Who is a Christian? Some suggested criteria.

Who is a Christian? Some suggested criteria. November 20, 2011

Recently I received a brochure from an evangelist I admire.  He is well known in certain Christian circles.  I have myself traveled some distance to hear him (he also sings with his wife in a duet and I like the kind of music they perform. It reminds me of the church I grew up in.  He has also written many songs performed by other singing evangelists).

The brochure quotes me and that is why I’m responding here.  But I don’t want to do the man any harm.  I think everyone who knows him and might consider inviting him to their church or organization’s conference now knows his theology, so I don’t feel the need to warn people against him.  However, I have asked him to delete my name and the quote he attributes to me from his brochure as it is misleading and could cause some people to think I don’t believe in the Trinity!

The brochure is full of small print and many quotations from well-known and highly regarded historical theologians–all taken out of context and misused to imply that the persons quoted agree with the evangelist’s new found belief (or denial of belief).

According to the brochure, sent out to thousands of people, including many pastors, Jesus is not God and should not be worshiped as God.  And there is no Trinity.  Only the Father is God and should be worshiped.  This is a new belief the evangelist has come to hold; he apparently grew up in and for a long time belonged to a Oneness Pentecostal church.  Of course, he does not belong to it anymore.

As Christian theologian, I sometimes find myself needing to answer the question “Is this person a Christian?” I’ve been asked that about Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich (in the past tense, of course) and about Hans Kung. I former colleague and I used to argue about whether Kung is a Christian or not and I insisted on keeping the decision focused on his Christology.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the evangelist of the brochure is not a Christian. 

Having said that, I must immediately go on to explain that my claim he is not a Christian is NOT to say he is not saved. Whether a person is saved or not is entirely God’s business and not mine or any person’s (other than God’s).

This is why the distinction between “Christian” and “saved” is so important.  And I don’t just mean it in the sense of “Christian” as a nominal term to designate membership in a Christian church.  Almost everyone recognizes the distinction between “saved” and “Christian” when the latter term is used that way.  (Everyone has heard and agrees with the old adage that “Just because something’s in the garage doesn’t make it a car!”)

What’s more controversial (for reasons quite beyond my comprehension) is my distinction between “saved” and “Christian” in which I say a person can be saved but not be a Christian.

So what makes a person a Christian? What makes a person saved? As I said, the latter is God’s business but he has given us some guidelines in his Word. I believe anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, and puts his or her trust in him for their salvation, and who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, is saved. (I don’t insist that a person call his or her spiritual life a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” That’s what I’m calling a life of devotion to Jesus Christ.)

Having said that, I personally withdraw from making decisions about whether a person is saved or not; that’s God’s business and between the individual and God.

However, whether a person is a Christian is NOT just between the individual and God; churches and Christian parachurch organizations must make that decision about applicants for membership, for example. I propose that ANY Christian church would decline to accept into full membership a person it believes is not a Christian. So people must sometimes make that judgment call. As a Christian theologian I feel obligated to make such a judgment at times, but it is not a judgment about a person’s eternal destiny or current relationship with God as reconciled or not. That neither I nor anyone else can know with certainty.

I have concluded that the evangelist of the brochure is not a Christian brother. He is, I believe, promoting a false gospel.  It needs to be resisted with all (persuasive) might. In practical terms that means IF (hypothetical) my church invited him to come and sing/preach, I would not attend and would even call on the leaders to disinvite him.

So that raises a question I need to keep wrestling with: what are my criteria for judging a person a Christian in this normative, prescriptive sense?  Well, first, of course, the person must be a Christ follower, a person of “The Way,” as Christians were first called.  That’s clear on the basis of the New Testament.  The person must also meet the criteria for “saved” that I stated above.  But what else?

1) A Christian will confess Jesus Christ as God and (the only) Savior (the minimum requirement of the World Council of Churches). The evangelist of the brochure argues that the Bible nowhere explicitly says (and nowhere in it does Jesus explicitly say) “Jesus is God.”  True enough, but so what? The evangelist, like Arians and adoptionists of all kinds, quotes only certain scripture passages that seem to subordinate Jesus to God. He conveniently overlooks the many sayings of Jesus and sayings about Jesus that impute to him words and acts that only God could say and do–such as the many “I am” sayings and his forgiving of people’s sins (and not merely in the sense of declaring them forgiven but actually forgiving them himself!). The evidence from scripture and the earliest post-apostolic writings is unassailable; scripture attributes godness to Jesus and the earliest Christian communities worshiped him as God.

2) A Christian will be baptized into the body of Christ or at least have the baptism of desire (as the Catholic church puts it). I grant to certain Christian sects and their members the status of Christian in spite of the fact they do not practice WATER baptism.  They believe in and experience baptism of the Holy Spirit. I wish they would use water.

3) A Christian will, of course, believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even if he or she is confused about the doctrine of the Trinity.  (I consider many modalists such as Oneness Pentecostals Christians because they do believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit even if they are confused about their unity-in-diversity. I cannot consider someone who entirely rejects God’s triunity a Christian.)

4) A Christian will believe in a supernatural worldview–that is, nature is not all that is real. Whether they believe in miracles today is not the issue; the criterion is that a real Christian will believe that God is not just a dimension of the universe or of human existence (e.g., the “call to self-transcendence”).

5)And, of course, a Christian will regard the Bible as the Word of God, sufficient and normative for Christian belief and practice.

