What is a Christian? Your answer may depend on your source of information. If you listen to activists of various kinds, you may have a picture of a narrow-minded bigot with low intelligence and poor education. Even if you attend church, you may not have a clear definition due to two confusing factors—historical schisms and modernizing trends. In the past, Christians have split, sometimes violently, over doctrinal disagreements.
Of those, some were basic enough to brand some as heretics, and others were more obscure, separating people into opposing communities who still accepted each other as Christians. These people believed ardently in a supernatural God, and their disagreements arose from a sincere desire to know the truth. As science and secularism grew more
prevalent, some who still called themselves Christians gave up belief in a supernatural God, thus creating yet another kind of divergence among those who still called themselves Christians.
Against that background, “Christian” means many things to many people, and no one can easily claim that some are right and others are not. Not surprisingly, labels can provide a measure of clarification. Denominations each trace a thread of church history. At the same time, the same labels cause confusion, sometimes even leading to the sense that each denomination is a separate religion. That is what our forefathers meant when they spoke of freedom of religion. For them, conflicts among Christians, particularly Catholic and Protestant, drove colonists to America and were a problem they sought to avoid. Not that Islam or Buddhism was excluded, but when they wrote of an “establishment of religion;” they had in mind the Christian sects that had persecuted each other with the help of the king and government. They didn’t want their new nation passing laws to give one denomination power over another or to turn political campaigns
into religious war.
What, then, is a Christian? According to the New Testament, an appropriate place to find both an accurate and early meaning, Christian, literally “little Christ,” was a label for disciples of Christ, first used in Antioch. For me and for most of those who name themselves evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, to be a Christian is to be an active follower of Jesus Christ and a person who seeks to be like him as much as possible.
This understanding of Christian requires two basic things. First, a true Christian believes in Christ. A person cannot follow a phony, a figment of their imagination, or a fallacy. For authentic Christians, to believe in Jesus Christ is to accept as true a complete set of ideas as fact—that He is God and man, that he died for the sins of His people, that he rose from the dead, and that He will come again to judge the world. While some have tried to surrender the miraculous aspects of faith and keep the “good teachings,” genuine Christians regard these unique claims as essential; they set Christianity apart from every other religion. In fact, the good news or “gospel” in which Christ saves people from their shortcomings and gives them eternal life distinguishes Christianity from religion. In this understanding of the Christian faith, religion is people trying to find their own way to god, but in the Gospel, God brings people, despite their shortcomings, to Himself, based only on their faith. In this view, all of the faith words come into play—trust, belief, reliance, dependence, confidence, and hope—all centered on Jesus Christ.
The second basic thing that authentic Christianity requires is obedience. Many today accuse the Christian or Religious Right of wanting to force all Americans to live by Christian values. No genuine Christian would seek that, even though it might seem like an attractive alternative to the godless, valueless, nihilistic culture America life has become. The very essence of Christian evangelism, i.e. sharing the Good News, is bringing people to faith and, subsequently, to their own voluntary obedience. Using the power of the state to force obedience to spiritual law or to force people to become Christian is contrary to the very nature of the Christian gospel.
A common argument says that you can’t legislate morality. Of course, that is an absurd statement. Every law is an imposition of some sort of civil morality. The United States and Western civilization have observed a Judeo-Christian morality; only ignorance and willful suppression of our history obscure this truth. This foundation created a vision of character based on decency, integrity, honesty, and charity that the founders believed essential to the nation’s success. Their statements show a clear belief that good character and dependence on God were essential to the nation’s survival and prosperity. A majority of Americans still think that way, and nearly every successful politician gives lip service to these ideas, although their hypocrisy is often rather obvious. Many people fear what will happen to the United States if we continue to move away from this foundation. The freedom, individual opportunity, and collective generosity of these United States built on this Judeo-Christian foundation of faith and character are without comparison in ancient or modern history. Those who fear losing that foundation are right to fear.
