Is Rob a Christian? [Questions That Haunt]

Is Rob a Christian? [Questions That Haunt] December 10, 2012

Rob gave us a great Question that Haunts Christianity that has generated hundreds of comments:

Hey Tony. I will try to make this short… I was raised in the church, became a youth leader in my early 20s, then a worship pastor/elder, then a staff deacon at a large church. Almost three years ago, my family and I walked away, with no plans on returning to “the church.” I don’t intellectually assent to any of the things that orthodox Christians are supposed to (i.e. the Trinity, the physical resurrection of Jesus, etc.). I don’t read my Bible very often. I never pray. But, I cannot escape the cultural influence that Christianity has had upon me, and it’s very difficult for me to think outside of that framework. I also try to embody the trajectory of Jesus’ life (the way of love) in my life every day. And, I think that his way is – universally – the best way to live. Do I still have “the right” to call myself a Christian?

Rob, I appreciate your participation in the comments of the original post, and even that you let me off the hook on your own blog. Your question is the most personal one that I’ve tackled thus far, and here’s why:

A lot of my friends have abandoned Christianity. We’re about a decade in to this thing that is variously called emergent/emerging/emergence Christianity, and something I’ve noticed lately is that some of the people who were with us in the early days no longer consider themselves Christians. Some have regressed into more conservative forms of faith, but quite a few have abandoned faith altogether, or at least the practice of religion.

Our conservative critics will likely say, “You reap what you sow.” It reminds me of a journalist who told me that she thought I got divorced because Solomon’s porch lacked a bishop and a particular standard of church discipline. But the fact is, my marriage was hanging by a thread for a long time, and no bishop couple have saved it. Similarly, a lot of the people who came into emergent ten years ago — read the books, attended the conferences, planted churches, started blogs and podcasts — were already on their way out the door of Christianity. They may have hung out in the narthex for a few extra minutes because of emergent, but they were destined to leave based on the shitty version of Christianity in which they’d been reared.

Others of course — and you seem to be among them — depart from orthodox Christianity because you’ve got honest intellectual problems with the system of belief that has evolved over the centuries. You don’t buy the divinity of Jesus or the trinity, for instance. And so you wonder if you can still use the nomenclature of Christianity.

To the most primitivist Christians, I think you’re fine. If the stick by which we measure Christianity is the Apostles, then affirmation of the Trinity surely isn’t a disqualifier. The divinity of Jesus and a belief in the resurrection, however, seems to be central to the confession of the Apostles, at least according to the Book of Acts.

To slice it even a bit thinner, you could wonder whether the essence of Christianity is embodied by Jesus’ followers before his death or after. That is, the Disciples followed Jesus because he asked them to, without any qualifications (except maybe that they let the dead bury their own dead). The Disciples did not have to affirm Jesus’ divinity or even his Messiahship. This, as you’ve written, seems to apply to you. You follow Jesus and consider him an exemplar of how a human being ought to live.

But when you get past the Gospels — when those followers go from Disciples to Apostles — you inevitably find that their beliefs become more developed and sophisticated. Peter preaches a resurrected Christ on Pentecost, Paul writes letters that are filled with thoughts on ressurection, and “John” does too. Even in the earliest church, some core of belief had become normative.

It wasn’t long before a group of leaders began to determine the boundaries of those normative beliefs. Marcion said that Yahweh was a demiurge and not the Father of Jesus, so he was out. Arius (it seems) taught that there was a time before the Trinity, when only God existed  this undermined the Trinity, and he was out. Etc., etc.

Until now. A lot of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world are reconsidering all of the casting out of heretics as a bad idea. We’re left with a religion of 40,000+ denominations and, as I wrote above, lots of people who were reared in terrible versions of the religion. If there’s going to be a re-convergence of global Christianity, around what will we rally? What will it mean for someone to call themselves a Christian?

There was, however, a defining norm in the early church that might be the cry around which we can rally in these postmodern, post-creedal days. It was simple, it was proclamatory: Jesus Is Lord. That phrase is found in 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9. It seems to have been in place for the baptisms recorded in Acts 8 and 19. And it was used widely in the early church, causing the persecution of many Christians because it implied a lack of allegiance to the emperor.