Now, of course, laying out criteria ALWAYS raises the question of exceptions.  And I use these criteria with SOME degree of flexibility. If someone comes to me and mentions a person who meets all those criteria but ALSO, for example, believes in reincarnation, I will have to wince and consider whether such a person can really count as a Christian (because reincarnation and resurrection are incompatible and if reincarnation is true, then Jesus was not raised from the dead but was reincarnated).

Now, OF COURSE I believe much more than those five things.  This brings me to my distinction between “dogma,” “doctrine,” and “opinion” that I have laid out in some detail in several of my books.  As a Baptist Christian I hold beliefs that are not essential to being a Christian but are essential to being a Baptist.  These I call “doctrines” in this strict, narrow sense.  They are neither dogmas (essentials) nor mere opinions; they are to being Baptist what the five criteria above are to being Christian. That’s a subject for another post.

My heart is heavy as I say that I do not consider the singing evangelist a Christian; I could not have Christian fellowship with him.  How is that different from, for example, R. C. Sproul declaring Clark Pinnock not a Christian and saying he would not have fellowship with him?  (I have it on a recorded tape.) The difference is that, in my opinion, Sproul’s criteria are too detailed and go far beyond what I think the Bible or the original post-apostolic faith of the early churches required for Christian identity. In my opinion, Sproul and all neo-fundamentalists move too much from the opinion and doctrine categories into the dogma category and that is one way I decide who is a fundamentalist or neo-fundamentalist (viz., they elevate doctrines and opinions into the dogma category and go around declaring people not Christians just because they disagree with some of their opinions that in no way touch the deity of Christ or the Trinity or the sold mediatorship of Jesus Christ.)

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  • Rob

    Would we want to say that Christians must believe that the bible is sufficient for Christian belief and practice?
    I think most Eastern Orthodox would say that the bible is indeed necessary for Christian belief and practice but is not alone sufficient because it requires interpretation–the interpretation of the historic church.
    Maybe Eastern Orthodox are wrong about this, but they are still Christians.

    • rogereolson

      I think what I meant (!) was sufficient for salvation. I certainly agree that Eastern Orthodox can be Christians.

  • John Metz

    Thank you for another excellent post. Several bloggers have addressed this matter of how to determine a person’s standing relative to salvation & fellowship using a similar approach to you. I appreciated your distinction between ‘saved’ and ‘Christian.’ This is always a difficult area to discuss. I would not disagree with your five points, no pun intended.

    • rogereolson

      I guess I’m a “five point non-Calvinists!”

  • Tony Pounders

    Thanks for the helpful post. In which of your books do you lay out the difference between “dogma”, “doctrine”, and “opinion”?

    • rogereolson

      In Who Needs Theology? and The Mosaic of Christian Belief (at least those two)

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I am in general agreement with you, Roger. And I have sympathy for those who I believe to be in error (not because they are like sheep without a sheperd, but because it can all be very confusing and hard to navigate).

    I am some concerned that I am not feeling more confrontational to those who speak error of God – and teach others the same. Paul had very strong words about such people who were up to this sort of thing.

    But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! Gal 1:8.

    So while I might disagree with R.C. Sproul about Clark Pinnock, I do think such lines need to be drawn – and drawn boldly. You seem to strike the right balance on defending the absolute essentials, but flexing more on the non-essentials.

  • “A Christian will, of course, believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even if he or she is confused about the doctrine of the Trinity.”

    I appreciate this observation. The salient point would be the divinity of Jesus the Christ, and salvation through faith in Him alone. But I must also conclude that a believer can become deceived about almost anything, even though denying the divinity of Christ after once embracing it is extremely perilous and indicates a deception of the most egregious kind, and may even reveal an unregenerate heart.

    I must also wonder about men who profess to believe in the divinity of Christ and then teach a western, capitalist, Santa Claus-esque type of Christ who has no resemblence to the Scriptural revelation. Is not their teaching a denial of the authentic Christ, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary? Again, though, I cannot with certainty place parameters on which deceptions can capture a true believer and which ones cannot.

    I would have concluded the man in Corinth cohabitating with his father’s wife as unsaved, as well as Peter based upon his open denial of ever even knowing Jesus. Perilous times in which we live with many things known fully only within the Godhead.

  • Rod

    Interesting article, but I am wondering how one can be saved but not be a Christian? If that is possible then we would have to concede that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, can be saved without being Christian. The Godhood of Jesus seems to me to be a necessary belief to be saved; I think Athanasius, Arminius, Calvin, Wesley, etc would agree. If this evangelist is promoting a false gospel as you say shouldn’t we, with the apostle Paul, say: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1: 6-9)?
    Thank you for your time
    Grace and peace,

    • Jonathan

      It seems to me that the core of saving faith is trusting in Jesus to save me. (Or I could say “God” as opposed to “Jesus” to accommodate the Old Testament saints.)

      If that is accurate, it also seems to me that putting one’s trust in Jesus can be compatible with holding some erroneous beliefs about him.

      A Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist isn’t (by the common definitions of those terms) putting his/her trust in Jesus. A Jehovah’s Witness or other Arian (such as the person described in this post) may or may not be.

      • Steve Dal

        What do you mean ‘A Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist isn’t (by the common definitions of those terms) putting his/her trust in Jesus’? Firtsly what does it actually mean to ‘put your trust in Jesus’? For instance, Hindus will tell you they are in fact putting their faith in Jesus. They may not express it that way but ultimately that’s what they are doing. This may be befuddling for a westerner but they will say that ‘truth is one’. I have heard Muslims say ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. That sounds awfully familiar to me. So what is the difference between a Muslim who practices this, and a Christian who practices this? None, obviously. They are practicing ultimate truth. That is why many people who call themselves Christians are in fact not Christian (Mat 7:21….). The reverse may also be true.

