Meaning of the word Christian

General Information

There are at least two very different ideas of what a "Christian" is. Before proceeding very far in studying Christianity, it is necessary to understand the situation. This presentation will attempt to clarify the waters.

First, any word has no "meaning" unless it has been somehow "defined". Consider the word "dog". We all have a general idea of what that word means. Even though a housecat generally resembles a small dog, very few people would try to call that animal a "dog". Just the fact that there are four legs, a tail, paws, a face with eyes, nose and mouth, ears, fur, etc, does NOT make an animal a dog! When the word dog was first defined, it could have been defined to include all such animals, and in that case they would all now be called "dogs". But someone defined a different word for that (quadruped).

There are animals that seem to very closely resemble dogs, such as wolves. But the definition of the word dog is specific enough to exclude such animals, even though they are sometimes mistaken for each other.

A similar situation exists regarding the word "Christian" Very early followers of Jesus did not actually have any "name" for themselves and an opponent was apparently the first person to use the word "Christian" to refer to them. The name stuck, and around the Fourth Century, a strict definition was given to the word. The definition was needed then because many groups with very different beliefs were all referring to themselves as Christians. The definition settled on was basically the contents of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. Neither of these two Creeds is actually from the Bible's text, but they are each considered to be closely based on it, which is the basis for their credibility. In this discussion, we will refer to this as the NARROW definition.

A common attitude among the modern public is that anyone who "believes in" Jesus is a Christian. That certainly sounds nice! Let's refer to that from now on as the BROAD definition of the word. It is not actually supported in a strict sense, but it is so widely believed that it must be considered.

Before we proceed very far here, please realize that this subject is such as to not be able to please everyone! What we might call "conservative, or traditional" Christians insist on using ONLY what we are calling the NARROW definition, and they therefore exclude very large numbers of people who consider themselves Christians! Those people who would be excluded are also pretty "intense" about what the term Christian means, and they always insist that it includes their Church or group, some of which even have the word Christian in their titles! They are implicitly assuming a BROAD definition of the word Christian.

Given this environment, we will attempt to proceed!

During the first three hundred years after Jesus' Death, it was initially understood that this BROAD definition was the truth. But there is a built-in problem in such a broad definition. During those centuries, literally HUNDREDS of different groups decided that they alone truly knew the "correct" way to be a Christian, and they were all different. Each little town had its own unique version of what they thought Christianity was.

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Imagine that each town in America had its own idea of what the color "red" is. In some towns, it might be very rigidly defined, but in others, they may have decided that everything that is not "green" is "red". Do you realize what a mess that would be? Traffic signals? Attempts at communication would be mostly confusion!

And, in early Christianity, it was. For this reason, a large number of the world's leading Christian scholars got together in Nicaea in 325 AD. For better or for worse, they decided on a very sharply defined definition of Christianity, that was meant to be used world-wide. Their "Nicene Creed" lists a variety of very specific concepts that a "Christian" must necessarily believe in. We are calling this the NARROW definition here.

For a moment, let's jump forward to today. If this NARROW definition is used, a LOT of people who think they are "Christians" are NOT! Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) do not qualify, for several reasons. Unitarians do not because they do not believe in the Trinity. MANY other groups would be excluded if the NARROW definition is used. If, instead, the BROAD definition is used, then they all are very definitely "Christians"!


THAT'S the problem! The two common definitions are rather different from each other. It becomes EXTREMELY important to know WHICH of the two definitions is being used. Without that, people begin to argue and fight.

As it turns out, the BROAD definition is rather difficult to define precisely. Does a person who believes that a person named Jesus lived a couple thousand years ago, qualify as a "Christian"? What if he/she believes that Jesus was a really GOOD man? Is it necessary to believe that He Died on the Cross? Or that His Death represented a direct Atonement to "pay off" Original Sin? Do you see the problem in using the BROAD definition for any "scholarly" use?

This situation is why, universally, ALL Christian scholars use the NARROW definition when discussing Christianity.

Doctrine has very little to do with it. We accept the concept "red" because the majority of society has chosen to describe certain things as being that color. When I approach an intersection and the top light is lit, I don't think "the blue light is lit" or "the gzrwkkg light is lit". In compliance with a very broadly held (NARROW) definition of the concept red, I think that the red light is lit, and I drive accordingly. It has absolutely nothing to do with the understanding of the temperature of a filament in a light bulb, or a filter, or electricity, or anything. Whatever "red" actually IS is irrelevant. The WORD "red" has no meaning whatever except due to a generalized agreement as to a definition. THAT is essentially what EVERY definition actually is. The WORD "Christian" is the same. The BROAD definition is an extremely ill-defined interpretation of that word. Scholars, by necessity, choose to use the much more precisely defined (NARROW) understanding of the word. Whatever we happen to think about or see regarding the traffic light doesn't change it's actual essence. We could choose to call it blue, but it is still what it is, and it is unchanged. It's intrinsic essence is unchanged, no matter what you call it.