Of course, we can argue about whether it should be “Jesus is Lord” or “Christ is Lord;” we can debate the imperial implications in the the term “Lord.” But nevertheless, this is a proclamation of submission, which is key to the Christian life; it is at once both theological and existential; and it is a simple cry of faith that strips away much accumulated baggage.

Around the election, I argued that Mormons are not orthodox Christians, based on their christology and their lack of doctrine of the Trinity and their new testament and their secretive practices. I still hold to that. Mormons are not orthodox Christians. That is an important qualifier, because orthodox Christianity has an accretive definition — it has been added to (and subtracted from) over the years.

But if Mormons are able to profess, “Jesus is Lord,” then I have to admit that they are Christian, in the broadest definition.

The same goes for you, Rob. If you can proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” then you can definitely call yourself a Christian.


The essay that brought the importance of this phrase to my attention many years ago is by Telford Work of Westmont College: “The Confession of Christ as Hermeneutical Norm.” (PDF)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ve begun to use the same distinction as you used at the end of the post: to be called orthodox Christianity would require assent to the earliest creeds, in my opinion, but to be called Christian just means one who is holding the Christ central as Lord. There are quite a few like Rob in the second category who aren’t in the first including a lot of liberal/mainline churches so maybe Rob would fit in well there.

  • Rob is me, if only Rob tried to convince other people that he was an atheist.

  • Rob

    Can you clarify just what “Jesus is Lord” meant to the earliest community that claimed it? I’m not sure it was a statement of divinity (as Caesars were called Lord), as much as a polemic for the community stating whose way they were choosing to follow.

    • Steve

      You have asked the right question. We can’t treat “Jesus is Lord” as a fashionable slogan. People died for that phrase, so we should take it very seriously.

      It was both. The phrase creed “Jesus is Lord” was an affirmation that Jesus is God (John 20:28), had ascended to the right hand of the Father, and will judge the living and the dead. One can look at such early professions of faith as the Apostles Creed to see what this meant to the people who died for it.

    • But wasn’t the label ‘Ceasar’ used as identifier to the rules self considered divinity?

  • Fantastic response Tony! In fact, by my estimation, it is the best and most honest expression of your thoughts on the fundamentals of Christian faith that I have so far ever seen you write here on your blog. Superb!

  • I still call myself a Christian most of the time; about the only thing I can really affirm is the first line of the Disciples of Christ design for the church, “We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world. That’s about all of the “orthodoxy” I can manage to fully accept, and it’s open enough to put me in fellowship with just about anyone else that calls themselves Christian.

  • Thanks so much for this Tony. I’m really encouraged by your clarification regarding Mormons, too.

    For me, even this simple definition of Christian causes potential problems: would someone like Pete Rollins or Jack Caputo “proclaim” that Jesus is Lord? I’m sure there are a lot more examples of exceptions that would make it hard for me to completely agree with this, without qualification.

    I do think this is a good way, though, to pair the proclamation with the existential commitment, like the whole Matthew 7:21-23 thing. A Christian, then, is someone who both proclaims that Jesus is Lord and makes a personal commitment to live as if this is the case. Though, with my comment above, I think there are many people who don’t feel comfortable with the proclamation but who, nevertheless, still embody the Way of the Christ.

    Those are just some of my initial thoughts. If anyone is wondering, I don’t think I personally have a problem saying Jesus is Lord (I just reserve the right to define what I mean by that).

  • Zach

    “We’re about a decade in to this thing that is variously called emergent/emerging/emergence Christianity, and something I’ve noticed lately is that some of the people who were with us in the early days no longer consider themselves Christians.”

    I would count myself among this group Tony.

    Your conclusion is food for thought as “Jesus is Lord” is fraught with problems for me. The way of Jesus is a way I attempt to discern and live into, but it is not the way of the church, or of communities of people who create concepts and structures over which they become possessive. This is my struggle. “Jesus is Lord” still rings of a concept owned and leveraged by a group. Having freed myself of such forces over the past several years has been wonderful and have no interest in returning.

