Friday, November 23, 2012

What Does It Really Mean to Be a Christian?

Many today lament the fact that the term “evangelical” has become so overused of anyone having an experience of what they consider “Jesus” that the term is now meaningless. But the truth is that the term “Christian” has been made into a far more nebulous term than that. Everyone and anyone considers himself a Christian in one way or another. But if everyone knew what the term really meant, and was honest, we’d have much fewer self-proclaimed Christians in the world today.

The place to start here is with the apostle John, since, as the last living apostle, he had more to say on the subject than anyone else. Notice what he says below.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20)

A similar statement is found in Matthew 13, where Christ chooses the apostles and commissions them with his teaching. He states,
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

John, now leaving this life, seeks to help the Church that follows to understand something vitally important, namely, that Jesus Christ gave the apostles the authority and ability to remember His teaching (John 14:25), and those who interpret Him differently, or depart from apostolic teaching, are not true Christians. Therefore, one is only a follower of Christ when he is a follower of the Christ of the apostles, and one is only a follower of Christ when he is a follower of Christ’s teachings through the apostles.
Hence, he draws upon Christ’s giving them authority in his Gospel and Epistles to show that Jesus Christ must be defined by apostolic teaching, and cannot be redefined by others according to their religious or philosophical beliefs. 
It is to the apostles, as opposed to the other disciples, that the Holy Spirit is given to remember His words. It is to the apostles that their testimony is considered on an equal plain with the testimony of the Holy Spirit and cannot be seen as different from it (John 15:26-27). It is to the apostles, as opposed to the other disciples, that apostolic representation of Christ is granted. It is to the apostles that continued direction and teaching from Christ through the Holy Spirit is granted (16:12-15). It is to the apostles, as opposed to the other disciples, that Christ gives the keys to the kingdom to bind and to loose in John 20:21-23 (i.e., to judge one who considers himself a Christian and either declare as saved or declare as one who is damned—in other words, to say who is a Christian and who is not). It is to the apostles that direct access to the Father is granted in the authority of the Son to see and understand Jesus Christ.

Hence, it is the apostles who see Christ and His teaching clearly, and they alone have the authority to set the boundaries of what we consider a Christian view of Christ and a Christian teaching; and therefore, they alone have the authority to set the boundaries for who and what is considered Christian. Take the following episode for instance.

Jesus could see  that they wanted to ask him about these things,  so  he said to them, “Are you asking  each other about this – that I said, ‘In a little while you  will not see me; again after a little while, you  will see me?  I tell you the solemn truth,  you will weep and wail,  but the world will rejoice; you will be sad, but your sadness will turn into  joy. When a woman gives birth, she has distress  because her time  has come, but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the suffering because of her joy that a human being   has been born into the world.  So also you have sorrow  now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.  At that time you will ask me nothing. I tell you the solemn truth, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive it,  so that your joy may be complete.
I have told you these things in obscure figures of speech;  a time  is coming when I will no longer speak to you in obscure figures, but will tell you  plainly  about the Father. At that time  you will ask in my name, and I do not say  that I will ask the Father on your behalf. For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:16-27)

The purpose of this episode is to show that the apostles will be able to interpret Christ’s teaching and who Jesus is, precisely, because they have been with Him from the beginning, are given the Holy Spirit for the express and special purpose of interpreting Christ, and have direct access to the Father if they need clarification on anything. 

In other words, the apostles are not just the average Joe interpreting Christ with some religious experience he has had. He is the only one in the position to interpret Christ and His teaching correctly. And this brings us to another point that John has been making: Christ is His teaching.
Christ is the Word. Christ is known through what He has taught. One cannot know Christ apart from the truth that He spoke, both while he was here on earth and through the teaching He continued to give to the apostles. If one departs from this teaching, therefore, he or she does not merely depart from a particular apostolic teaching but still holds onto Christ, but has departed from Christ Himself. To reject apostolic teaching, according to Christ Himself, is to reject Christ. And to reject Christ is to reject God the Father. 

Hence, all of the teaching we get from the apostles in Scripture is Christ’s teaching. To reject it is to reject Christ; and hence, is to be an unbeliever, regardless of whether one claims to know Jesus. One cannot speak of being in the spirit of the apostles, or continuing the types of things they were doing, and reject the specific theological and ethical teachings they taught, since to be in their spirit is to continue the specifics, not to contradict them. 

One can certainly develop the implications of the whole of their teachings, but in "complementation," not contradiction. If what is “developed” contradicts a specific teaching of the apostles, then it is a teaching that is anathema. And the person who advocates it is likewise anathema if he or she does not repent of it, as only one who is united to the true Christ is blessed with salvation.