One could call some group of Christians "Buddhists" or "tax collectors", because the name does not change who they are or what they believe. It would just make your conversations with anyone else very difficult. It is irrelevant if a person PRIVATELY chooses to use a loose definition for the word in question. But problems would certainly occur when trying to communicate with someone from a different background. A group of Mormons talking can confidently refer to themselves as Christians (BROAD) and they all agree on that! But should they say those same things to a non-Mormon, who happens to understand the NARROW definition, that person might violently disagree! Same sentences, but the listeners take them VERY differently!

Because of the way BELIEVE is structured, we chose to nearly universally use the "scholarly" (NARROW) definitions of as many terms as is possible, and that included the word "Christian". The many hundreds of authors (all scholars) of the many works included in BELIEVE certainly always use that NARROW definition, because it is so sharply defined.

Some visitors to BELIEVE tear into us for using the NARROW definition, especially if they attend a Church that is considered excluded by that NARROW definition. They generally immediately attack us, claiming that we are "promoting a specific doctrine" or "intentionally excluding or denigrating some group or Church (usually theirs!)". That is NOT the case. Anyone who carefully looks at BELIEVE quickly sees that BELIEVE is structured to support and encourage ANY valid effort at Worshipping the Lord. At NO point does anything in BELIEVE try to cause any Christian (any flavor) to "give up" even the slightest aspect of their Faith, as long as they are Devout in Worshipping Our Lord.

We certainly have no intention of trying to make any Christians adopt some different way of Worshipping Jesus, if they already have a method they feel is appropriate.

At this point, we might as well bring up an entirely NEW definition of "Christian"! Our approach, in ALL religious matters, is to try to imagine how Jesus would deal with these various situations. We DO NOT think that He would be all legalistic and be finding reasons for excluding individuals or Churches. We don't even think that He would be tremendously concerned regarding the details of the procedures of various Churches. Where Catholic and Orthodox Churches require Seven Sacraments, virtually all Protestant Churches require Two.

We don't think that He would find fault in EITHER group! HOWEVER! We think He would look at the HEART of each individual member of a Congregation. If that person was Devout at Worshipping Him, then we believe that He would be Pleased!

Notice that this definition is NOT Denomination-specific or Church-specific. Whether that Devout Christian attended a Catholic Church or a Pentecostal Church or a Mormon Church or any other Church that attempted to Teach Christianity, that Devout Congregagation member would definitely Please Jesus and therefore be a Christian by our (new) definition. The person sitting right next to him/her, who attends that Church for OTHER reasons, and who is NOT Devout, would not necessarily Please Jesus and therefore would not be a Christian by this (new) definition.

You might note that this (new) definition is entirely individual. Only that person (and Jesus) would be able to determine whether or not he/she was actually a Christian. Because of this, our (new) definition is entirely useless for scholarly purposes!

In my personal view, most "official" Christian Churches have a LOT of "non-Christians" attending every week as Congregation members. And, even though I am a Protestant Pastor, I am tempted to think that the impressive Devotion of many Mormon Church members might mean that they have "more actual Christians by percentage" than nearly any Protestant Church. Rather amazing, since the Mormon Church is "officially" NOT Christian (by the NARROW definition)!

This is a truly odd circumstance! A LOT of very Devout Christians attending a non-Christian Church. This isn't an intentional conclusion! It is arrived at by attempting to imagine how Jesus would evaluate individual 'Congregation members' (VERY Pleased!) and 'Church' (mis-directed in several ways and possibly worthy of His censure).

As it happens, this same situation would have applied to the Branch Davidians a few years back. David Koresh was clearly sin-filled and extremely mis-directed, particularly in selfish ways. But the several dozen followers who died in that fire had chosen to follow him because he had convinced them that he WAS Jesus! In following the publicity of that tragedy, it was very clear that many of the followers were extremely Devout Christians. Most people say that it is tragic that they chose to follow a wrong Path, and they are all now in Hell! I personally believe that most or all of them are now in Heaven with Jesus, but Koresh is definitely not there! Again, an example of a non-Christian "Church" having very Devout Christian followers. My assumption here is that each person would be judged on personal Devotion to the Lord, even if he/she had been Taught some incorrect things.

