What Does It Mean To Be Christian?

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[BELIEVE Editor's Note: This entry is significantly different from any of the other entries in BELIEVE. It is written by the Editor of BELIEVE, and it contains some elements of opinion, which we try very hard to eliminate from all the other pages in BELIEVE].

BELIEVE receives a LOT of e-mail notes, questions, and comments from readers. Often, the writers of such notes say things like "I consider myself a Christian" or "I think I'm a Christian". Such comments generally surprise me!

The situation for each person is not answerable in "shades of gray!" You are either definitely a Christian or you are not! It's about the same as whether you are a man or woman. The answer is very specific and clear-cut.

What Is Involved In Being a Christian?

Each Church has an established set of beliefs, often called a Statement of Faith. This Statement of Faith describes the several central beliefs of that particular Church. A person who is considered a member of that Church MUST believe each and every of those core beliefs.

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There is great diversity in the 330,000 Churches that exist in the United States. Most have Statements of Faith that are rather similar to one another, but some Churches have significant differences.

A Church can call itself by nearly any name it chooses. This means that virtually any Church could include the word Christian in its name, whether or not it is actually Christian! There are actually several very large and famous Churches that have the name Christ or the word Christian in their name, but that are definitely not Christian, in the correct definition of the word.

These sorts of matters were very common problems in the early Church. Hundreds of different groups formed that each had very different sets of beliefs, but that all called themselves and considered themselves Christian. The world's Christian scholars got together at several Councils to establish and define exactly what true Christian beliefs were. Specifically, a Council held at Nicaea in 325 AD, established a set of core beliefs that have become the very definition of what Christian belief included. This Nicene Creed has several separate concepts or beliefs. A Church that is truly Christian must therefore believe and accept every one of the Nicene Creed beliefs. Otherwise, a Church would not, by definition, be Christian. This means that a Church could follow NEARLY all of those beliefs, and certainly APPEAR TO BE Christian, and might even call itself Christian, but, unless it follows ALL of those requirements of the definition of the term "Christian", it would NOT actually be!

Many Christian Churches just say in their Statement of Faith that they follow the Nicene Creed, and they usually add additional beliefs, which, as long as they do not contradict the concepts of the Nicene Creed, do not change the fact that that Church is therefore Christian. Other Churches choose to separately enumerate the several beliefs included in the Nicene Creed (and usually add other beliefs as well). Christians also follow an Apostle's Creed and often also an Athanasian Creed.

A person who is a member of such a Christian Church, is therefore necessarily a Christian. Before the person is Saved, he/she cannot be a member of the Church. Therefore, there are two sets of requirements for a person to be a Christian: (1) The Church that is attended is ACTUALLY a Christian Church; and (2) The person becomes a member of that Church, which entails following all of those core beliefs that are included in THAT Church's Statement of Faith.

If either of these two requirements is not met, the person is not actually a Christian.

There is no maybe about it. There is no uncertainty regarding a person's status, after the two requirements mentioned above are considered. A person is either definitely a Christian or definitely not one.

(There is an entirely SEPARATE matter of whether a person is a "good Christian". But, as long as a person has accepted Jesus as Savior, and believes in the Bible and the Trinity, and believes that Jesus was and is the Son of God and that He was born, lived and was Crucified, for the sins of all mankind; and attends a Church that believes likewise; that person is a Christian.)

There are a substantial number Churches that have a number of similar beliefs to Christian belief, but which do not accept all of the beliefs in the Nicene Creed. By definition, such Churches are NOT actually Christian. Therefore, their members are NOT actually Christian, even if they think they are! A prime example is the Mormon Church, officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That Church includes the Bible EQUALLY with the several (human-written) Books it uses for teaching its followers. For this reason, and others, Mormon beliefs are often very similar to Christian beliefs. However, there are significant differences.

Christian belief includes the concept that the period of Prophecy ended when the New Testament writings were complete, and that no later claims of Divine Prophecy have any validity. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, in the 1830s and 1840s, received Divine guidance in writing the Book of Mormon and the other Books that Smith wrote, and that later leaders of the Mormon Church likewise have had Divine guidance regarding Prophecy.

There are several serious differences between Mormon beliefs and Christian beliefs. These differences represent conflict with the definition of Christian beliefs as recorded in the Nicene Creed and in other Church Ecumenical Councils. For example, Christians believe in the Original Sin of Adam, while Mormons do not. For these reasons, Mormons are not actually true Christians, because the Mormon Church does not fit within the definition of a Christian Church. In conversation with a variety of Mormons during my life, I have found that nearly all believe themselves to be Christians, and they pray very devoutly to Jesus in their Services and in their lives. That's Wonderful! They also believe that their Church IS Christian, because they study the Bible and because the name Jesus Christ is in the name of their Church!