Most Christians realize that the restoration of character and faith among us is a matter of interpersonal discussion and persuasion. Therefore, what most Christians want and say, if you listen carefully, is to keep government and government-run institutions, such as schools, from actively opposing faith, moral obedience, and the open discussion of such things. However, with the banning of school prayer, the government, mostly via court decisions, has systemically been doing exactly that, opposing faith, moral character, and the freedom to speak openly about them. Christianity and Christians today verge on being “enemies of the State,” ironically in the name of “separation of Church and State,” due to the influence of the anti-authority, anti-morality, counter-culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s and its many adherents who now fill the media, education, and government establishments. Please, note that “separation of Church and State, an expression not used in the U.S. Constitution, uses a Christian word “Church” and not a more generic term like religion. Clearly, as documented by a number of authors like David Limbaugh in his book Persecution, many want to remove the influence of Christians from the United States, the very thing the Founders intended the First Amendment to prevent.
Christians do not seek a theocracy, a practice of Old Testament Israel, or a state mandated religious and moral code like Islamic “sharia.” We simply desire a restoration of the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, that will allow us to practice our faith and values and persuade people to become Christians. More generally, we wish to be free to make a case for faith, liberty, and character that many believe to be the very roots of the success of the American idea.
Another accusation commonly leveled against Christians today is that, when we assert our values, we are people of hate. Recently, I finished reading The New American Revolution by Tammy Bruce, an openly a pro-choice lesbian. According to critics, I should
hate her, since she clearly opposes our beliefs; I don’t! In fact, she clarified for me something I have sought to understand for some time. I have known for most of my life that hatred and anger are not appropriate attitudes or emotions for a Christian; and, frankly, I have a hard time even understanding hatred. Even in extreme situations, I find little antipathy toward people, even those I regard as dangerous or frightening. I do
sometimes get frustrated and angry, angry enough I feel I want to do something or say something. Yet, not even at my angriest am I inclined to hate or become violent.
To an extent, perhaps, this is temperament. Maybe, I am just not wired for hate. However, I believe it is something more. From early in my life, I have been aware of and motivated by the most basic teaching of Jesus Christ: “A new commandment I give you. Love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Of course, not all Christians, at all times, have followed this commandment
faithfully. That is sadly regrettable. Imagine the difference they might have made on Church history–on the world!–if they had. Imagine how Western history might have gone differently. Christians brought much that is good into the world; they may even be credited for the progress of western civilization and American liberty and charity.
Unfortunately, they also bear some responsibility for religious conflict and persecution, at times.
Jesus had more in mind than Christians loving each other; that was just the start. When asked his opinion of the greatest commandment, he unhesitatingly answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and all your mind.” The second is similar (indeed inseparable): “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, throughout the Old and New Testaments, Christians are to love their God, their neighbors, their brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, the parents, and even their enemies. A Christian may stray into hate, but he or she does so against the plain and simple teaching of the One who name they bear.
Does that mean they must tolerate in silence the sins of people? Love, in fact, requires that a Christian urge sinners not to sin. To understand, one must realize that sin is more than breaking a commandment; in fact, one must know that God’s commands are
more than an arbitrary exercise of His power and will. As a loving creator and parent, God issues commands to guide and protect His children, just as human parents do. “Don’t touch a hot flame” is no different than “Don’t touch your neighbor’s wife.” Both actions will burn the one who ignores the warning. If a Christian is operating in faith and
obedience, he or she will kindly warn people of sin and its risks and consequences, but at the same time, the Christian will not hate but love the sinner. This raises the level of what
some might call tolerance to an entirely different plane, a truth that Tammy Bruce acknowledges in her book.
What she helped me understand was the source of charges of hatred often leveled against Christians. I have taught the principle myself, but I not made the connection to this. In counseling, I have found that a person will accuse others of something that is
actually more their own failing. In the Bible, Jesus warns hypocritical criticizers by saying, “You want to take a splinter from someone else’s eye, but you have a log in your own eye.”