    There are things I do miss…in particular, there are individuals whom I miss. What is telling is that they are all so consumed with such a grand mechanism that is church, I never hear from or see them. I can remember very distinctly, being that person…or non-person truthfully. I believe I have recovered my humanity by not submitting to these various statements of faith.

    This is a timely bit of discourse and I appreciate it.

    • Bingo.

    • Curtis

      “This is my struggle. “Jesus is Lord” still rings of a concept owned and leveraged by a group.”

      Is one’s religious identity strictly an individual identity? Religion is, at its core a group identity. Religion, even God, has no definition apart from a group of people. I don’t know how an individual can have a definition of God apart from a group of people, because outside of a group, God does not exist.

      • You cannot personally commit to something that has been entirely defined by and handed to you by a group. How each person understands something might happen to overlap with another, but none of us can ever get into another person’s head. The distance between my singularity and yours is infinite.

        • Curtis

          I think you could, if you personally identified yourself as part of the group.

          I don’t think there is such a thing as personal understanding. All understanding takes place in the context of a group. One of my mentors once told me that mirrors are the greatest lie ever created by people, because they give us the perception that we can understand ourselves independent from others.

          Apart from others, we do not exist. We cannot know ourselves by looking at a mirror and figuring ourselves out alone. The only way to know ourselves is through the eyes of someone else. The only way to now ourselves is as part of a group.

          • I see two key problems with this, Curtis — or perhaps the same problem going in two directions. If any one of us was the only person left on Earth, would we cease to exist? My existence doesn’t need a group’s permission, assent or participation to make it so.

            And the same goes the other way. God’s existence is not contingent on mankind’s belief to make it so. If God is Creator, then he existed before humans and our beliefs, so doesn’t need his creation to endorse his reality.

            I believe that our own realities are contingent on our perceptions and therefore we can never appreciate a pure, objective reality. And because of that, I believe that our perceptions cannot create objective reality.

            I see this the opposite way: religion is an individual pursuit of God that becomes a collective of like-minded sojourners who form a group. Therefore each church or denomination is built on voluntary affiliation, not existential dependency.

          • Curtis

            Trinitarians answer this dilemma by pointing out that God is a group, a group of three, by definition. The fact that non-Trinitarians can’t account for the existence of God outside of a group is not Trinitarians’ problem.

            If I were the last person left on Earth, then yes, I do believe I would cease to exist. What would be left after I die?

      • Zach

        “Is one’s religious identity strictly an individual identity?”

        Curtis, I like your question. It is a thoughtful one worth considering. Although you’re arguing with a conclusion that is not my own. I merely confessed my struggle. You are correct, Christianity is a group identity.

        I would never be (at least not intentionally) arrogant enough to think I got to this place of understanding on my own.

        • Sue G

          I wonder what you all think about Jesus’ commandment recorded at the end of the gospel of John about his new commandment being “love one another as I have loved you.” This seems to me to be directed at “the group” – not all people – and therefore there is a central aspect of being a follower of Jesus that demands we BE part of this group of followers, and the more it is difficult because we don’t like this one or that one, the more authentic it is, since certainly the Twelve didn’t get along naturally-speaking. So this commandment from Jesus (almost his last words to them pre-death) seems to carry a lot of weight to me, to require of me that I stay in the group and deal with my annoyance and irritation (and they with me) so that we learn what it means to love (the love which bears all things, endures all things, hopes all things….).

    • yup

  • Thank you Rob for the deep (and important) question that pertains to you (and many others), and thank you Tony for an intellectual yet easy enough to grasp response.
    It appears part of my Monday will be focused on thinking up a response in my own words, as I am sure I will be faced with this question from a friend or peer at some point.
    Well played, Mauer.

