adjective.
We might say that “she is a Christian” (noun), or we might describe her actions as “being Christian” (adjective). We could start with the noun usage, “Person X identifies as a Christian,” and then expect or anticipate that their actions would then reflect what we assume a christian might look like. Or, we might start with a person’s actions, and if they seem to us to reflect what we think a Christian should look like, then we might guess or assume that the person is or identifies as a Christian.
However, as I think we all can appreciate, the two are not always related.
We all know (or have ourselves been, 🙋🏻♂️) someone who identifies as “Christian” but they are acting in ways that seem totally incompatible with Christianity. Or, we might observe how a person does things that could accurately be described as “Christian-like,” yet they themselves do not identify as or take the label of “Christian.”
Of course, I must point out, this all presupposes a particular definition of the term “Christian,” which is the point of this article, and which we haven’t gotten to yet. What you might describe as “Christian-like” (adjective) might be very different from what I would, and vice versa. I’ll get to describing the word “Christian” here in a minute, I just think its worth noting how we might sometimes use this word interchangeably as either a noun or adjective without always thinking about which we’re using and why.
One more brief word of preambling… I will use the word describe instead of define. To define is to state exactly the nature or the meaning of something. A definition provides a general idea about something. Whereas to describe is to give a detailed account of something.
I don’t know that I can (or should) define what it means to be a Christian. In fact, I’m not convinced the word “Christian” even has a proper definition, and certainly not a universally agreed upon one. Clearly, as you can see from the comments above, by the definitions of people like jfly888 and KitsoTheMotif, I am not a Christian. But all that means is that according to how they define it, I don’t fit. Therefore, chasing down some sort of definition of “Christian” is a fruitless endeavor because we’ll never find agreement.
But I do believe I can get close to describing what being a Christian (or, being Christian) means.
To begin, let’s go back to the very beginning…
Describing a Christian Part I: The Origin of the Term
The term “Christian” did not come from Jesus or the disciples. Rather, “Christian”—which literally meant, “to belong to the party of Christ”—was devised by people on the outside looking in.
Allow me to explain…
The early church called themselves followers of The Way, where “way” pointed to “the teachings of Jesus.” To follow the Way was to attempt to live in the same sort of manner that Jesus did, to embody his radical teachings of love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion. You were only a “follower” of the Way if you actually, you know, followed the Way. You didn’t just get to call yourself a “Way-follower,” that wouldn’t make any sense.
During his public ministry, Jesus was about making disciples, and disciples are people who emulate the Way of their teacher. Seen in this way, “following Jesus” is really only a verb, a way of life, not really an identity that you can call yourself (or, on social media, boastfully renounce from others).
In the days of what we call the early church, communities of Way-followers popped up all over the place, and their presence was noticeable. These early Way-followers were clearly doing things differently, and constantly pointed back to a guy named “Jesus” as the reason why. They even called him their “Christ,” their Messiah, their liberator and savior.
The city of Antioch was a very metropolitan ancient city, referred to as “all the world in one city.” As such, it was designed with clear divisions for its inhabitants based on things like ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Yet suddenly a population of “followers of the Way” (of Jesus, the Christ) appeared on the scene and disregarded the typical boundaries. They kept mixing Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, men and women. Evidently it became so noticeable that people finally lumped all the disparate groups of people under one term: Christian, or little-Christs.
Eventually the term would stick and communities organized around the life and teachings of Jesus stopped referring to themselves as followers of the Way and started calling themselves and each other “Christians.”
While yes, religious beliefs mattered in the early church, it ultimately wasn’t the deciding factor on what categorized someone as “Christian.” Instead, a person identified themselves as a follower of the Way, modeled their life after Jesus, and soon earned the label, “Christian.”
Based on the origin of the term, then, what might we offer thus far by way of a description for “Christian?”
Perhaps something like this:
A Christian is someone who lives (or at least tries to live) in the way of Jesus so that, to observe their life would be to recognize the particular ways in which Jesus moved through the world.
That’s not a bad description if you ask me.
But it’s not done yet.
Describing a Christian Part II: The Evolution of the Term
Terms and words evolve over time, and over the past 2000 years “Christian” has had several layers added to it. Therefore it may not be enough merely to say, “a Christian is someone who follows the way of Jesus,” even if that may be totally true.
What I mean is, a couple centuries after Jesus’ death the movement of Christianity picked up a lot of steam and grew rapidly. Eventually, as all movements must, they had to create the structures of an institution in order to preserve the gains they’d made over the years, thereby ensuring that the Way of Jesus would last longer than a generation or two.
This meant things such as:
Establishing rites and rituals that served to ground the movement with repeatable practices;
Formalizing a type of leadership structure; and
Clarifying which ideas and beliefs fit within the particular brand of Judaism that Jesus espoused and would ultimately serve to empower the movement in its mission (and, subsequently, identifying the ideas and beliefs that did not do this, aka, heresies.)