In other words, where is the real hatred and where is the genuine compassion?
Bruce says, having lived and worked among those she calls “malignant narcissists,” that they use hate and charges of hatred to motivate their followers. Suddenly, I understood the angry, vitriolic tone so prevalent among those who attack Christians and advocate ideas and values opposed to ours. I don’t hate gays, but many of them hate people like me who don’t endorse their agenda. I don’t hate women, feminists, or pro-choicers, but they often spew vitriol at those of us who oppose their plans. Supposedly peace-loving, anti-war activists spout hate in the name of peace with little awareness that Christians like me only reluctantly support war and its effects . Those who advocate socialistic schemes to help the poor claim I have no compassion, since I prefer self-help and capitalism instead of permanent victim status and big-government handouts; yet I believe my way offers the needy far more dignity and prosperity.
Back in my college years, I was a WASP—white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant–and it was not a compliment. Later, they called me an angry white male. For supporting the Vietnam War, I was a “baby-killer.” For supporting the pro-life movement and the life of unborn babies, they call me a woman hater. I have lost track of all the disparaging labels that various groups, almost always anti-Christian, have used for people like me, and they are all mistaken; their use is an indication of the very hatred of which they accuse me. I am not a “homophobe,” but I believe many, who say I am, are “Christo-phobes;” they
fear Christianity and outspoken Christians.
I don’t believe they fear us or even what we might do. They fear the values we hold, perhaps in part for fear that we might force them not to sin, but such fears are misplaced. Almost no one has the desire to intrude on people’s lives that way; those who do are
Muslim extremists and not Christians. However, I do believe they fear hearing the message, despite the fact that it is a message of love. They fear the God who makes a claim on His creatures. The zeal with which they push evolution in spite of its scientific
weaknesses shows how much they want to convince themselves and others that there is no God to judge sin. Bruce’s use of “malignant narcissism” is appropriate for many want nothing more than the unrestricted freedom to party without guilt, but Christianity keeps
reminding them that a Creator might be watching their drunken orgies. His attention is kindly and sad for He knows their lives are empty, their sex is increasingly meaningless, and their drinking and drug use becomes more and more an attempt to deaden their pain and emptiness.
What is a Christian? He or she is a person who trusts Christ to deliver from sin and its consequences, who love God and people, who live in contentment and generally isn’t threatened by the sins of other people, but who wants other people to have the same blessings, starting with his or her own children and loved ones but extending to friends and neighbors. A Christian isn’t frightened by death or the possibility of oblivion since God has the final say, but each one takes seriously the commandments of God and the virtues of Christ. The Bible is a Christian’s handbook, and a Christian cares for the Jew, the stranger, the weak, the widowed and orphaned, the prisoner, and the poor, because of its instruction and guidance.
Christians are not perfect. They are, after all, only “sinners saved by grace.” Whatever a Christian is and does is imperfect and inconsistent. A Christian returns to God again and again seeking forgiveness for their failings and mistakes. Even flawed, a Christian is a loving friend, spouse, and parent, a patriot, and often a generous and
forgiving person. For all that, a Christian isn’t only one thing with a single view of the many controversial issues he or she faces. He or she has doubts, fears, concerns, and often lots of questions. A typical Christian is probably a member of the “silent majority” and, generally, the now notorious “moral majority” as well. Sometimes, a Christian gets
frustrated and perhaps a little angry, but rarely angry enough to hate. The one who does is either behaving “unspiritually” or is simply not a Christian, for “the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, and self control.”
What is a Christian? A Christian is a work in progress, but it is a work of God. Since God is love, the child of God is also a person of love and not hate, no matter what the accusers may say.
(If you would like more information about becoming a Christian or would like Bible
references for any of the points I’ve made, just make a comment or ask a question. This is not a minority opinion or unusual view.)