Monday, September 11, 2006

What is a Christian?

[Crossposted in modified form from Street Prophets]

Cross and Flame presented "Why 'Christian Wrestling' is Neither". It raises in my brain a broader definitional question that can be seen in many discussions over whether liberal or conservative Christians are "really" Christians? Or whether Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell are Christians? Or whether any particular individual acting badly is a Christian?

For the argument I will bow to C.S. Lewis in the "Preface" to Mere Christianity:

Far deeper objections may be felt - and have been expressed - against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: 'Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?': or 'May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?' Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

The word gentleman 'originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - 'Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We' cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.
A related discussion occurred in "Prosperity Theology" where I took issue with labeling this theology as "the anti-thesis of the Christian faith".

So, what is the Godly way to disagree with followers of Christ who we think "have it wrong"? What say you all.

[Here is another related post at Cerulean Sanctum: "Has the Christian Blogosphere Lost Its Collective Mind?"]


  1. JCH,
    Thanks for reminding me of this part of Lewis's work. I'll be referencing this post when I get to the end of my inerrancy series.

    I say you call a spade a spade, yet do so by referencing Scriptural and historical precedent. Few profit from calling heresy something nice. One of my frequent commenters has said, essentially, that you can never call someone who claims to be a Christian, not one. It surely can't be both.

  2. Only God can know the heart. As Romans 14 points out: "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand."
    That said, however, we are required to act in reference to their doctrine and their actions:
    As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
    15Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

  3. Is the key in this the difference between attacking a doctrine that is false; and attacking a person as false? Or even attacking a particular church as false?

    In the time the scripture was written there was one church - or at least a set of churches recognized as following correct teaching. All of Paul's teaching was directed at dealing with false teaching coming in from the outside to that church; or dealing with false teaching arising with that church. None of it was directed at the people in Frank's church telling Joe's church they were messed up.

    This post was set off by a UCC pastor taking a shot in a public blog at an non-denominational church he thought was wrong in the same city. Certainly, we must talk against bad theology and doctrine? Must we bad-mouth other churches or individual believers outside our particular church?


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly