Defining the Word Christian

Have you ever thought about the word Christian, and what a truly means?  Last week, I wrote about words changing meaning, or losing their original meaning at the very least.  I talked about the word morality, and what this word has come to mean in today’s society.  But now I want to take a moment to define a word that I most hope defines me.

In C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Lewis writes about the word gentleman.  Originally, the word gentleman was a word of position.  It meant that a man was a landowner.  However, through the years the word gentleman has gone from a word easily defined by set standards, i.e. “Does a man own land or not?” to a word that can only be determined by a subjective opinion.  It has come to mean a man who is gentle in his manners. I am sure that you’d agree that if we went out on the street today, in any city, town or village in the world, and asked what the code for mannerly conduct is, chances are we would receive some similar answers, but more than likely we would also get a myriad of varied answers based on the opinions of those asked.

The word Christian, Lewis explains is much the same way.  At one time it had a concrete definition.  “The name Christian was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples,’ to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles.”  However, by the time Webster’s Dictionary was published it came to mean the following:

1. A believer in the religion of Christ.

2. A professor of his belief in the religion of Christ.

3. A real disciple of Christ; one who believes in the truth of the Christian religion, and studies to follow the example, and obey the precepts, of Christ; a believer in Christ who is characterized by real piety.

4. In a general sense, the word Christians includes all who are born in a Christian country or of Christian parents.

Let me first address the first definition.  A believer in the religion of Christ.  At first glance this seems to be a concrete answer.  But upon further examination one realizes that the word “believe” not followed by some type of action is an ambiguous word.  What does it mean to believe?  How does one know that they believe?

Romans 10:9-10

Amplified Bible (AMP)

9Because if you acknowledge and confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and in your heart believe (adhere to, trust in, and rely on the truth) that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

10For with the heart a person believes (adheres to, trusts in, and relies on Christ) and so is justified (declared righteous, acceptable to God), and with the mouth he confesses (declares openly and speaks out freely his faith) and confirms [his] salvation.

Notice here that believing is accompanied by and action.  Confessing with your mouth.  The word “believe” in the Greek is most often the same word translated as “faith”.

James 2:17

Amplified Bible (AMP)

17So also faith, if it does not have works (deeds and actions of obedience to back it up), by itself is destitute of power (inoperative, dead).

So, if we water down Christianity to beliefs without responding actions, we have made it destitute of its power.  We know we have faith or belief by what we do.  Unfortunately, a large portion of America call themselves Christians based on what they say they believe.  However, there are no corresponding actions.  Am I saying that we can be saved by what we do?  No, because it’s not by works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:9).  Putting faith in works puts the cart before the horse, in a matter of speaking.  What I am saying is that you prove what you believe by what you do. Faith being the horse, and works being the cart.

If a man says that he loves a woman, but he is unwilling to be faithful to her, or to be kind to her, eventually that woman is going to want to see proof of his love toward her.  She will not believe that he loves her unless he has corresponding actions.  Thus, it is true for many words like belief, faith and love.  It is true that they are matters of the heart, but they are proved by the actions of your body.

Let’s take a look at the second definition of Christian in the Webster’s Dictionary.  “A professor of his belief in the religion of Christ.”  This definition is closer to the Biblical and first century church definition in that it does include some type of confession.  However, I dare say, we have all met people who have professed to be Christians and yet there would be definite doubt as to the validity of their self-“professed” title.

For instance, being an American, we have all witnessed politicians who have publicized and exaggerated their religious beliefs  in order to be more popular with the “moral Christian majority” that we once had in this country.  Or, an even better example is the man who performed the Norwegian shootings this past month.  He claims to be a Christian.  If we accept Webster’s definition of “A professor of his belief in the religion of Christ,” we would definitely not be able to judge whether or not this man is a Christian.  He professes to be one, therefore he is.

1 John 3:14

The Message (MSG)

 14-15The way we know we’ve been transferred from death to life is that we love our brothers and sisters. Anyone who doesn’t love is as good as dead. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know very well that eternal life and murder don’t go together.

We can see very clearly here, that unless something alters this man’s future, he will not be spending eternity in Heaven with those who Jesus calls Christians.  Although according to the New York Times, and definition number 2 of the Webster’s Dictionary, this man may be a Christian, according to the Apostle John, he is not.  (Unless of course, he repents which is another essay altogether.)  We can not only profess with our mouth, we must also have true belief.  True belief is always backed by actions.

I am going to skip to definition number four before I address number three.  I think this is where much of “Christian America” is situated at the moment.  “In a general sense, the word Christians includes all who are born in a Christian country or of Christian parents.”  This definition has nothing to do with belief, or action.  It offers no visible characteristics to the onlooker.  The person is made a Christian by birth or by citizenship of a country that calls itself Christian.The only proof for this definition would be a birth certificate.

There are clear issues with this definition as it infringes on a person’s right to choose.  There is no choice in the matter, for according to it, a person who doesn’t want to be a Christian can be without their permission.  They have no right to choose to be of some other religious thinking or philosophy.  If they were born to a Christian, they are one.

The other side of the coin is the person who enjoys calling themselves “Christian” and they believe themselves to be one just because their parents were, or because they are American, or any other nation still professing to be a “Christian” nation.  They have no responsibility in their title as Christian, nor do they care to seek out their responsibility.  The title Christian in this case has ceased to appear to be anything even remotely like the first century definition of Christianity.

First century Christians, lived their faith.  They died for their faith.  Their faith had fruit which the observer could see.  They followed after the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles. They were the third definition of the the word.

