What is the Definition of a “Christian”?

We had an interesting meetup at Joel’s this past week. In addition to meeting some great new members, we were also joined by a few curious members of a local religous group. As you would expect, discussions ensued….

After talking with a couple of the people who identify as “Christian”  and listening to what some of their beliefs entail, I found myself becoming very confused.

This is not the first time this has happened.

I have some very good friends who also identify as Christian, so this was not my first rodeo. But a common thread with all of these discussions is a tendency for the more liberal or moderate believers in the Christian faith to cherry-pick the parts of the bible that speak to them and just ignore all the atrocities that are also contained in this book.  How much of the bible can you ignore and still be called a Christian? Or in other words, which passages must you absolutely abide to in order to still be considered a Christian? It seems to me that there is disagreement within the Christian community as to where exactly this line is drawn.

For example, let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Here are some of the descriptions of Hell I hear l from the more moderate Christians:

  • “Hell is simply a separation from God”, not a place of physical torture.”
  • “We really don’t know what exactly Hell is. It may be here on Earth.”
  • “I don’t believe in Hell.”

Well, if you’re Christian, I assume that at the very least this means you believe the Bible  is the inspired word of God.

Here is how the Bible describes Hell:

“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, …. and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone…… (Revelation 21:8).

“And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit” (Revelation 9:2).

Jesus describes Hell as,

” …and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” –(Matthew 13: 42 and 50)

“..the fire that shall never be quenched.”  (Mark 9:43)

It seems to me that the bible is very clear on what Hell is.   Yet some Christians cannot stomach this version of it and, therefore, change it into something more palatable.

Then there’s the problem of the God of the Old Testament-not exactly a good model for moral certitudes, what with all the genocide, misogyny, torture, slavery, stoning of children,  etc…..For this particular subject, I’ll focus on one caricature of God that was offered up at our last meeting. For brevity, I won’t even tackle the abstract and ambiguous nature of such a statement.

“God is Love.”

Here’s a smidge of what the “God of Love” has to say in the Bible:

“I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number….and if ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary to unto me…I will bring a sword upon you.” (Leviticus 26: 22-25)

“And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.”  (Leviticus 26:29)

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13).

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods,….Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you … Thou shalt not consent unto him……neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” (Deuteronomy 13: 6-10)

Usually, when pointing out the depravity of the OT, my  Christians counterpart will retort with something along the lines of,  “But that’s the Old Testament! The new covenant with Jesus washed that all away.”  (For the record, I would disagree with this notion. If that were the case, why are the Ten Commandments still a prominent part of the Christian faith?)  I also hear over and over, “You’re taking it out of context!”. As if there could be ANY context where the killing of children would be A-OK.  Again, it seems as if cherry-picking is occurring by cafeteria Christians. Take the parts of the bible you like, ignore the rest. But as a Christian, can you treat your holy book in this manner?

 So my questions for Christians are as follows:

  • How much of the bible can you simply ignore or flat-out reject and still be considered a Christian?
  • If you accept the concept of Jesus as the son of God who died and was resurrected but nothing else in the bible, are you still a Christian?
  • As a Christian, how do you reconcile the horrific parts of the bible and the notion that your god is a god of love?

I do understand that there are passages in the bible that embody what I would consider to be really good advice and touch on the subjects of love, forgiveness and treating others with kindness. But  these virtues were not invented and are not owned by the church are easily attained by secular means as well. Making a commitment to lead a good life, to live a life of kindness and compassion does not require the belief in a deity, especially one capable of such exquisitely horrific acts. As Thomas Paine stated it, “my religion is to do good.”

Hell
Hell (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Although not the first to do so, I would also like to point out that the religious literalists and fundamentalists do indeed have scripture on their side.  I’ve seen many a moderate Christian shake their head in disdain when discussing Rick Santorum, Pat Robertson or others but these Christians are able to take the stance they do, for example against homosexuality, because they are supported by text in the bible.

So, I’ll end this with the question I started with: What is the definition of a “Christian”?

I’d love to hear others thoughts on this.

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3 thoughts on “What is the Definition of a “Christian”?

  1. Most excellent post. From my experience, it is the “Christians” who most commonly claim that others are not “real” Christians. Whatever that means. That is, I guess, what you are in fact asking…

    Wish I could have made it to Joel’s.

    -Tyler

  2. Clayton Nash

    Well put, Kathleen. As an absolute minimum, I think a Christian needs to be able to state clearly and plainly that Jesus was supernatural in nature and point to specific aspects of their belief to back this up (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, etc). Most Christians when asked specific questions simply want to say “I don’t know.” Saying that you don’t know is fine, but it at least must be followed up with, “…but I believe it to be true.” Most Christians realize how absurd it sounds to say that they believe Jesus to be born of a virgin and can’t quite make a bold, unequivocal claim in this regard.

  3. Jay

    Here’s a term I’d never heard before. “Nones”, or the “Emerging Church”: people who want to draw some inspiration from a subset of Christianity but don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural or even call themselves Christian:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325,0,3793097.story

    I don’t see why people shouldn’t cherry-pick the parts of the Bible that they like, as long as they’re honest about it (which is often the catch). It doesn’t seem that different from me liking the poetry of Ezra Pound or the paintings of the Italian futurists, while simultaneously knowing that Pound and the futurist painters were overtly supporters of Italian fascism. Of course, I wouldn’t call myself a fascist; nor would I want to call myself a Christian if I were a fan of the teachings of Jesus. This new term might be a good one for those people to adopt.

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