These sorts of situations can be very confusing to a person who is seeking to be Saved by Jesus. It regularly happens that such a person goes to a Mormon Church in an effort to achieve that end. Even after attending for a long time, the fact that the Bible is studied and used for guidance, convinces most Mormons that they are, in fact, Christians.

They are, in fact, not! That does not necessarily take away from the credibility or value of their Faith. It just does not actually qualify for the definition of the word "Christian". That does not take away from the marvelous intensity that many Mormons bring to their Faith, or from the excellent effects they have had on society, both large and small. In general, Mormons are looked up to as model citizens, because they are so intent on strictly following the teachings of their Church. The problem is that they ALSO believe equally intensely (to the Bible) on teachings of Joseph Smith and others. A Mormon believes that a teaching of Mr. Smith has equal importance to the teachings of Jesus, and true Christian belief will not tolerate that high placing of statements of mortal men.

There are a number of Churches that do not believe in the Trinity, a core belief of Christianity. The Unitarian Universalist Church is such a Church, which only believes in God, the Father. The United Pentecostal Church also does not believe in the Trinity, but they believe that Jesus represents everything needed in a Divinity. These Churches also do not fulfill the definition of being Christian, so again, followers of those Churches, whether or not they believe themselves to be Christians, are not.

The result of this discussion is that caution must be taken when first choosing a Church to become a member of. It is fine to visit several different Churches, to find one that seems best suited to each person's motivation and personality. Potential members should not rely on seeing the word Christian in a Church's name, but should ask for a copy of the Church's Statement of Faith (or similar written presentation of the core beliefs of that Church). As long as a Church follows the beliefs enumerated in the Nicene Creed, that Church is by definition, Christian. At that point, GO FOR IT! The Lord will be waiting for you!

OK! Now for a LARGER subject! What is REALLY important here? That some WORD can be applied to a belief system? That other people admire or respect a Church? Maybe those sorts of things have some importance, but the REAL issue is what the Lord thinks of all this! We each attend a Church with the goal of establishing a personal relationship with the Lord. As far as we individually are concerned, a Church just acts to facilitate that activity.

We are tempted to believe that people who attend a Mormon Church, and who are TRULY devoted to the Lord, will be warmly welcomed by Him as will all other individuals who Worship Him Devoutly. We humans may argue over the differences and even the "errors" of other approaches to Worshipping the Lord, but we think that in His Eyes, a Devout believer is a Devout believer!

The implication of this is interesting! If a person chooses to attend a Southern Baptist Church, then the Lord rightfully should expect true and full compliance with EVERY single aspect of that Church's beliefs and procedures. If a person instead chooses a Lutheran Church to attend, then the Lord rightfully should expect the person to strictly follow the beliefs and procedures of THAT Church. Even though these two people would therefore have DIFFERENT requirements placed on them, the Lord's Judgment on each would be based on a scale of compliance FOR THAT SPECIFIC SET OF BELIEFS AND PROCEDURES. In the Lord's Eyes, if you "score a 98" in a Lutheran Church or in a Pentecostal Charismatic Church, BOTH would demonstrate to Him a true Devotion. Similarly, the members of these various Churches who just "show up" each week, would demonstrate to Him a rather poor level of Devotion.

Do you see how this concept carries over to other Churches who Worship Jesus? The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have lots of very different (dogmatic) beliefs from most Protestant Churches. They even believe in the REQUIREMENT of observing SEVEN Sacraments rather than the Two of most Protestant Churches. That's actually fine! A member of a Catholic Church MUST follow those Seven Sacraments (Devoutly) in order to "score a 98" in the Lord's Eyes. A similar approach could be applied to the Mormon Church! Though, in a "technical" sense it is not Christian, the fact that the majority of its members BELIEVE it is, and they Worship Jesus (often impressively Devoutly), we believe that the Lord could see lots of "98s" there, too! (We're saying "98s" because the Lord recognizes that we are not "perfect" no matter how hard we try to be, and we could never score a "100"!)

The Lord is obviously most interested in depth of Commitment to Him and the Father. It seems unlikely that He is so "legalistic" as to insist on one or another specific method of demonstrating that to Him. But, clearly, once a person has chosen a Church, the Lord rightfully can expect a TOTAL commitment to THAT Church and its beliefs and methodologies. Consider how Jesus behaved when He was with us on Earth. Doesn't it seem OBVIOUS that this would be what He would want. He wouldn't be "hung up" on the "means" but would certainly only care about the "ends", that each person establishes a very strong commitment to Him through a Church.

We are tempted to think that this also helps explain the vast diversity of modern Churches. He is VERY aware of what a diverse lot we are, and that individuals need to be able to find differing methods of pursuing their Devotion to Him. Thoughtfully, He has provided LOTS of alternatives for us! WE see them as being really different from each other, but HE sees them as parallel efforts to achieve the very same end!


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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