I ask this question of Christians [*]: What do we mean when we say "Christian"? Who is Christian, and who isn't?

The question is not merely one of how to apply a provisional category, as might be the question "What is a chair, and what isn't?" The ways the phrases "Christian" and (more potently) "not Christian" are used bear huge weight - principally because we wield the latter as a weapon. Consider such oft-uttered sentences as, "I don't think he can really be considered Christian." "Is the author Christian?" "Ever since she stopped being Christian..." "That's not a very Christian attitude."

There are many possible definitions of the term. For instance:

  1. A Christian is anyone raised in a Christian cultural context.
  2. A Christian is anyone who, when asked if a Christian, would say yes. (I call this the "Census Bureau" definition.)
  3. A Christian is anyone who, when asked if agreeing to a certain set of doctrines (e.g. the Apostle's Creed), would say yes. (This is in keeping with the original purpose of a creed - to ease the process of sorting true believers from heretics.)
  4. A Christian is anyone belonging to a certain sect (i.e. denomination) or one of a set of sects. (Many Protestants exclude Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, such as a girl in my high school youth group who "converted a Catholic to Christianity". Some sects are well beyond "not Christian", into the realm of "cult".)
  5. A Christian is anyone having been baptized, perhaps in some particular style, at some particular phase of life, or into some specific sect; or otherwise having gone through some initiation ritual.
  6. A Christian is anyone who has prayed the sinner's prayer, i.e. accepted Jesus into her heart, i.e. been born again. A possible further condition (dependent on the specific doctrine) is that she must not have subsequently "fallen from grace".
  7. A Christian is anyone who is a member of God's chosen elect. (This definition is perhaps the least useful since no one can agree on the sure indications of a member.)
  8. A Christian is anyone who studies Jesus and puts his teaching into practice.
  9. A Christian is anyone who behaves like Jesus.
  10. A Christian is anyone bearing good fruits, such as the fruits of the spirit described by Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (No diseased tree can bear good fruit, according to the Sermon on the Mount.)

You can see how, testing a person against each definition, the outcomes vary considerably.

Consider Gandhi. Neither raised in a Christian cultural context nor belonging to a Christian sect. He did not agree with the doctrines of the Apostle's Creed. When asked if a Christian, he responded, "Ask the poor. They will tell you who the Christians are." He studied Jesus, put his teaching into practice, and yielded all the fruits of the spirit. Like Jesus, he was at once tender and austere; and like Jesus, he was martyred. Was Gandhi a Christian?

Consider George W. Bush. Raised Episcopal, converted to the United Methodist Church. He claimed his leadership to be guided by God, frequently quoting the Bible in his speeches. He started multiple wars, seeming to indicate a lack of love, peace, patience (AKA forbearance), kindness, and gentleness. Unlike Jesus, who taught forgiveness and gave himself over to death for the salvation of others, Bush worked to hunt down and kill the guilty, even with the "acceptable loss" of bystanding civilians. Is George W. Bush a Christian?

Now, those are of course over-the-top examples - just be glad I didn't use Hitler - but they serve well to illustrate the point. While there are certainly senses in which it's useful to call Bush a Christian and Gandhi not, in other cases the labels belong the other way around. What obviously applies for them still applies, less obviously, for everyone else. And so, if we're going to use the phrases "Christian" and "not Christian" to - all in one casual statement - denote a person's salvation/damnation status, legitimacy or illegitimacy as a teacher/role model, and status as our Brother or not, we had better use them in full consciousness.

[*]Good luck identifying the actual intended audience of this post!