  • Jon T

    So then my question is, what does it mean to refuse fellowship? What kind of interaction does this and does this not prohibit?

    • rogereolson

      I would say that, in our context, it means denial of church membership. I also could not sit under the ministry (preaching, teaching) of a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ.

  • This is a very helpful post Roger. Thank you for your thoughts on this
    I’m just now teaching a confirmation course and we are focusing on the Apostles Creed. I am struck once more by its Trinitarian character.

    I particularly like the emphasis on the Supernatural worldview – it strikes me that all the talk of Self transcendence is a snare to many in the mainline denominations as it is to those beyond

    Grace and Peace to you

  • jesse

    Thank you for this post. I actually had a non-trinitarian comment on my blog today, so I quoted some of what you said to him and sent him the link to this article. I struggled withe the trinity and the deity of Christ myself for a while. I guess it bothers me that non-trinitarians have so many verses to back up their view point. I believe that the Trinity is true and Jesus is God incarnate but it almost seems that non-trinitarians have as many if not more Bible verses to support their view.

  • Craig Wright

    At a conference of R. C. Sproul’s, I asked him during a break, if he ever got in discussions with people, like Greg Boyd, about the openness view of God. He looked right at me and said, “I don’t consider those people to be Christians.”

    This also reminds me of people not believing that President Obama is a Christian, when he clearly said in a Christianity Today interview that first of all , he is a Christian, and that he believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (At least that proves he is not a Muslim.)

    I tell people that I cannot prove that I am a Christian, but that you have to take my word for it, and you are justified in also judging my behavior to support my verbal belief.

    • rogereolson

      Fortunately what Sproul thinks of open theists is neither here nor there for me as I am a Baptist and he’s not our pope. (We already have enough who want to be!) I just think Sproul is way too narrow in his view of who is Christian.

      • “I just think Sproul is way too narrow in his view of who is Christian.”

        And always very expansive in his view of his own view. 🙂

      • Sherebyah

        Dr. Roger

        I am in full agreement with you for the narrowness of R C Sproul. I would have been happy to support him on His narrowness if it had come from Bible but rather what I can infer is that his narrowness rather is coming from his stand on Calvinism. I read and re-read “Institutes of Christian Religion”, and I don’t disagree what all Calvin says but one thing is very apparent in his writings and is that he bashing on people who do not share his views, and I think same is the case with R C Sproul.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very interesting discussion. It is good that we have not been given the credentials to say who is and is not saved – what a mess we would make! On your list of characteristics or beliefs expected of a Christian, I was surprised to see no mention of the Lord’s Supper. Would it not be safe to say that those  baptized persons who know what it means to be baptized (and accept it) along with being regular participants in the Lord’s Supper with other Christians (believing and accepting what that means), are indeed Christians? 

    • rogereolson

      I hope they are. But the issue you raise is whether a person can be Christian and reject the Lord’s Supper. I struggle with that. Quakers, Salvationists (members of the Salvation Army) and some other Christian groups do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Are they not Christians? I hope so. But I think they are mistaken and seriously so. I also know many Christians who rarely if ever participate in the Lord’s Supper because their churches celebrate it rarely. (Many Southern Baptist churches only celebrate it twice yearly!)

      • Bev Mitchell

        I hope so too. As with the age of baptism, the frequency of communion is not the heart of the matter, but a good understanding and faithful acceptance of their significance is. Are those who don’t actually take communion together reacting against some perceived link to Roman practice, or is it more profound?

        This is slightly off the topic, but it would be good to have your thoughts on the basic significance of both baptism and communion, that is, what would constitute a “good understanding and faithful acceptance”. I’ve been reading Molnar’s recent book on Torrance and like the emphasis placed on the real presence of Christ through the Spirit at Holy Communion. The most moving boyhood image I have of my Mother’s faith is the look on her face each time she took communion in our little Wesleyan church. In those days our pastor was from the Salvation Army. I remember family conversations on how this beloved pastor needed to be encouraged not to forget communion.

        I pity the poor folks new to faith who have to figure us evangelicals out – not to mention those who have to understand Catholics or Orthodox.

      • icthusiast

        Roger, I respond as one who is, in your view, ‘seriously mistaken’ – a Salvationist.

        I appreciate your emphasis on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in The Mosaic of Christian Belief. For what its worth, it seems to me that this is one area where you (and most of the Church, of course) allow Tradition to trump Scripture. The biblical mandate for the “Lord’s Supper” as it is now celebrated in most Christian settings is, in my view, very thin. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” he was celebrating a Passover, not participating in the kind of act that is now widely believed to fulfil that command. As many have pointed out, the mandate for foot washing is far more clear and direct.

        As someone once wrote, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit, but without water, is far more biblical than baptism with water, but without the Holy Spirit.” Of course, you may argue that both is better. However, the Salvationist stance, at least on one level, serves as a reminder that it is heart religion that matters, not external performance.

        No responsible Salvationist has ever said that non-participation in sacraments should be the stance of every Christian. We simply claim that it is possible to live in complete faithfulness to Christ without making use of these traditional symbols of the Church.