And those three efforts (religious practices, organized leadership, and canonized beliefs) were what led to the official creation of the Christian Religion and Church. Which, as much as you or I might be resistant to organized religion (for all sorts of good reasons), were it not for the organizing-of-the-movement-of-Jesus into a sort of “religion,” then it’s almost guaranteed that the Way of Jesus would’ve fizzled out within a few decades.
I say all of that because I think we need to then add to our above description of Christian in order to appropriately hold space for the fact that for hundreds of years to be “Christian” has meant, by and large, to be a member of a particular religion.
Though us Protestants often forget it (or worse, are unaware of it), what we call the Catholic Church today was, prior to the 1500’s, merely just the Church. And to be a part of the Church, or, in other words, to be a “Christian,” meant that you practiced the right things (such as baptism and the Eucharist), adhered to the appropriate leadership structures (such as the pope and bishops, etc); and believed the church-approved theological ideas.
Whereas in its infancy “Christian” was used to describe the unique ways in which people lived their lives—with specific focus on love of neighbor, care for the poor, and forgiveness of enemies—for the majority of the past 2000 years it has come to mean that a person possesses the correct beliefs and participates in the proper religious rituals within the institution.
Describing a Christian Part III: So What is a Christian, Then?
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s now four markers, or descriptors, for the word Christian.
How you behave/conduct yourself;
That you engage in religious practices;
That you belong to the institution;
What you believe.
It’s safe to say that for most of church history if a person failed to meet one or any of the above markers, they would no longer be considered “Christian” by their community. How you might personally identify was largely irrelevant. In other words, it wouldn’t have mattered (or made much sense) to call yourself “Christian” but, for instance, not attend church, or not take the Eucharist, or not belief official church teachings.
Bringing all this together, then, I suggest the following description of what I mean when I say “Christian:”
A person who (1) has decided that in Jesus—through his life and teachings—there exists a trustworthy path for living life to the fullest and they are trying live in that way, and (2) makes effort to identify with at least some aspects of the religious tradition and heritage that emerged in his name.*
(*this is the description of “Christian” I offered in the Introduction of my book, The Shift)
I’d love to hear in the comment section how this description lands with you.
What would you add?
It’s Still All So Subjective
You might notice the loosey-gooseyness of my description above. A person who is “trying” to live in the way of Jesus, and who makes an “effort” to identify with “some” aspects of the religious heritage of Christianity…? Really?
Here’s the thing, there is no way that anyone can claim to be 100% adherent to all four descriptors listed above. It’s just too subjective and relative. Which is why I avoid trying to “define” Christianity. Because which strain of Christian rituals, for example, would we say are the “right” ones? The Eastern Orthodox rituals are different from the Roman Catholic rituals which are different from the Southern Baptist rituals which are different from the Methodist rituals and so on…
The same could be said about beliefs: which version of Christian doctrine can claim to have the 100% correct set of beliefs? At least the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics have claims to trace theirs all the way back to the beginning, so I guess they’d be closest. Whereas every Protestant denomination that has emerged over the last 500 years all have their own unique set of beliefs.
Think about it: Are we really naive enough to assert that one of the 40,000+ variations of Christianity has the right and true set of beliefs?
And finally, when it comes to living in the Way of Jesus, again I say there is no universally agreed upon definition of what that means. Any number of Christians will disagree on how a Christian ought to handle situation X, or respond to experience Y.
The point is, it’s not only the height of hubris, it’s also just plain stupidity for anyone to claim that they know the one true meaning and definition of “Christian.” Either the person making that claim is blinded by their own arrogance, or they are ignorant of just how silly a claim that is in light of the vast diversity of belief and practice of all the various divergences of Christianity over the last 2000 years.
What Do You Mean When You Say…
To return to the YouTube comments from the video in question, and all the many declarations that I am not a Christian, I can only say in return,
“What the heck are you talking about? No, really, what do you mean when you say that?”
It’s such a silly thing to say in light of all that I’ve mentioned above.
Here is what you’re actually saying when you’re saying I am not a Christian. You’re saying at least one of the following:
That the actions of my life are not in alignment with the Way of Jesus… which may or may not be true, sure, but there’s absolutely no way you can know this because YOU DON’T KNOW ME.
That I don’t adhere to the proper rites and rituals of Christianity… but which version of Christianity do you mean? And which rites and rituals are you thinking of? And again, there’s absolutely no way you can even know if I do or do not because still YOU DON’T KNOW ME.
That I don’t properly belong to the correct Institution of Christianity… (you probably know where I’m going with this…) but which specific Institution do you have in mind? Are you saying that I’m not Catholic? Are you saying that I’m not Methodist? Or Russian Orthodox? Or Assemblies of God? For reals, pick a version of Christianity, and I’ll let you know if I belong to that particular sect or not. Oh, and to repeat, YOU DON’T KNOW ME. (side note: the all caps might sound like me SHOUTING, and I guess I am, but it’s not defensive shouting. Again, I have nothing to defend. It’s more like exasperated WHO GOES ONLINE AND MAKES JUDGEMENTS LIKE THIS ABOUT STRANGERS?!)
That I don’t believe a set of pre-approved official doctrines… which may or may not be true, but again, whose beliefs do you have in mind? And which ones? And why are you so sure that you yourself are aligned with the correct version of Christianity when you almost certainly believe things that 90% of the Christians who have ever lived these past 2000 years would not have believed?
Can you start to see just how ridiculous it is to try and tell another person that they are “not a Christian?”
Why Christians Tell Other Christians That They’re Not Really a Christian
So then why do so many people say things like this? And what might they actually be saying when they say it?
I think people make this judgment upon others for a couple reasons.
First, they’re afraid. Much of Christianity is built upon the need to have the right beliefs in order to be pleasing to God. A failure to believe these things, for many people, means we are no longer approved by God. Therefore, people cling to a handful of beliefs like they’re our lungs, without which they’d be unable to breathe. Any questioning of those beliefs, or any threat, feels like an attack on their very life. Which is scary, obviously.
Second, they’re insecure. If people like Michael Mejia or TR1Bak above are secure in their own faith then they would have zero impulse (or interest, really) to take the time on a YouTube video to tell a random stranger that they are “not a Christian.” Now I’m not picking on Mike or Bak or any of them, it’s not personal. My point is (and I know this, because I was one for years), many Christians live life with low-key constant hum of insecurity about who they are and what they believe, and they manage these fears and insecurities by constantly seeking to affirm that they are on the inside and others on the out. This is classic tribal instincts: I feel safe and secure in here, with my people, the good guys. Anyone not like me is a threat. Such insecurity in many Christians causes them to be on the lookout for where they can demarcate between themselves—the “true” Christian—and the scary false prophet wolf in sheep’s clothing, aka, yours truly.
Finally, what is it they are actually saying when they say, “You are not a Christian?”
Honestly, they’re just saying, “You do not fit the description of what I think a Christian is.”
Nothing more, nothing less.
And this is fine, by the way. I have no problems with people articulating a description of the term Christian (hello, I just spent 2000 words doing it!), and then making the occasional assessment on who matches their description and who doesn’t.
With that in mind, as I see it, here is what these hundreds of folks on YouTube are actually saying in their comments, “I believe that a Christian believes these specific things, and based on what you’ve said in this video my personal opinion is that you don’t believe these things in the same way I do, therefore I conclude you are not what I would describe as “Christian.”
The thing is, I don’t think these folks realize that this is what they’re saying. They think they’re appealing to some universal definition of “Christian” and have the capacity and authority to thereby declare me “not that.”
But they don’t. Obviously.
What they do have is their own experience, their own understanding—acquired through a mixture of how they were raised, where they were raised, what books the’ve read, who their influences were, etc—and this has created in them an idea of what “Christian” means. Which is fine! Totally normal. But I don’t think they’ve yet figured out that their’s is but one of literally thousands (millions?) of ways to describe and think about the word “Christian.”
My hope is that they would one day reflect on this, and perhaps in the future say something more like, “the bearded hipster man on the right is not the same kind of Christian that I am.”
How great would that be?
And then, even later on down the road, they might even find enough security in their own standing with God that they stop leaving comments like this altogether.
One can hope.
Why I Still Use the Label and Identify as “Christian”
At this point, I’ll bet the answer as to why I still identify as a Christian is obvious. But to state it nonetheless, I still call myself “Christian” because I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus (trusting that they are good and life-giving), and because I am still connected in some ways to the heritage of the religion of Christianity.
No, my particular ideas and beliefs about things like the Bible, God, sin and salvation, will almost certainly not line up with yours—just as yours will almost certainly not line up with millions of other Christians.
No, the way I engage Christian practices and rituals are not always exactly as has been prescribed by our rulers from the past. But let’s be intellectually honest: religious rites and rituals have always and will always be an evolving process. This doesn’t make them less meaningful or less real.
And no, how I embody the teachings of Jesus may not look or feel to you like what you think a “Christian” should be. But at the end of the day, my assumption is that we are both doing the best we can to understand what it looks like to follow in the Way of Jesus here in the 21st century. I mean sheesh, if his own friends struggled to understand it, and they lived with the guy, then let’s be a bit more gracious with one another as we try and work it out 2000 years after the fact.
At the end of the day, people on the internet are free to call me “not a Christian.” I really don’t care. It’s their opinion, and they’re entitled to it.
The reason I wrote this all out was to hopefully help articulate for those who are interested what it might look like to try and describe this word “Christian.” Because in my mind, once we do this sort of work, we receive a whole new perspective with regards to how we think about and talk about (even on the internet) other people and their religious identities.
Before we go about the work of determining whether someone else is really “Christian” or not, may we first do the necessary work of figuring out what we mean by that, and are we ourselves truly being Christian.
You know, that whole “take the plank out of your own eye before trying to do anything about the speck in your friend’s” sorta thing.
Hopefully we can all agree, that’s a path worth following.
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