  • On a different note, I have thought for a long time that, for many people, emerging type churches seem to be “safe places” for people to eventually leave “the church” entirely. I wonder how true that is, and if emerging leaders consider this possibility in their organization. There’s definitely a huge gap for people who begin the questioning process that seems almost inevitably to lead to a permanent break. What if emerging churches were to say, “these people might eventually leave, and that’s okay, so let’s love them and help them process that until they do”?

    • I definitely appreciate this idea, of a community that helps people transition from churched to unchurched or Christian to agnostic. And the other way around too, from unbeliever to believer to partial believer to etc…

      I used to work in a cross-cultural research lab. One of our focuses was ethnic/racial identity. We noticed that for many/most people identity isn’t linear or binary. It’s not: you begin naive, then you reject your ethnicity, then you embrace your ethnicity and reject whites, then you integrate them both. People move back and forth.

      I wonder if ideas and studies like this have been done on religious identity. My guess is that the findings would be similar.

      • Yeah, not many groups that I’ve been a part of were okay with difference or allowing people to transition from one stage of life to another – despite the fact that we all do this all the time. Our tendency seems to be to figure out A way of being and doing, and then it becomes THE way, and then any departure from that is seen as a sort of betrayal.

        Sadly, every church I’ve been a part of has been the worst at this.

    • Frank

      If that’s true, and there is some truth to it, the EC is leading people away from faith. Guess the EC naysayers were right.

      • I guess if “leading people away from faith” is helping keep people from committing suicide…ehh, nevermind. Just blindly believe in and submit to JEEZUS!

    • I don’t know if you have ever come across spirited exchanges
      they’re certainly something that emerged out of the emerging church conversation that very much sit’s in that role, in the UK at least they seem to have gone really quiet

      And yes this was certainly my experience with the alt-worship/emerging church that I was briefly part of before leaving all together

  • Craig

    This strikes me as a well-considered and apt response–and a great way to focus further questions. In particular, what is the traditional understanding of this confession and how far, and in what ways, can one deviate from that traditional understanding and still legitimately claim to be a Christian?

    Here, for example, would be paraphrase of the confession with a questionable content: “Jesus is my master when it comes style and general attitude, but not when it comes to my professional work as a mathematician–for there my masters are Newton, Euclid, and Cantor.

  • Tony

    While I appreciate that we don’t have to have all the answers and see eye to eye on every doctrinal curve ball…. The proclamation of “Jesus is Lord” is not enough to call oneself a Christian.

    I appreciate Rob’s input on this fact since this was addressed to him…

    “A Christian, then, is someone who both proclaims that Jesus is Lord and makes a personal commitment to live as if this is the case.”

    Furthermore, I think there are a few things that matter to the heart of God when it comes to following Him. It seems purpose and creative genius should play a role in the determination of what a Christian looks like. And, if your wanting to follow Jesus, it seems His words indicate you have to be willing to adhere to His teachings and then share them with others to be called his disciple.

    Rob Davis mentioned Matthew 7:21-23… seems we can call out “Jesus is Lord”, do all kinds of good things for Him, and yet never really know Him at all!

    It’s not the words that come out of our mouth that amount to anything in God’s kingdom, its the change of mind an heart that only He can bring, and what happens in and through us because of that change that determines if we really see Him as Lord. Do we really know Jesus? Not what church do we go to, doctrines do we ascribe to, but so we know Him?


  • Frank

    I don’t understand this desire to complicate the uncomplicated.

    Scripture: Mark 8:27-33

    27 And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare’a Philip’pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Eli’jah; and others one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

  • Craig

    “Hey Einstein, I don’t understand this desire to complicate the uncomplicated. Apples fall from the tree. Gravity, duh. That’s all there is too it.”

    • Frank

      We can investigate why apples fall from the tree but they fall from the tree. Knowing why does not change that.

      In the same way Jesus asks us “who do you say I am?” He then tells us who He is. We doe not get to make up a Jesus for ourselves.

      • Silly Frank, we all “make up a Jesus for ourselves.”

        • Frank

          That statement may justify in your own mind your self identification as a Christian but it’s not truthful. Jesus tells us himself who He is. We either accept it or not.