        To amend what Craig Wright said above… “I cannot prove that I am a Christian by participating in Sacramental observances, but that you have to take my word for it, and you are justified in also judging my conformity to the law of love to support my verbal belief.”

        You may remember an email exchange we had a couple of years ago. I have often wondered if you ever made the effort to read any of the Salvationist literature on this topic which I recommended?

        I’m sorry you think there is some doubt over whether I am a Christian. But thanks for at least conceding I might be saved! 🙂

        For what it’s worth, and perhaps obviously, I think you are mistaken on this matter – but perhaps not as seriously mistaken as you appear to think of me! 🙂

        Grace and peace.

        All the best

        • rogereolson

          I don’t question a Salvationist’s salvation or status as a Christian so much as whether his or her Christianity would be improved by celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

  • Steve

    “I must immediately go on to explain that my claim he is not a Christian is NOT to say he is not saved. Whether a person is saved or not is entirely God’s business and not mine or any person’s (other than God’s).” So you can be saved but not a Christian? Right?
    I keep coming back to the idea that you can call yourself whatever you want it makes no difference it is about how you live. If you are Christ-like in your life then you are Christ-like. If you have never heard of Jesus Christ can you be saved? I think its possible. In Romans 1:19-23 it seems that it is possible to know God (His divine nature and eternal power)through what has been made (creation) such that they were without excuse. So at least at this point God can be “known’ this way.
    I think the religious words we attach to our spiritual experiences are just that…they are words only and the meaning of what we say comes out in what we do.
    Also, whether or not we decide to have fellowship or not to me is a personal thing and inconsequential.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    Thanks for your post. I come from a fundamentalist background and really appreciate the thoughts.

    I do have a question. I live in Northern Ireland where the line between Roman Catholics and Protestants is very delineated. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the rallying cry among evangelical churches – more so I would suggest, than in American churches (I am from America). I did not notice this doctrine in your list and was wondering if you are assigning that to the ‘doctrine’ level instead of the ‘dogma’ level? I have a gut feeling that some Roman Catholics are Christians, but struggle with knowing how to reconcile their general rejection of justification by faith with Paul’s strident comments in Galatians. (I could possibly get excommunicated in some churches here for what I just said.)

    • rogereolson

      My list is not exhaustive; I had hoped only to make it a list of necessary, if not sufficient, requirements for me to consider someone a Christian. I have wrestled with this one (that you mention) quite a bit and I would say a person who denies that salvation in through Christ alone by grace alone is not a Christian (assuming they understand what these things mean). “By faith alone” is important, but not, in my opinion, necessary to being a Christian. I realize some Protestants are going to howl at that, but then will have to deny the status of Christian to millions of people who are true believers in Jesus Christ. It is “by grace alone” that matters most.

    • Jordan,

      I think there are many Evangelical Catholics who’s views on Justification would be essentially in sync with your own. There was a Joint Declaration on Justification put out a few years ago. If you haven’t yet read it you should check it out.

  • Blake

    There is at least one other way in which one can be a non-Trinitarian. What of those who believe Jesus to be fully divine and fully human, but reject the presumption of monotheism that requires the construct of a trinity to avoid conflict? Separate, eternal, begotten-not-created, etc. This would diverge from mainstream evangelical beliefs the same way the Oneness doctrine does, but in the opposite direction.

    • rogereolson

      Are you talking about tritheism? I don’t think I’ve ever met a true tritheist (who claimed to be Christian). To be sure, some good Christians are confused about the Trinity and may fall closer to tritheism than anything else, but that’s a matter of confusion, in my opinion.

      • Blake

        Tritheism is too multiply-defined to be a useful label, in my opinion. After all, Jewish theologians think Christians believing in the Trinity are tritheists.

        I wasn’t talking about a specific belief, but rather a lack of a specific belief. It is certainly possible to accept all the traditional Christian beliefs about the natures of God and Jesus without choosing to take a stand on the nature of the relationship between them. Obviously we label the first century church to be Christian despite the fact that there’s no evidence the doctrine of the Trinity had been systemized then.

        I’m not asserting this is the right belief, merely that it is minimally sufficient to be labeled a Christian. “Through a glass, darkly” and all—we’ll know for sure soon enough.

  • Steve Rogers

    While I generally agree with your definition of what it means to be a Christian, I find that the word “Christian” is losing its usefulness. With some 43,000 denominations attempting to define it along with the various theological and political camps, it has become a word that when spoken invites misunderstanding. Jesus said that the love we have for one another would identify us as his followers. That one of these groups might decide to withhold the label “Christian” from me is almost to be expected. But if someone charged I do not walk in love would give me pause.

    • Andy

      Steve Rogers says, “but if someone charged (that) I do not walk in love, (that) would give me pause.”

      This idea resonates with me. I really like that sentence. I agree that the word “christian” has come to bring a lot of baggage in non-church settings. It seems “follower of Christ” has become more useful for me (in non-church settings).

      And if a group would charge that I was not walking in love, that would require me to regroup and rethink. Further, there is the context within these pages, of “Arminian-haters” (at least it feels that way, sometimes). I wonder if these well-known 5-point-authors ever pause a little to consider whether they are walking in love – maybe during a few quiet times when they are not vigorously defending the reputation of God.

    • Steve

      You are heading down the road I am on. We attach words to our understanding which is essentially cultural in its construct. That is a problem to start with. The entire disucssion on this blog is caught up in a cultural hegemony. So missionaries for instance, have to try to change the culture in order to get anywhere and this is their first mistake and it goes downhill from there. I am fascinated by how western culture and “Christianity” (whatever that is exactly) seem to go hand in hand and how for instance capitalism and “Christianity’ are seen as one and the same thing in other parts of the world. At the basis of the problem is language. That is why I think Jesus said that they will know you are my disciples by your love one for another. Our ‘theologies’ have made mess of it all.

      • rogereolson

        This raises some interesting questions I have wrestled with for many years. I once taught at a Christian liberal arts college with colleagues (mostly in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology) who adamantly denied there is any transcultural gospel or doctrinal content of Christianity. They told me we Westerners have no right to “impose” on people of non-Western cultures our ideas of what constitutes Christianity. Every culture may decide that for itself (i.e., Christians in every culture may decide that for themselves). My response was (and remains) that of course they may. But does that mean I/we may not have any criteria that we think are useful in deciding who’s a Christian in our context? And what about different cultures in North America (for example)? Texas is a very different culture from, say, Minnesota. I overheard some of my culturally relativistic colleagues condemning Christians in Texas and the South generally for mixing their faith with racism, nationalism, militarism, etc. But why can’t Christians in Texas simply say to them “It’s none of your business to tell us what is compatible with Christianity and what isn’t.” At the end of the day (after many years of talking with my colleagues and considering their point of view as fairly as possible) it seemed to me they just wanted to empty “Christianity” of any absolute doctrinal content (and perhaps of all doctrinal content period!) and keep certain transcultural standards/criteria of behavior (and attitudes underlying behavior). It seemed to me they were willing to allow that the Trinity, for example, played no role whatever in determining who’s a Christian, but they would be the first to condemn someone as non-Christian who they judged to be racist (for example). But then they brought in their hero–a well-known “evangelical” anthropologist who was a Bible translator and medical doctor who had served as a missionary for many years in a jungle region of South America. He argued (in a chapel talk) that it is no business of Western Christians, for example, to try to stop husbands from beating their wives in an African village when the husbands thought their wives were making too much noise while they (the husbands) were hunting for food away from the village. The belief, he said, was that if the male hunters caught no game to eat the wives back in the village must have made too much noise, waking the spirits of the animals they had killed and eat before, so that they (the animals’ spirits) went out of the village and warned the live animals to flee the hunters. Now, I have no idea if that story is true. My point is that with this story and several others the former missionary anthropologist illustrated his belief (and my colleagues defended him on this) that Western Christians have no right to tell people of other cultures how to behave or believe. It is their business and none of ours. So what does a missionary do? Only translate the Bible into the people’s languages and let them decide what it means without any interference (such as teaching them principles of interpretation or doctrine or behavior). My question to them, that they never answered, was whether Christians of non-Western cultures have a right to tell US (western Christians) what WE are doing wrong (e.g., individualism, materialism, consumerism, exploitation of nature and of non-Western societies, etc., etc.). They would never answer me. They said my question was simply an attempt to avoid admitting Western hegemony and Christian collaboration in neo-colonialism. Now, I’m open to being told by non-Western Christians what I and we in the West, who consider ourselves Christians, have done and are doing wrong (including beliefs), but that means I/we have a right also to suggest to non-Western Christians that they might be wrong as well. For example, there is a form of Christianity in central Africa that worships a 20th century prophet as the Holy Spirit incarnate. Can I say to them “That’s wrong?” I think so, so long as I am not trying to force my belief on them using coercive means or manipulation (which introduces a whole other element into the conversation).

        • Steve Dal

          ‘But does that mean I/we may not have any criteria that we think are useful in deciding who’s a Christian in our context?’ Of course you can exercise your criteria in your context. But thats the point it is isolated to your context. So long as we understand that then we can move forward. Even by our own criteria it will be imperfect.
          Secondly, “they just wanted to empty “Christianity” of any absolute doctrinal content (and perhaps of all doctrinal content period!) and keep certain transcultural standards/criteria of behavior (and attitudes underlying behavior). This may be so but it also may not be so. You are assuming that this is absolute and it is not. The fact is that in India for instance, people will keep their cultural identity like it or not. And it is to be expected. One of the great mistakes we make is to thnk that they must look like us. They still have the ‘doctrinal content’. They love one another as themsleves etc etc. They name the name of Christ.
          In essence you have reached the point you need to reach. That is, it is futile, from both sides, (My question to them, that they never answered, was whether Christians of non-Western cultures have a right to tell US (western Christians) what WE are doing wrong (e.g., individualism, materialism, consumerism, exploitation of nature and of non-Western societies, etc., etc.). They don’t and neither do you. You don’t have to. Just live it and they will come.
          Finally, “That’s wrong?” I think so, so long as I am not trying to force my belief on them using coercive means or manipulation (which introduces a whole other element into the conversation). Yes there is more to be said of course. Do you apply this criteria to Christian circles in the US.

          • Steve Dal

            Sorry Roger
            My response is disjointed I am on the run somewhere. I think you get where I am coming from.

          • rogereolson

            If that last question is to me (about whether I use these criteria to assess whether groups in the U.S. are Christian)–yes, that’s my main arena for assessment. But, back to one of my illustrations–the group in central Africa that worships their prophet as the Holy Spirit incarnate. I cannot accept them as Christian. They worship someone other than God. That does not touch their salvation as it is not my judgment to make. But if they asked to join a Christian organization I belong to (e.g., an ecumenical Christian group) I would vote no. Same with many other groups here in the U.S. and abroad.

          • Steve

            “But if they asked to join a Christian organization I belong to (e.g., an ecumenical Christian group) I would vote no. Same with many other groups here in the U.S. and abroad.”
            All this misses the point. I know some 5 point Calvinists down the road who say I am unsaved because I don’t believe the 5 points. They don’t want fellowship with me etc etc. Who cares? We have to get away from our little clubs. Our Protestant game of who is in and who is out. This is bigger than all of that.

          • rogereolson

            So you would have Christian fellowship with Jehovah’s Witnesses if they live a Christ-like life? By “Christian fellowship” I’m thinking, for example, of a community-wide Thanksgiving worship service or such.

          • Steve

            “By “Christian fellowship” I’m thinking, for example, of a community-wide Thanksgiving worship service or such.”
            I am not interested in who shows up at a ‘community wide thanksgiving thing.’ So you convene a get together with people you think are in line with your beliefs (or not as the case may be…JWs etc) but really you have no idea where these people are at spiritually. They may agree with you and nod their heads but you really can’t be sure other than that they outwardly sign up to your doctrine or theology or whatever. That happens every Sunday all over the world. People gather together at a Baptist Church in Somwhere-or-other and who knows what is really going on in their lives (or their pastor’s lives).
            The point is this ‘ The Spirit breathes where he will, and you hear his voice, but you do not know …. wind moves mysteriously, so does the Spirit, and it breathes upon whom it will, …(John 3:8..)
            Do you think that because you have oragnised a community wide thing that God necessarily shows up. The problem is this, we constantly want to organise God. With our theology, with our ecclesiology and so on. I don’t even like your jargon (fellowship…) because it smacks of definitions and the need to have to quantify the Holy Spirit in your terms. I’engage’ with all sorts of people and I take my Christianity with me (poor expression I know but it’ll do). I am not pinning my hopes on a community event to help me understand God or keep some group out. Sometimes when I go to Christian events I come away thinking it was real fellowship…other times not. If I organised a community wide event I would invite anyone…JWs the lot. Who knows maybe the Spirit will move and something unusual will happen (Paul the Damascus road etc etc). I try to leave my own opinions out of it. Mind you, to do this kind of thing is not good for building ‘Christian’ organisation. But when did God say that He was interested in organisations?

          • rogereolson

            Of course, when I mentioned a union Thanksgiving service I was thinking of who would participate in leading worship (reading scripture, praying, preaching, etc.). I could not invite a JW to do that. I agree with you that everyone should be invited and welcome, but not everyone should be “on the platform,” so to speak. I just cannot really fathom that you mean what you seem to be saying–that we should not ever attempt to discern authentic Christianity in a person or group. Paul seemed to do that in the New Testament.

          • Steve

            By the way Jesus had ‘fellowship’ with some of the worst religious and social outcasts of his day and he himself copped it from the religious brigade of the day. It’s a bit of a challenge don’t you think. In fact I challenge you this Sunday to think about the breadth of who you would dare ‘fellowship’ with.

          • rogereolson

            I think you are misunderstanding me, but I’m not sure words are going to get my point across to you as it seems whatever words I use come to mean something different to you than they mean to me (e.g., “fellowship).

          • Steve

            Why do you need a ‘platform’. Your platform is your life. What platform did Jesus have? What platform would he want or use nowadays? What platform will you be judged on?
            I think of course we will try to discern who actually is a Christian. Thats the way humans work unfortunately. But just as you say you will not have fellowship (and I do know what you mean by the word even though there are various viable interpretations) with JWs because they aren’t Christians they would say the same about you. And so it goes. It becomes obvious to me after a while that this entire discussion about who is and who isn’t is futility. At this point you have certain criteria in place that you are happy with. And so be it. This phenomena won’t go away, obviously. But it is interesting to investigate it in the light of what has been revealed to us.
            In the end only God knows who is a ‘real Christian’. You and I fumble through criteria and probably come up with different ideas. And that is my point exactly. I simply put it all to one side and act out my belief in Christ. This then circumvents the necessity to be endlessly involved in trying to figure out who is in and who is out.
            I really appreciate your efforts. I find you to be refreshingly honest and this is so hard to find amongst people who seem to be afraid of frank disucssion.

  • Stan Lewis

    Mr. Olson,

    This is my first comment on here but I do have one question about a subject you touched briefly on. You stated that you believed a Oneness Pentecostal could be classified as “Christian” because they are basically confused about the Trinity. Could we make this same distinction for the leaders of this movement (pastors, elders, etc.) that PURPOSEFULLY denounce the Trinity and vehemently defend the Oneness doctrine. I can see how someone sitting in the pews could just be confused, but can we grant this same distinction to the actual leaders that, in my mind, are purposely leading people astray. It just seems the early Church fathers were very strict on the doctrine of the Trinity esp when the heresy of Modalism was present.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I can’t speak about all of them. When I have had discussions about the Trinity with Oneness Pentecostals my invariable conclusion has been they don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity, so they aren’t rejecting the Trinity so much as a caricature of it.

      • I have met many people who understand the doctrine of the Trinity but none who understand the Trinity itself.

        • rogereolson

          I like that.

  • T

    This is interesting. As I was reading the first part of your post, wondering exactly where you were headed, I was expecting something about “Christ-likeness” or the fruit of one’s life, etc. in the “who is a Christian” criteria, which obviously isn’t where that went.

    First John is a fascinating book on many levels. One of the interesting features is that it asks the “how can we know ‘x’ is a Christian?” several times and then answers that question several times, usually along the lines of living Christ-shaped love of Father and others (Christ’s example and commands), but along with confessing Jesus, who came in the flesh, is the Messiah. Is there a danger in moving away from this criteria of love, even as much as we might find the “love” criteria both challenging to ourselves and to apply to others?

    • rogereolson

      There is a danger there, to be sure. I admit I was thinking primarily of beliefs. I do at times find myself wondering if someone is a Christian because of their behavior even though they hold all the right beliefs and give testimony of a conversion experience. The closest thing to what you are asking about that I mentioned would be a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I think that would be manifested in a Christlike life (or at least attempt, by God’s grace, to live one).

      • Steve Dal

        Exactly. A ‘Christ-like life’. Simple really.

        • rogereolson

          So my singing evangelist who openly denies the deity of Christ is a Christian nevertheless if he is living a Christ-like life? I don’t think so. I don’t doubt his salvation, but I do question his status as a Christian.

          • Steve Dal

            Sorry. Don’t get it. Your singing evangelist is not a Christian but you don’t doubt his salvation. Sounds silly but, you know, I like it. It opens doors. If he openly denies the deity of Christ but lives a Christ-like life then he is making my point perfectly. Namely, words are meaningless because in fact he has salvation because he lives out his faith. Take the reverse (Mat. 7), someone says oh yeh, oh yeh I am a Christian. They say that but their life says something else. So they are deceiving themselves. Your singing evangelist is the opposite. He denies the deity of Christ (he is mistaken in his theology (or so you would say) but his life is actually as it ought to be before God because he lives it. Which is more important? The Bible seems to indicate his action is the final arbiter of his “belief”. Again the Bible would indicate Abraham had no faith until he did something (James 2) even though some of his actions would have indicated otherwise. Your singing evangelist is wrong in your estimation but that makes no difference, his actions indicate a faith in Jesus Christ. Take this to other faiths. A Muslim has no faith in Christ (according to you) but he looks after widw and orphans in their times of distress and keeps himself unstained from the world (James…religion that is pure and acceptable to God). And you would tell me has no salvation. Nonsense. The problem here is again, your language which is causing you to perceive things in a particular way. God has no such problems with perception.

          • rogereolson

            At first you acknowledge my distinction between being saved and being Christian, then, at the end, you seem to forget it with regard to the Muslim. There are positions in Christian organizations where one has to make at least tentative decisions with regard to who is and who is not Christian. My argument is that such a decision has no bearing on whether the person is saved or not. There are many groups going around claiming to be “Christian” or “compatible with Christianity” that are far from the gospel of Jesus Christ as God and Savior. If Christianity is compatible with anything and everything (in terms of beliefs) then it is nothing. Anyway, that’s my opinion. I know we disagree, but I’m not sure we agree on what we’re disagreeing about!

  • Sherebyah

    Very interesting, informative and relevant article in our days where everybody believes that they are Christians. Some basic set of examination like this can help them to find out the Truth, rather then wandering in ignorance.

  • Thank you for this enlightening post.

    Do you not place the second coming of Christ on your list of “Christian” because this has not historically been contested? Or for other reasons? ie Should all Christians believe that Jesus Christ is coming again?

    • rogereolson

      They should. I know some Christians who are extreme preterists who believe the second coming has already happened. I think they are seriously mistaken. But I would consider them Christians nevertheless. IF someone denied the second coming based on a naturalistic worldview I would not consider him or her Christian.

  • LFDS

    I appreciate this post. Thank you so very much. I need your advice. Can I flip this around a bit without getting too off topic?
    What is a reasonable response to a fundamentalist or neo-fundamentalist who labels me as a non-Christian or as an “immature” Christian because I am not obeying one of their rules? My knee jerk reaction is to stick it back to them; to label, to judge, etc. If they can’t recognize my life in Christ (including all its highs and lows), it is hard to consider them as Christian. I assume they are saved. But a Christian? Often, their rules are so oppressive that I almost want to label it “spiritual oppression”.

    • rogereolson

      It can be and often is spiritual oppression or spiritual abuse. I think it is rampant among Christians of all kinds. I know some liberal Christians who question a person’s status as Christian if they are not politically, socially and economically liberal. I once was called a “male chauvinist pig” by a liberal theologian because I do not sympathize with inclusive language of God. I think he is a Christian (if he meets my stated criteria), but a mean one. 🙂

  • Good stuff. Thanks Dr. Olson.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Very interesting and helpful reasoning – makes good sense! Now, do you have any criteria for what constitutes a “true church”?

    • rogereolson

      That’s a good question and a subject for a future post! Thanks.

  • This is a great discussion. I have been intensely exploring the concepts of authentic humanity and the kingdom of heaven, of late. It seems to me that we have to consider these when attempting to know what constitutes a true Christ follower. What I mean is a true Christian (in its original purist sense) is one who stands in God’s covenant through the faithfulness of Christ and acknowledges Christ as King; and, as N.T. Wright has correctly stated, the badge validating such kingdom membership is faith. Think about it. From the very beginning God has put before Man a covenant that, in one form or another, states God’s intention to dwell with us in a holy community maintained and powered by love, and then asks Man for a response of faith defined as a triangle of belief, trust, and obedience; where, to be true faith, all three must be co-operating at all times: in distilled terms, belief in God’s promise, trust that He will be faithful to effect and maintain His promise– and this by grace through love–and obedience because the only way we truly love God is by obeying Him. And through this completed circuit of love the kingdom is maintained in holiness. Therefore, if we claim to be Christ followers, which means we walk as Christ walked, we will be true kingdom dwellers; and this will be evidenced by a holy life, the state of which is Love. I say evidenced because no one is yet perfect; no one walks in complete conformity with the Divine nature–not yet. But this is one important reason our kingdom position is predicated on Christ’s faithfulness, because we are no longer under condemnation. When we fall, we will recognize it and repent and be forgiven–all because of God’s faithfulness to maintain us in His kingdom through love pouring into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to walk as Jesus walked. If such is not the pattern of a person’s life, can that person be walking as Christ walked? Can that person rightly be called a Christian? Too many people think the answer is yes, and that is why there is so much divorce, division, anger, resentment, backbiting, posturing, idolatry, personality cults, and on and on in the church today.

  • dopderbeck

    I agree with but not completely. This gets to the meaning of “saved.” I think what you means is, “if someone believes or doesn’t believe X proposition, will they have a part in Christ’s eschatological Kingdom?” Or more crudely put, “will such a person go to heaven?”

    To this extent, I entirely agree: that sort of final judgment is for God alone.

    At the same time, there is plenty of fair warning in scripture and in the Tradition that to deny the claims of Christ leads to disaster. So, while I am not fit to make the kind of final judgment only God can make, I can pass along the serious warning that excluding one’s self from Christ is a dire choice.

    And — if “saved” implies participation in the in-breaking of Christ’s Kingdom now, then there is a sense in which we can say that someone who presently denies Christ is not “saved” — or better, not participating in God’s salvation in Christ. If a person excludes himself from the table fellowship Christ now offers in the body of the Church, and passes on the Eucharistic elements and the practices of worship that unite us together with Christ, then that person is passing on the blessings of salvation right now. And again, this can establish and represent a pattern that is recapitulated in the eschaton.

    So — yes and no, I guess.

    Also — someone else comment on your criterion of the “sufficiency” of scripture and you sort-of responded, but I think that criterion and your response are mistaken. This obviously is one of those loaded terms arising out or Reformation polemics. Neither Eastern Orthodox nor Catholics would agree that scripture is in any way “sufficient” for our salvation. They each in their own ways require participation in the life of the visible Church — i.e., taking the sacrament of the Eucharist — as necessary to our salvation — and this is the heart of extra ecclesium nulla salus. Since you (rightly) don’t want to say that Orthodox and Catholics aren’t “Christians,” then I think you need to nuance this criterion more carefully.

    • rogereolson

      Well, that’s an interesting challenge. Let me nuance my claim about the sufficiency of scripture more. (I knew I would have to do this with several of my criteria when I wrote them so I’m not surprised or even put off by the challenge!) By the sufficiency of scripture for salvation I don’t mean scripture is in any way a or the source of salvation; I mean there are no other sources of revelation that contain truths necessary for salvation (as many cults and sects claim). Would either EO or Catholic Christians say one cannot find truth necessary for salvation in scripture alone? Would either say truth necessary for salvation is found outside scripture?

  • Alex

    Water baptism (or at least desire) required to be saved?

    1 Corinthians 1 :17 proves that wrong. So does 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.

    John 3:16, there is what saves. That easy.

    • rogereolson

      Wow. You just embarrassed yourself. You proved you didn’t read my entire post. I did NOT say baptism is necessary for salvation. Either read my entire post or don’t respond.

  • I’m an ex-evangelical pastor who, after almost a year of therapy, has recently become interested in theology again. I’m not in a place where I would call myself a Christian anymore (yet?). But, one of the things that initially attracted me to your writings, Roger, is your centered set understanding of evangelicalism. I’m not in that boat either, but the approach to me was very refreshing and encouraging.

    When I was still on staff at an evangelical megachurch, I began to get really annoyed at the use of the word “church” to describe a building (rather than a group of people). I just couldn’t find that in the Bible itself. So, where did it come from? Tradition. Of course, my frustrations went nowhere. Years of tradition, and our own culture, have redefined the word in such a way that the original meanings cannot be recovered.

    More recently, I’ve been trying to understand who gets to decide who gets to use the word Christian and who doesn’t. Within the Bible itself, there’s not a way to defend a specific usage of the word. Within Christian tradition and history, it becomes increasingly difficult to arrive at an objective meaning of the word. Like all words like this, there may be a range of usages, but the absolute authority to decide where that range begins and ends does not exist. “God knows”, right? Honestly, using your limited criteria, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have been considered a Christian.

    I admire your desire to distinguish between a person’s salvation (which could only be internal, between that person and God) and whether or not someone is a Christian. But, my push back is that I’m not sure this kind of distinction can be made by most people. At least in my experience, the two things are not different. A question about someone’s Christianity IS a question about his or her salvation. Maybe this shouldn’t be the case, but it is the case. Just like the common (mis)understanding of church as primarily a “place that you go” will probably not ever change back into its original meanings, the word Christian will most likely imply whether or not someone is saved.

    For a long time, I tried to get the people around me to stop using the word church in that way. But, it was an exercise in futility. I think the same could be said for this distinction between “being a Christian” and “being saved.” I totally understand the practical necessity of using the word Christian in certain situations to distinguish between who is or is not. But, I don’t think the negative implication of that distinction is going away anytime soon.

    • rogereolson

      Why do you say MLK wouldn’t be a Christian by my criteria?