None of us will ever know, while we are still here. But it just seems that Jesus, being infinitely Compassionate, seeing those Devout followers of His outside the Gates of Heaven, would have some procedure such that they weren't turned away, just for having chosen to follow a psychotic or mis-informed leader.

One can go on and on as to how one disagrees about any particular definition, but it would be irrelevant. But if ANY statement is meant to be a foundation of further knowledge, we (and a scientific approach in general) insist that basic things be defined as accurately and precisely as possible. That requires that BELIEVE consistently use the NARROW definition of ALL the important words and concepts of our Faith.

Nicaea just happens to be a previously agreed to basis for a definition. It is actually irrelevant whether ANY of the statements agreed to in Nicaea were even true or not! Even if they all eventually turn out to be erroneous, the strict (NARROW) definition of the word "Christian" is defined based on those statements. IF it should be that there really IS no Trinity (and I wrote an essay The Trinity Concept that even somewhat suggests that possibility), belief and acceptance of the concept of the Trinity IS one of the "conditions" of the definition of "Christian".

There is an entirely separate way to approach the subject of the definition of Christian. ALL modern Christian Bibles were translated from the SAME source texts! In very ancient times, Jewish Scribes and Rabbis wrote down the texts which became the Books of our Old Testament. In the years between 50 AD and 100 AD, Scribes wrote down the texts which became the Books of our New Testament. Unfortunately, writing materials rarely last more than 50 or 100 years before degrading and decomposing. Fortunately, many very careful Jewish and Christian, and surprisingly Arabic, Scribes were incredibly careful in EXACTLY copying every character of an older Manuscript onto newer papyrus or parchment. In general, this seems to have been done at least every twenty years. The policies of the Christians and the Jews were very different here. Christians saw value in creating as many accurate copies as possible, and so SEVERAL scribes tended to use the same original Manuscript to create their own Scribal copy, and this tended to occur fairly regularly. So even though many Christian Manuscripts were intentionally destroyed over the Centuries by non-Christians, and many were probably lost just due to natural damage, there were enough Scribes making copies that many survived to be later copied again. In fact, there are at least 20,000 Manuscripts which still exist today of various parts of New Testament Books.

This has been wonderful for researchers, as during the past 200 years, there have been massive efforts to compare the exact wording of different Manuscripts of the same Original text, where in some cases, hundreds of Manuscripts have been compared. The result is that in recent years, many very minor Scribe-copying flaws have been discovered and corrected, and some of the very most recent Bibles are translations of the best Original texts ever known.

Regarding the Jewish policies of copying the Old Testament Books, it has always been very different. A Scribe must be just as careful, and if possible, even moreso, because once a Scribe makes a copy of a Jewish Manuscript, the original Manuscript is destroyed. This has the effect of making sure that there is only one possible Manuscript to rely on, but it adds great importance to the care of the Scribes, since there is no obvious way to confirm their accuracy of copying.

In any case, by around 400 years after Jesus, it was commonly known that there were many terrible copies going around the Christian world. Saint Jerome spent much of his life in examining all Manuscripts that then existed, and comparing them, in order to create a new Bible which he translated into Latin (since the Holy Roman Empire was then based in Rome where everyone spoke and understood Latin and not Greek or Ancient Hebrew.)

In the following ten Centuries or so, society broke down and many of those Scribal copies of Bible Manuscripts were lost. If it had not been for the efforts of Arabic scholars to want to try to preserve all of ancient knowledge, much of the Bible might have become permanently lost! As well as the works of Aristotle, Plato and many other ancient Greeks!

The history lesson is near the end! Throughout all of this, the written Manuscripts recorded the Bible (and all other texts) in a way which we might see as peculiar. There were no divisions between Chapters or Verses. There were not even any divisions between sentences, and no punctuation and no capitalization. This system is referred to as scriptua continua. In addition to all of this, the vowels were not written down, only the consonants!

"Reading" such a Manuscript was extremely difficult to do! Gradually, improvements were made, such as the addition of spaces, punctuation and capitalization, apparently around a thousand years ago; and Chapter and Verse numbering, apparently around 800 years ago.

At that time, the Bible existed in roughly the form we now know it, except that it was not in English. Most Bibles in Western Europe were in Latin, based on Jerome's Vulgate (Latin translation) Bible, but some Bibles such as the Catholic, sometimes also included some text from the Greek or Aramaic (older) texts. Orthodox Bibles are not based on the Vulgate at all, and are all based on Greek and other Eastern language Manuscripts of the Bible.

The point of this history lesson is that ALL modern Bibles were translated into English from essentially the EXACT SAME SOURCE TEXTS. The English Translations definitely have some differences, as is obvious in reading any Chapter in the King James (KJAV) and the NIV. The THEMES are generally the same, but the exact wording, and sometimes slight differences in meaning, can sometimes be different.

