What Does It Mean to Be a Christian, Really?

I’ve had enough conversations with various people in and outside the U.S. to know that there is not a universal definition of “Christian.” I’ll never forget hearing that in some parts of the world, “Christian” means an arrogant, morally corrupt, manipulative westerner. In other places, it means someone who is generally a good person and goes to church a couple times a year. Others define it as someone who believes in Jesus, attends mass and confession, and accepts the Pope as the head of the church. Yet, others identify “Christian” with the coercive global power that invaded countries and subjected them to colonization and severe abuse, all in the name of Jesus.

Which one of these, if any, is correct? Or are all of them true? And if all of them are true of people calling themselves Christians, does that mean Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus himself are like all those people? Or are the people and their various definitions of what it means to be Christian faulty? Is there a way to be a Christian, a Christ follower, that is different from all of the ways described above?

To be a disciple of Jesus, a person must be called by Jesus.

The term “Christian” was first applied to followers of Jesus in Antioch. Before that, followers of Jesus were called disciples. Today, the term Christian is more predominantly used than disciple, but in the New Testament the two terms were synonymous. The New Testament story tells us that disciples were people who were called by Jesus to follow him. Let’s see how the Bible describes a follower of Jesus.

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt. 4:18–22)

To be a follower of Jesus sounds like a very active pursuit, and it is. Yet, before someone is an active disciple, that person is a passive sinner. That is, the action begins with Jesus’ action, first of calling and then of justifying the sinner, turning him or her into a new person. Jesus’ historical death and resurrection provides salvation for people dead in sin. Dead people cannot get up and walk; so first Jesus must give them new life through the Holy Spirit, enabling them to begin following.

A disciple of Jesus lives the new life they have been given.

Once called, disciples of Jesus are given the gift of faith. Disciples can now believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for their sin; they can repent of their sin and begin walking a new life in gratitude for their salvation. This is where being a disciple of Christ is active. Like the first disciples who left their fishing nets and followed Jesus, disciples of Jesus are called to a new life of following Christ. The apostle Paul puts it like this:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:14–15).

Following Jesus means putting aside all immorality and striving to obey God out of gratitude for salvation. Unfortunately, Paul also describes the Christian life as kind of a war within—between the new self, born of the Holy Spirit, and the old self, born of sin (Rom. 7:13–25). One only has to read through the epistles of the New Testament to see how much the apostles are constantly correcting, teaching, reminding, and commanding people to forsake sin and walk according to the salvation Jesus freely gave them (1 Cor. 16:13; Eph. 4:17–5:15; Col. 3:5–11). In this life, disciples are a work in progress. They are still in need of correction, proper teaching, and being reminded of who Christ really is, what the Word of God really says, and what following Christ really means.

A disciple is anchored to God's Word.

It is easy to make up your own version of what it means to be a Christian that is not grounded in what Jesus really calls people to be. The problem remains that many people who give themselves the title Christian misunderstand what that really means, while people who truly are followers of Christ continue to sin. Being a Christian is not about being morally good or being of a certain race or ethnicity. It is not about how many relief organizations are founded by that name, and it should not be defined by the people who claim to be Christians but act in ways the Bible condemns.

Because a person sins or makes up his or her own version of Christianity does not mean the Bible is wrong or that Jesus is not worth following. Jesus remains the only way to salvation regardless of what people do and say. This is why we need good teachers: teachers who are experts in the Bible and trustworthy. We need people to be reading the Bible themselves and praying constantly for the strength and ability to live for Christ.

Photo of Leah Baugh

Leah Baugh

Leah Baugh is Associate Editor of Content at White Horse Inn. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry before turning to theology and receiving a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. When she's not writing she is learning Chinese or traveling. Connect with Leah on Twitter @lhbaugh

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