The idea, therefore, that one can believe in a Jesus, but not the Jesus of the apostles, and still consider himself a Christian is a delusion. Paul speaks of another Jesus and that such is delivered to men by false apostles who work for the devil, not for God. John, likewise, states that “they went out from us because they were not really of us. If they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they all went out that it might be made plain that they are not of us” (1 John 2:19). The “us” there refers to the apostles. John makes it clear in the epistle that one must have fellowship with the apostles in terms of their teaching in order to have fellowship with the true Jesus and God.

This is what we proclaim to you:  what was from the beginning,  what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce  to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). What we have seen and heard we announce  to you too, so that  you may have fellowship  with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). (1 John 1:1-7)

Hence, the idea that one can disagree with the apostles in the specifics, while trying to make the argument that he agrees with them in terms of their general reforming spirit is nonsense. The one who departs from their teaching, departs from Christ and God. This is, as John is clear to say, the spirit of antichrist, not the Spirit of God who binds His children to the true Jesus and His teaching revealed through the apostles.

Christ is the gospel of the apostles, not your gospel. Christ is the apostles’ teaching about the Church, not your idea of “church.” Christ is the apostles’ teaching of God, not your view of God. Christ is the apostles’ teaching concerning the nature of truth, sexual ethics, gender roles, etc., not your postmodern views of those things. If you want everyone to follow you, then call your religion what it is, and add an “ism” to your name; but Christians follow Christ through apostolic teaching. If the apostles teach an exclusive gospel, Christians follow what they taught. If the apostles teach one must hear and exercise faith to be saved, Christians believe it. If the apostles condemn homosexuality as a sign of the wrath of God upon a people, Christians accept that as the absolute truth. False Christians don’t. They’re religion is personalized. It is adapted to their cultural and religious preferences and understandings, and hence, they’re Christ has been adapted and personalized. But their Christ is not the One who lived and died and lived again. Only the apostles know that Christ, and we must come to know Him through them.

Christ and the teaching that characterizes Him shouldn't be redefined and misidentified, precisely, because He isn't an idea or made up character like Santa Claus. He's a real Person, and to know Him is to know Him as a Person and all of the truth and good that is consistent with who He is. The only humans who know that real Person were the apostles, and it is through them, therefore, that we have come to know Him.

What this means is that the term “Christian” means “one who is in submission to the apostolic teaching and interpretation of Christ and His teaching.” If one wants a Gnostic Jesus, a solely human Jesus, a modern Jesus, a postmodern Jesus, and all of the teachings his particular Jesus would support or condemn, and that Jesus and his teachings contradict the Jesus and teachings of the apostles, his claim to be a Christian is false. The term is being watered-down to fit a larger group of people under it, but this redefinition makes it meaningless.
In reality, the term has meaning in what John has argued above. A Christian is one who follows Christ through the apostolic teaching. Hence, those who claim to be Christians, but do not submit to apostolic teaching are liars who are deceiving themselves and the truth is not in them. As John said, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test  the spirits to determine  if they are from God, because many false prophets  have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). Likewise, do not believe everyone who claims to be a Christian, but test their claim to determine if they are from God, because many false Christians have gone out into the world.

Teach them and exhort them about these things. If someone spreads false teachings and does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ) and with the teaching that accords with godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in controversies and verbal disputes. This gives rise to envy, dissension, slanders, evil suspicions, and constant bickering by people corrupted in their minds and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a way of getting ahead in life. (1 Tim 6:2-5)


  1. Hear, hear! Of course, the great irony of 'Red-letter' Christians is that they're still having to trust the apostles' testimony to Christ: they just choose which bits they like.

  2. I would add that in the New Testament, you will more often see the apostles refer to "christians" as disciples, brothers and sisters, or believers. These terms (I think) are more demonstrative of what a true follower of Christ is. The term "christian" was used primarily in a pejorative sense, and the only time it appears to be anywhere near "recommended" is when Peter tells believers not to be ashamed when they suffer under that name.

    Given the watering down of this term's understanding in western culture, I tend to avoid it personally. Why? Because I don't want to be seen as supporting what most understand "evangelical christianity" teaches and supports. If I understand Peter correctly, my avoidance is not in opposition to his instruction, as I would not be ashamed to suffer under the name Christian (properly ascribed).

    uh-oh, was that a can of worms I just opened??

  3. That's a good point, Jon. I just hope to redeem the term, but if not, people should know what being a Christian, disciple of Christ, believer, etc. really entails. I try to use it as an opportunity to instruct by asking, "What do you mean by that term?"