OK. There are around 330,000 Churches in the United States. Most of them are associated with one or another of around a thousand Denominations, but some are Independent and sometimes Non-Denominational.

Bottom Line: These very many Churches (generally) Teach at least 98% or 99% of the exact same things! They used the same Bible to first establish their beliefs. HOWEVER, each Denomination and each Church tended to ADD IN a few distinct beliefs. In general, this occured because each Denomination leaders and each Church leaders INTERPRETED certain Verses of the Bible in specific ways.

An obvious example is that many Churches DEMAND that Baptism be performed by Immersion of the entire body under the water. Other Churches ONLY allow Affusion, the Pouring of water over the person to be Baptized. Yet other Churches believe in Sprinkling water for Baptism. Yet other Churches recognize any two or all three of these Procedures as being valid. There are some Churches which Baptize in the Name of Jesus, but others which demand that Baptisms be in the Name of all Three of the Trinity. There are Some Churches which do a Baptism THREE TIMES, once in each Name (called Trine Baptism).

It turns out that the Bible hardly even ever mentions Baptism, and certainly never provides any specifics of how it is to be Performed! So it is not the Bible which defined each of those many variants, but the INTERPRETATION of what the words of the Bible says, made by the people who first started that Denomination or Church! However, each Church is incredibly adamant that only their method of Baptism is valid! They each even claim that they know that from the Bible itself! And they each even Cite Verses in the Bible which they claim provide the proof! However, when those Verses are read, especially in the Original Greek, all such claims greatly fade.

These Churches, and the Christians who attend them, often refer to all the other Churches which use a different form of Baptism as being un-Christian! Each often claims that ONLY THEY can Teach their Members to be able to enter Heaven! (they are probably wrong about that!)

So, based on something as singular as the method used to perform Baptisms, many Churches and their Members consider ALL OTHERS TO NOT BE CHRISTIANS!

There are assorted other subjects they tend to use to make such claims. The majority of the common ones have to do with either Baptism or the Eucharist. There are ferocious divisions between Christian Churches regarding what happens when a person swallows a Eucharist wafer or a sip of Eucharist wine. Again, the Churches simply assume that all the others are un-Christian. But again, there is NOTHING in the Bible that supports ANY of the intensely held positions, and all those positions exist only because specific individuals, such as Luther or Calvin or Zwingli or the Pope, had strongly held personal beliefs.

So there are many Christians who believe that NO ONE is a Christian, except for the people who happen to attend their own Church! The sad part is that they do not realize that the basis for such claims is NOT from the Bible but rather from INDIVIDUALS having made PERSONAL CONCLUSIONS based on their own INTERPRETATIONS of what some wording in the Bible says.

It is amazing at how extensive this is, and the many very specific narrow issues on which Churches and their Members base such (discrimination). For example, many modern Churches demand the use of some specific English Translation of the Bible, as they insist that ONLY THAT BIBLE contains everything PRECISELY as the Original texts read, INCLUDING THE PUNCTUATION. I always find that humorous to hear a Minister make that Absolute Claim, as he clearly is ignorant of the fact that for a thousand years, the Bible Manuscripts had no punctuation at all, and that was ADDED IN only around a thousand years ago!

Other Churches, such as Pentecostals and Assembly of God, DEMAND that a Member have to regularly demonstrate the Gift of Tongues, as the ONLY possible proof of having been Saved. Their Churches Teach MOST of the same things that all other Christian Churches Teach, with the exception of just a few things, particularly that if a person does NOT regularly demonstrate Speaking in Tongues, they tend to get publicly humiliated as not being Christian!

It turns out that SOME Churches choose that 2% of unique beliefs to be so unusual that they are seen by outsiders as being a Cult. So even though some group such as the Branch Davidians believed and were Taught 98% of solid Christianity, the remaining 2% which included believing that David Koresh was Jesus Returned, was seen by the rest of the world as outrageous. The FOLLOWERS really believed they were Christians, because they USED THE BIBLE and they DID get that 98% of core Christianity. How could anyone convince them that they were not Christians?

The same was true of Jim Jones and the Cult that he ran that was fairly completely Christian except for the fact that they all believed that Jones could decide ALL things for them, including drinking poisoned Koolaid where a thousand of them then died.

The same is true of The Way International, which Teaches the 98% of core Christianity, but includes the beliefs that their leaders decide WHO they Marry and all other major decisions in their lives. Again, the followers THINK they are Christians, because they certainly are Taught MOST of what Christianity is about. It is that 2% of additional beliefs where the conflict lies.

