In 2020 there were an estimated 2.6 billion people in the world who identified as Christian. That is approximately one-third of the 7.8 billion people who are living today. One out of every three people in the world today calls themselves Christian. But are they? The answer to that depends on how you define what a Christian is.
Different Definitions of Christian
I have encountered many people who accept that anyone who self-identifies as a Christian is a Christian. By this definition, it does not matter what you believe or do. Only what label you prefer to be identified by. There is not even a requirement that you believe in God. From my perspective, this definition seems pretty useless. It says nothing about the person wearing the label. Except maybe that they are not antagonistic toward Christianity.
Others will identify as Christian anyone who is at least marginally attached to some form of ‘Christian’ organization and who makes some attempt to live a decent life. This is at least a step in the right direction because it recognizes the need to be acting in a certain way. But I believe this definition is still lacking because it really says nothing about the person’s heart.
Some go further and claim that to be a Christian a person must have made a profession of faith in Christ. They will see that person as having been ‘born again’, or saved. Within this group, some will see that is all that is required. Others will claim that you need to at least be making some attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Finally, there are those who would identify a Christian as a person who has taken Jesus to be the Lord of their lives. One who is in an active relationship with the risen Jesus and is modeling their lives after his teaching. For this person, Christianity is not so much a matter of what is on the outside of the person. It is more a matter of the heart.
How Does the Bible Define this Word?
So what is a biblical definition of Christian? Unfortunately, the Bible does not give a formal definition of the word, and it is only used three times in the Bible. The first time it is mentioned is in Acts 11:26. It says here that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”. Why they were called this is unknown. But clearly, they were being identified with Christ. Some see that it was the surrounding culture making fun of them, calling them ‘little Christs’. Or it could be that they were simply being identified as followers, or disciples, of Christ. Clearly, they were distinct from the culture around them.
The second time Christian is mentioned is in Acts 26:28. In this passage, as Paul is sharing his conversion experience and ministry, King Agrippa asks if Paul is expecting him to become a Christian. It seems that by this time the name is in more widespread usage. And it is still a name used to identify followers of Jesus.
The final passage where this word is used is in 1 Peter 4:16. Here Peter mentions suffering as a Christian. Like the other two occurrences of this word, it seems here to be used to identify followers of Jesus. And not just casual followers. But ones who suffered for being followers of Jesus. Clearly, they were people living contrary to the cultural norms of their day.
Followers of Jesus
So if the biblical definition of ‘Christian’ is ‘follower of Jesus’, then the next logical question would be, what is a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to follow someone?
Sometimes we follow people from a distance. I have enjoyed watching professional football over the years, although less so now. And if I see an article online about a player from ‘my’ team I will often skim through it. I am learning a bit about them. But it is costing me little more than a few minutes periodically to read an article. And I may invest a little time in talking about them with other fans. But the cost is minimal.
At the other end of the spectrum is actively following someone. This involves putting aside what I was doing in order to be where that person is. And this seems to be what the followers of Jesus were doing. They had identified Jesus as the Lord of their lives, and were actively trying to live in obedience to his teachings, as well as the teaching of his apostles. They did not all uproot from their homes and traipse around the countryside, especially once he was no longer present physically. But their lives were transformed.
So Just What Is a Christian?
I know that not everyone who reads this will agree with my definition. But this is what I understand a Christian to be.
- A person who has professed Jesus as Lord.
- Who have experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
- Is actively seeking to know and obey God’s will for their lives.
- And who is faithful to the Lord’s call, regardless of the response of the people around them.
I do not believe that those who simply self-identify as Christians are biblical Christians. I do not believe that those who are casually connected to Christianity and live decent lives are Christians in the biblical sense. Being an active member of a Christian church, contributing to Christian causes, and reading your Bible does not make you a Christian, even though those are things a Christian will do.
In my understanding of the Bible, a Christian is a person who has become a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Who, while living in this world, understands that they are foreigners, not of this world (1 Peter 1:17). And whose eyes are focused more on the eternal than on the temporary (2 Cor. 4:18). A Christian is a follower, or disciple, of Jesus.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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