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Volume 17, Issue 5: Doctrine 101

Who is a Christian?

Patch Blakey

The term Christian has come to be used in a wide range of meanings, depending on the people using the word.

For example, speaking in the broadest possible context, some have used the term to include all sorts of sects and religious organizations that show any connection to the name of Jesus Christ, no matter how remote or loosely defined their doctrine. Some such organizations include the Latter Day Saints (or Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, the Harrists, and others that claim the name of Jesus Christ, but without the biblical context of who Jesus Christ is. For such, the historic creeds of the Church have made adequate distinctions.
But even among those who agree with the creeds, there are those who would exclude some who historically have been linked to Christ. Among those who would be excluded by some are Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
Still others would define as Christian those who were of a particular age and mental capacity such that they could understand a limited presentation of the gospel and respond to it positively, either by praying a prayer, signing a card, or making some other outward commitment or acknowledgement. The prayer may vary from a humble acknowledgement of the convert's sin to an invitation asking Jesus to come into the person's heart.
There are those who require some sort of experiential manifestation from converts in order for them to truly be called a Christian. Making some sort of unintelligible vocalizations, often called "speaking in tongues," is one such requirement for some to demonstrate before they may be considered a Christian. Alternatives may include uncontrolled laughing or barking, or some other outward "manifestation" of the Holy Spirit's inward working.
Some may require the application of water as in baptism, whether this is full-body immersion, partial immersion, sprinkling or pouring, along with the pronouncement of the members of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even in this camp, there may be those who say that a person is not a Christian unless he has been baptized in their church, which is the "one true church."
For still others, attending church, even a limited number of times a year would qualify them to be called a Christian. National origin or family heritage may be sufficient qualification for others.
Many who go by the name of "evangelical" would say that a person must be regenerated, or made spiritually alive, in order to be called a Christian. Of course, since this is an inward work by the Holy Spirit, it would necessitate some outward affirmation before others would accept the change. Sometimes this entails a personal testimony to a changed life, to others it may be sufficient for the convert to simply state that he now believes in Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.
I'm certain that there are many more examples that could be listed, but the sample range offered suffices to show the wide disparity among people, even those who claim to be Christians themselves, about what does indeed define a Christian. At the same time, there is a very simple and straightforward response, and it is found in the Bible.
Luke recorded in Acts 11:26, "And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." In the context in which this passage is situated, Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem in order to exhort the Greeks who had turned to the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:21-23). Later Barnabas sought out Saul (the Apostle Paul) and brought him to Antioch where they taught those who formed the fledgling church there. These fledgling believers are identified in the text initially as disciples.
Now, rather than defining what a disciple is, I will pursue another tack, and show who a disciple is. Jesus initially chose twelve disciples to "be with Him"(Mark 3:14). Over the course of three years, these disciples were integral in all that Jesus did, including eating, sleeping, walking, and sailing with Him. They listened as He taught them, and as He taught others. They were given power to heal sicknesses, cast out devils, and were sent out to preach in His name (Mk 3:14-15). Indeed, these particular disciples were also given another title and a higher office (no longer available today), that of apostle. We are even given the names of these twelve men that Jesus chose to be with Him. It is instructive and perhaps disconcerting that one of these twelve disciples was Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Jesus (Mt 10:4; Mk 3:19).
So what is my point? First, I'm not promoting Judas Iscariot as a godly example. He wasn't. He was a lost sinner. Nonetheless, he was still a disciple of Jesus Christ, chosen by the Lord Himself. Because Judas Iscariot was a disciple, then according to Acts 11:26, Judas was also a Christian. This is no doubt distressing to many who would choose to have it otherwise. But if we are going to be consistent with the Bible, then maybe our understanding of who is a Christian needs to allow for the possibility within the Church of those with a nature like Judas. And whenever we may happen to encounter one, we should humbly acknowledge that in the providence of God, tares do exist among the wheat (Mt. 13:30), and both are Christians.

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