Mormons use the Bible to learn from, and their Church even includes Jesus Christ in its name! And again, 98% of what they are Taught is exactly in line with what traditional Protestant Christianity believes. However, Mormons are Taught that they will EACH become gods after death, and just a few other beliefs which are entirely opposed to what Christianity Teaches. So even though Mormons are Taught 98% of Christianity (and very well, by the way!), any traditional standard of Christianity would say they are not Christians!

Some Southern Baptist Churches still impose massive rules on the public behaviors of all Members. Women are EXAMINED before being allowed into the Church, regarding makeup, lipstick, jewelry, length of skirt, hair treatment, and they can be sent home if their appearance does not comply with what the leadership of that Church demands. Since this occurs in public, in front of all of her friends and neighbors, it is generally very humiliating AND IT IS INTENDED TO BE! Such Churches WANT women to know that they WILL be humiliated unless they strictly obey every detail of what they demand.

Does that qualify as a Cult? Some people think it might.

The list of such things is endless, when you are considering 330,000 Churches in the United States! In fact, OUR tiny Church chose to add in a specific belief which is not specificed in the Bible! We choose to have an extreme focus on Teaching about the BEHAVIOR of Jesus. The majority of Churches tend to focus on His Words. We certainly recognize the importance of His Words, but we feel that many times His Actions expressed powerful Lessons. For example, the very fact that Jesus was nearly always willing to sit down with any SINGLE person, to LISTEN to their story of difficulty, and then to have a conversation about it. In the modern world, that approach would be considered too time consuming! Preachers choose to give speeches before 40,000 people in a Stadium, and they virtually always tell any individual that "they are too busy to talk"! I know because I have TESTED more than a hundred Ministers in this way, and only two even indicated a willingness to talk, but then they told me to contact their Secretary to make an Appointment! What if the subject I wanted to discuss was urgent? What if I was a teenage girl who just discovered that she was pregnant and she was afraid to confront her own parents? Who does she have available to talk to? Isn't a Minister supposed to be that person? Is SHE likely to be willing to call a Secretary to make an Appointment for a few weeks later? No. In fact, she might then start seriously thinking about suicide or other terrible possibilities. Wouldn't she NEED and DESERVE a PERSONAL CONVERSATION with Jesus? He certainly would have thought so. What modern Church shares that attitude of individuality and of potential urgency? Not many, from our Church's view. So we feel it necessary to both Teach about Jesus' Behaviors as well as His Words, and also attempt to DEMONSTRATE such behaviors as best as we can.

Now, there can be Christians who might interpret this ADDITION that our Church intentionally made to the Bible's Lessons to be undesirable and unacceptable! They might therefore feel that our Church is a Cult, because we Teach something that does not seem to be Taught elsewhere. Are they right? We like to think not!

But the point is that ALL Churches have a FEW unique beliefs, usually mixed in along with a vast majority of solid Christian beliefs and Lessons. How can anyone claim to be in a position to determine WHICH such added beliefs are acceptable and which are not? Nearly all Christians would agree that when David Koresh Taught his followers that he was Jesus, and that therefore he was allowed to father all the children of all the women and girls in his Commune, that was NOT Christian. Nearly everyone agrees that a Southern Baptist Church should be allowed to have a Dress Code for entering their Church. But exactly who is in a position to make such determinations? None of us! Only the Lord is in a position to make such Judgments!

And so we feel that our suggestion of having two SEPARATE definitions of Christianity can be very useful. But that when EITHER such definition is used, it should be identified as being either Narrow or Broad!

BELIEVE tries very hard to NOT have any "soapbox"! The fact that it is necessary to consistently use the most precisely defined (NARROW) definition has nothing to do with dogma or doctrine. The paragraphs above should emphasize that WE do not necessarily agree with the NARROW definition, but find it necessary to use it because of its precision of definition.

I suggest defining an entirely separate term "Believer in Christ" and imbue it with the BROAD definition. No problem there. Then, many individuals and groups that are automatically "excluded" by the "strict" (NARROW) definition of the word "Christian" would be included by the new term. The alternative would be to convince the entire world community to alter the NARROW definition of "Christian". That may or may not be appropriate (depending on one's attitude), but it seems impossible, because 1700 years of fairly consistent usage has ingrained the current Nicaean definition with the term. Given that the (NARROW) word "Christian" has its various definitional aspects (all Nicaean), whether one likes it or not, it figures to remain as it is.

Pastor Carl Johnson
A Christ Walk Church
Editor, BELIEVE Religious Information Source web-site

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

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