I had a friend ask me today what my definition of a Christian is. I resisted the question to some degree, as I remain extremely troubled by the obsession many have, with drawing lines to delineate who is “in” and “out” of fellowship, orthodoxy, or whatever. I am not taking anything back that I said in my Word About Creeds. Nevertheless, if I claim to want people to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ, it follows that I must have some idea about what this concept means…at least as I use the terms.
I hope I’ve made it obvious in my writing that while I believe the Christian church–particularly the church in the United States where I live–has severely messed up its witness and faithfulness to Jesus, I am not saying therefore that the people I criticize are (necessarily) not Christians. It will give some Christians grief to see me quote the Quran at this point, but it’s eloquent when it says:
Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al-Ma’idah, 5:48)
In other words, I presume that *all* Christians (and others, for that matter) get some things right, some wrong, and that our merciful Father will sort it out some day if, in fact, the sorting matters to him.
I am also not saying that all those who meet the criteria I give below are going to heaven, and all who aren’t are going to hell. The issue of salvation is an entirely separate question–and in fact the wrong question to be asking at this juncture.
But with these caveats, I offer the following four criteria that I believe sufficiently define one who follows Jesus:
- Jesus’ Divinity. The New Testament is quite clear that Jesus represented himself as divine, and any follower of Jesus must acknowledge him as such. This is not the same thing as endorsing classical Trinitarianism…as I have previously written, I personally believe that the “co-equal person” argument in the doctrine of the Trinity fails to wrestle adequately with those scriptures in which Jesus clearly delineated himself as other than, and subordinate to the Father. I use the term “wrestle” quite deliberately, as I believe there’s a tension in the scriptural characterization of Jesus that can’t be fully resolved. The Trinity is one limited, inadequate attempt to resolve it; my own characterization of Jesus as divine but submissive to the Father is another. Either is a genuine attempt to be faithful to the way Jesus characterized himself, and either, I suggest, fulfills this first criterion.
- Jesus’ Humanity. Just as the scripture is plain about Jesus’ divinity, it is categorical that from the incarnation on, Jesus became honest-to-goodness human flesh. He ate, he bled, he suffered, he partied. The Gnostic denial of Jesus’ flesh is outside the pale. The follower of Jesus recognizes his true humanity. (note in this and #1, I’m avoiding the classic phrase “Fully God & Fully Man.” I think that phrase is actually nonsensical and does nothing to advance either understanding or orthodoxy).
- Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The incarnate, fleshly Jesus really, truly died and was really, truly raised to life by the Father. The many theological implications of this fact are the subject of some dispute, and I certainly have an opinion on them. But there are genuine Christians who have very different opinions than I on what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished. They are still Christians, and so am I.
- Jesus’ Lordship. This is the point at which the I most clearly depart from the idea that a “credo,” a list of “what I believe,” is of utmost importance. If one “believes” that Jesus is Lord, that “belief” can only be expressed in submission, obedience, and discipleship. The fact that Jesus is Lord means that all the other things and beings that pretend to the throne are NOT lord. Nations, individuals, belief systems, political philosophies & parties, all are subordinated to the call and command of Jesus, or else he isn’t Lord, and no amount of “believing” otherwise can change that.
I hope you noticed that all four of these criteria start with the name of Jesus. That’s no accident. It is the name of Jesus, and his position in your life, that makes you a Christian, or not. And frankly, those who are, and those who aren’t, are to be found in some unexpected places.