Through the years, we have weakened the meaning of the word Christian.  Both the church and those not professing to be Christians have become utterly confused by what the word means, and by how one can define it. If we can not define who we are, how do we know who we are?

How would you Biblically define a Christian?  Do you meet the terms of this definition?

25 thoughts on “Defining the Word Christian

  1. What a wonderful post! Your detailed analysis is one that would make C.S. Lewis proud. I am always amazed at that man’s logic. We don’t do philosophy they way they once did.

    I wanted to thank you for your words on my post last week. I said a prayer for your son. These things seem so fragile when we are going through them. Opening my hands, letting go…not always so easy when my boy is involved. Thank you for your prayers.

    • Thank you for your prayers. I don’t know about making C.S. Lewis proud of my logic, but I’m happy that I’ve impressed the likes of you! I’ll continue to hold your family in my heat and prayers.

  2. In “The Divine Conspiracy”, Dallas Willard says, “For it is not, truly, a matter of anything we do or don’t do. It is a matter of how we cannot but think and act, given the context of our mental and spiritual formation. Whatever the ultimate explanation of it, the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential. More than any other single thing, in any case, the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ accounts for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.” I think of the old hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus”….and how before we were called Christians we were called followers of “The Way”. “One who accepts the teachings of the Apostles,” …this would mean putting our trust in the Holy Scriptures and to what those first witnesses wrote and turning a deaf ear to the endless conspiracy theories. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  3. I’m not sure which definition I’d choose for Christian as a faith – I don’t have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the Bible and other readings. I’ll have to step back from that, and just refer to myself as a “generic” Christian.
    Relating back to our discussion of morality, though, I would definitely like to step forward and claim the title “Christian”, perhaps with a lower-case C for terminology’s sake. While the specific “brand” of Christian faith may be up for debate, I would like to see even non-Christians behave more like “christians”. To follow the general tenets of Christ’s teachings – to love one another, to do good works without seeking recognition for them, to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” – these are all things towards which every person should strive, regardless of beliefs. Whether you think of them as a “social lubricant” to make living together easier, as a good set of guidelines to feel better about yourself and the people around you, or as a specific set of theological beliefs, I feel that being a Christian is a good idea, and would make the world a much better place.
    And if you want, I am taking donations towards a set of asbestos underwear for when I pass on. I already have the pitchfork, thanks. 😉

      • Um…. is it too late to say “Great post”? I spent so much time blathering, I forgot to compliment you on the original thought! (And people wonder why I don’t blog. Diarrhea of the mouth – or fingers, in this case! 😀 )

  4. Kimberly, what a thoughtful, intelligent, cogent, and theologicay accurate account! I applaud your boldness. This is what we need more of today to help people who stradle the fence – not stradle any longer in what they really believe. Thank you!
    Saundra Taulbee

  5. You have a good point about what it means to be a Christian. To me being a christian means a follower of Jesus Christ. This requires a relationship with Him. One becomes his disciple and a disciple follows his master and becomes like his master when he or she is mature.
    To be a Christian you must have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Without the relationship Christianity is just another religion.
    So I guess I agree with definition 3. ” 3. A real disciple of Christ; one who believes in the truth of the Christian religion, and studies to follow the example, and obey the precepts, of Christ; a believer in Christ who is characterized by real piety.”

  6. You are right; we have watered down the definition of Christian. It is about having a personal relationship with Jesus and walking in faith. Christians in countries where they are persecuted for their faith don’t profess Him unless they are really serious. They live it and are an example for us.
    You asked me about bible studies. If you email me at we can talk a bit about that. I didn’t see an email on your blog.

  7. Thank you Kim…I almost wrote about this today only I was going to take it in both directions. Calling yourself Christian when actually a Jew as in Jn. 5:39-42, 2 Cor. 3: 15-16 and 1 Tim. 1:5-8. Also as you have written those that claim to be Christian without works and Rom. 2:18-21. I was going to equate them as both in the ditch we can be like a drunkard being pulled on the path in both directions because narrow is gate and difficult the way. Matt. 7:13-14, Eph. 2:4-22. There is nothing more difficult then the path of Love.
    Truth is when we stay in balance in the center of the path with our eyes strait on the Lord. For we are righteous by faith, as the true worshipers, worship in spirit and truth Jn. 4:23-24 and as Jesus commands in Matt. 22:37-40. God is love 1 Jn. 4:16. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. James 1:27
    Now you can save me the time and do it for me.


    • It’s nice to have you here Peggy. Love can be a very difficult path. True religion seeks out loving the unlovely because after all, they will know we are Christians by our love. Love comes in many packages. Kindness, protection, and truth. But love all the same.

  8. Wow — your thought and efforts into this post is amazing. My prayer is that those who call themselves Christians but who are not fully engaged with who He is will come to know the value of having a relationship with Him.

  9. Very thoughtful post. I think the key is a personal relationship with Christ, not a name-relationship with Christ. I cringe when I hear Christians use His name to further their political agenda. Our rector once told us a true story of a man who said, “I would be a Christian if it were not for Christians.” How sad is that! If we are the only Bible some people will ever read, we need to make sure we are giving the right message. Well done.

  10. A post I highly recommend, by a Navy Chaplain who I am honoured and humbled to call friend:
    Padre Steve Dundas is a Navy Chaplain who suffered PTSD from service in Iraq and had a loss of faith which took over a year to recover from. He is very intelligent and very well read, and a fantastic writer.
    And I will stop gushing before you think this is a paid advertisement. it’s not – he’s just that darned good! 😀

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