The Christian Church in North America is the most highly organized, high-tech sinking ship on the sea. In so many ways and in so many places it has lost its way, lost its identity, and has ruptured badly—not by external forces, but by internal strife and disagreement on the basics of faith. We may well wonder how much longer it will stay afloat.
Entire denominations that have been around for generations are abandoning their historic confessions and tossing overboard the theological and moral guidance systems that have kept them going forward since their founding.
All the fundamental questions are now up for grabs:
What is a Christian?
What makes Christians and the church different from the world?
What should we believe and how should we behave in a pluralistic and mixed up society?
Are there rights and wrongs anymore?
And other questions follow naturally:
Why does Jesus’ church have so little impact on the culture?
And why are we Christians more followers than leaders of social and political movements?
Although these questions can’t be adequately answered in a few short sentences, let’s at least talk about these things, get on our knees in prayer, and find some clear direction (and soon), because powerful movements are now dismantling the church in our nation at an alarming rate.
This study is designed for groups of Christians who are concerned about the direction of today’s church and want to actively participate in stopping this downward spiral.
Things around us are changing rapidly, and we’ll be right in the middle of the mix whether we want to be or not. The issues below are not intended for casual conversation, for it’s no exaggeration to say that our very futures, not just the here and now, may depend upon the answers we give to them.
What is a Christian?
- A Christian is a person like Mother Teresa or Florence Nightingale, women who gave up everything to serve those in need.
- A Christian is a person like Billy Graham who travels the world preaching the Gospel and turning people to Christ.
- A Christian is a pastor who serves his church and ministers to his people.
- A Christian is someone who does good things for others.
- A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus.
- A Christian is a devout person who doesn’t swear, drink, dance, gamble, or go to the movies.
- A Christian is a born-again believer.
- A Christian is a person who gives all their money away to the poor.
As you can see, the simple question, “What is a Christian?” isn’t so easy to answer. It all depends on whom you ask. If we query ten different Christians in various parts of the world, we get ten different answers. The church of Jesus Christ is so fragmented today that there seems to be no consensus on this matter anymore. Even the dependable, rock-solid “Evangelical Protestantism” appears to have splintered into so many pieces that the word “Christian” no longer has any agreed-upon meaning.
A big part of the problem is that the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (the authority of Scripture alone) has been largely abandoned in favor of the authority of the believer’s conscience alone. Everyone is his or her own authority. And, as history has consistently proven, if we become our own authority for what’s true or real, then there’s no longer any real truth to be discovered or talked about. There’s just “your truth” and “my truth,” and that’s the end of it. That’s also the end of any rational world.
There are two ways of reaching an answer to our question, “What is a Christian?” Either we create our own personal definitions according to our individual church traditions (or for that matter out of thin air), or we take our view from the New Testament. What did Jesus and Paul say about it?
I think we’d all prefer to take what they said over what anyone else is saying today! And the third chapter of John’s Gospel seems to be a good starting place. In Jesus’ conversation with Jewish leader Nicodemus, he states that unless someone is “born again” (actually it’s “born from above”) he can’t enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). That appears to be his definition: no rebirth, no Christian, no salvation.
But it’s still not that self-explanatory and is all too easily misinterpreted. Today “born again” seems to have status and superiority privileges connected with it, making you wonder whether you are Christian First Class, Business, or Economy!
Have you ever had anyone ask, “Are you born again?” The questions behind the question could be as varied as: Have you been baptized in the right way? Do you speak in tongues? Do you know your Bible memory verses?!
If you ask who and what a reborn person is, the answers you usually receive are, “Well, it’s someone from our denomination,” or “It’s someone baptized in the true church,” “One who believes the Bible,” “Someone who speaks in tongues,” “One who behaves or speaks in a particular way,” and so forth.
So what’s the answer?
Simply, with no frills and attachments, a Christian is someone born of the Spirit—it’s a person in whom the Spirit of Jesus actually dwells. This is the definition we find in Scripture (Jn. 7:37–39, 14:17; Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 4:6; 1 Jn 4:13).
This means a Christian is not defined by his/her behavior, habits, language, doctrines believed, or organizations belonged to, although behavior, doctrines, associations, and all the rest will naturally be important components in the life of the real Christian. It’s just that all these humanly measurable things can be easily faked (and regularly are—how many times have we seen this?), whereas Jesus’ indwelling Spirit can’t. He’s either in us or he’s not.
Lets face it. Someone who uses the right Christian-speak, labors long hours with us, and says nice prayers can dupe us all. Social media outlets are a great place to experience this. And in a church or among its members, sometimes it takes a little doing to tell if Jesus’ Spirit is genuinely anywhere around! Ultimately, we aren’t the final judges of such things, only Jesus knows for sure, and he’s the only one who can and will sort it out in the end (Mt. 13:24–29).
But, in the meantime, there’s one thing we can count on. If Jesus’ Spirit truly dwells in someone, that fact can’t remain hidden for long. Christians will become recognized for the fruit their lives will bear.
James, the Lord’s brother, makes it clear that unless there is some real Christ-likeness in someone’s life, then we have every right to suspect that there’s some plain fakery going on. True faith eventually produces behavior and a quality of life that reflects the Spirit of Jesus in us (Jas. 2:14–26).
What do you think?
How do you think you can recognize a real Christian?
Do you think it’s legitimate even to ask the question about the genuineness of someone’s faith?
Updated January 23, 2016