This article discusses the definition of a Christian and issues of the authority of the accuracy of that definition.
I consider myself a Christian and I define Christianity according to three different possible definitions.
- Under Mere Christianity, defined by Lewis as, “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
- Under the original definition of Christian, given in Acts 11:26, simply meaning a disciple of Christ and the church, whereas a disciple of Christ or the church is also defined in numerous places. One such place would be during the version of the Great Commission given in Matthew 28:16-20. Verse 19 is variously translated as, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” or “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” This seems to indicate that a disciple is simply someone who believes the teachings of Christ as given through the apostles. This is also how Lewis understood the term disciple, but there may be others who allege that the term disciple specifically refers to the apostles or some other group.
- Under what I call Minimal Christianity, which is the simple principle of faith alone demonstrated by the story of the thief crucified with Jesus, recounted in Luke 23:39-43. The thief simply admitted his own guilt and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus went to his kingdom. Jesus responded that the thief would be with him. I interpret this as salvation by faith alone. Perhaps there is more to the story of the thief which is not recorded in the Bible, but it seems to me that if additional information were necessary it would have been included.
Now here’s the problem: How do we know such a definition of Christianity is accurate? If Christianity is like a dating relationship then we can see a possible problem. What if the girl says she and a boy are dating while the boy says they are not dating? Are they really dating? So the problem becomes apparent. It is possible that we are creating some definition of Christianity, and possibly even meeting that definition, all the while the definition is other than the correct definition of Christianity needed such that fulfillment of that definition is consistent with or allows for salvation, forgiveness of sins, sanctification, admission to heaven, pleasing God and so on. In short, it would be ideal for us to have Christ’s definition of Christianity. Ideally, Jesus would tell us, as he told the thief, that we will be with him.
At the end of the day the definition of what constitutes a Christian is the general issue of who holds authority in interpretation of scripture.
- In Matt. 18:20, Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” This could be interpreted to allow for authority in communication with Jesus through groups of believers, or the church.
- Gal. 2:20 could be interpreted to allow for possession of true knowledge in general, including knowledge of the necessary conditions for salvation and so forth.
- The Roman Catholic idea of Holy Tradition and similar ideas in other denominations may or may not be able to account for this.
Now we are getting to the core of the idea of otherness, although we already touched on it earlier. The idea of otherness is that no one can justify the claim of being a Christian on their own, or justify any other fact of knowledge or interpretation for that matter. The Christian needs external validation. The Second Great Commandment in Mark 12:31 seems to suggest a proper balance for the weight of the self and others. I can see it being interpreted in either of two ways:
- A person should value their own authority as equal to any single other.
- A person should value their own authority as equal to the collection of all others.
In conclusion, Protestants have some basis for justification of calling themselves Christian although their views may or may not be compatible with the idea of Holy Tradition. At the same time there is no justification that I can see for the extreme of Protestantism, the single-person denomination. To a degree this results in a paradox because a person necessarily holds their own view, yet it seems that the own-view is fundamentally unjustified in Christianity. The resolution of this paradox may be found in the Second Great Commandment. The SGC recommends not that a person blindly trust others, nor trust only themselves, but instead suggests that there is a proper balance.