Being "Christian" - What's The Criteria?
I was having a great conversation the other day with Dr. Lewis Duncan, President of Rollins College here in Winter Park, Florida. We were discussing matters of faith and he brought up the topic of what it is that defines being "Christian." It was a great discussion, and it brought up some really great questions.
When we hear someone say they are a "Christian," what does that mean, exactly? What kind of believer comes to mind when the word "Christian" is used? Is it a mainstream Catholic or Protestant, or something/someone else?
There is most certainly a good deal of discussion to be had amongst faith traditions in our country about what a "true Christian" is. I know, for instance, that there are some who would argue that my particular denomination isn't truly Christian, and that our churches aren't "real" churches....whatever that means to them. I've long since gotten past being offended by such statements, but I still get them.
Christian is a heavy word, and it absolutely means different things to different people.
For me, I go to good 'ol Merriam Webster: a Christian is "a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus."
That's a good start - then what?
Well, that's another messy area: what is the primary message of Jesus' teachings? Is it about believing in him as the only way to get to heaven (whatever that is means to you)? Is it about making sure everyone else knows Jesus in the same way so they can be "Saved?" Is it about living life in a lovingly sacrificial way for the sake of others? Is it about social justice and being an advocate for those who have no voice - especially the poor and the alienated? Is it about forgiveness, grace and empathy, or is it about judgement, guilt and fear?
Is it all of them?
I think where people fall on those answers has a lot to do with how they come to their personal sense of faith and what kind of community of believers resonates with them. I know for me, my life-long experience of church has informed me deeply about a Jesus rooted in Love - a love for all people; especially those society deems as "The Other."
Hence, for me, the scripture that speaks most profoundly to me about what it is to be a Christian is Jesus' "Love Commandment" that appears in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus lets his closest circle know that from now on, people will know that someone is a follower of Jesus by the ways in which they love others: the way Jesus loved them.
From Jesus' own words, then: the criteria for being known as a Christian is to be able to love as Jesus loved; particularly the way he loved his closest friends.
So how did Jesus love? With patience, understanding, forgiveness, grace, empathy and without bounds - especially for those whom no one else would love. We see God's love in and through Jesus' love...and then Jesus bids us to do the same as people who would claim to follow him.
That, for me, is the foundation of all else when it comes to Jesus: that we strive to love one another as he loved those in his life and ministry. Everything else stems from that central foundation of love...and that one foundation can take a lifetime to build in an authentic and genuine way. If we take it seriously, it is a daunting and sometimes seemingly impossible task because it calls upon us to love what seems unloveable, and to accept people as they are even when they are vastly different from ourselves on a whole host of levels.
So how about it, Christians? To paraphrase the hymn, do they know we are Christians by our love?