          Rob you seem to be a good guy but it you also make it pretty clear you are Christian in name only, much like someone who is born into a Jewish family but does not practice Judaism but still calls themselves Jewish. It’s tradition not faith.

          • Luke Allison


            Why does Mark 6:52 say that the disciples’ hearts were hardened and they did not understand “about the loaves,” while the parallel story in Matthew 14 says that they “worshiped him, saying ‘Truly you are the Son of God?'”

          • Okay, Frank, I guess the whole personal commitment to the Way of Jesus thing means nothing. What this world really needs is a lot more people who say a lot of special words, show up to Jesus orgies, and perform some rituals.

            Who really needs Jesus’ Way embodied in the world?

          • Frank

            Luke we can have a discussion about the apparent discrepancies and contradictions in scripture but it seems to be a separate conversation.

            Jesus ask who do you say I am? Then goes on to tell us who he is.

          • Luke Allison

            I think it’s relevant, because you’re treating that quote from Mark as though it were Jesus himself saying it to everyone directly.

            Everything you say has a million hermeneutical assumptions attached to it.

          • Frank

            Well we can also have a conversation about the authority of scripture but then that could be a part of every post here or every claim about Jesus or Christianity.

          • We’ve already had the conversation about the authority of scripture. Frank gave his answer on August 23, and I quote: “I cannot prove the bible is the word of God.” (see here).

            The Bible is the standard for those who choose it as a standard. The Bible is not the standard for those who reject it as such. But Frank is correct. It cannot be proven that the Bible is the word of God. And since the burden of proof is on those who claim it is the word of God . . . well, there we have Frank’s answer.

          • Frank

            R. Jay I cannot prove I exist either and neither can you. No one can really prove anything so your point is moot.

  • Luke Allison

    I think I agree with everything you’ve written here, Tony. I of course believe that the concept of resurrection as an actual historical event is the most appealing impetus for anything resembling faith, hope, or love. But that’s me.

    • Craig

      An even more appealing impetus for the faith, hope, and love would be Jesus resurrecting and then correcting all the morally repulsive stuff that the Bible and his apostles are about to perpetuate.

      • Frank

        Ad since He did not we know what His will is. Everything stands.

        • Luke Allison


          Interesting…what sort of morally repulsive stuff did his Apostles perpetuate?

          Also…”the Bible” is not an entity. It was written over long periods of time by lots of different people.

          I’m always a little fascinated by how quickly folks jump down my throat for believing in the resurrection on this blog. I could say that I believe in autoerotic asphyxiation as a legitimate path to divine experience and get less response, I think.

          See, Craig…if I say something like: “I believe in the Resurrection and if you don’t you’ll burn for all eternity,” then I can see the need for a response of some type.

          If I say “I personally believe in the resurrection but that’s just me,” why does that demand a correction? Someone on the internet is wrong!

          • Craig

            Luke, let’s not exaggerate this idea that you are being attacked for believing in the resurrection. You’re not being attacked; your are simply being challenged to reflect on your claim that the resurrection is the most appealing impetus for faith, hope and love. Yes, the Bible is was written over a long period of time. And many claims and actions were attributed to the apostles. Do not find anything in the Bible, or in the purported claims of the apostles, that have perpetrated morally repulsive traditions, practices, or attitudes? Or, as in the Frank’s case, would such concessions simply be inconsistent with your “appealing impetus for faith, hope, and love”?

          • Ha! The Frank.

          • Luke Allison

            Ah, the internet. The magical place where tone is indecipherable yet intentions are held to be self-evident.

            There are so many different opinions on the “morally repulsive” traditions of the apostles (what are we talking about exactly? Slavery? Patriarchy? Exclusivity?), and so many great scholarly works of interpretation out there, that I think it’s fairly ridiculous to level these types of accusations at people who lived 2000 years ago. This seems to be one of your controlling assumptions.

            The Old Testament has many troubling stories in it, but also many contradictory and life-giving narratives. My controlling assumption is that one needs to wrestle with these problems, rather than pronouncing them evil and then attempting to go somewhere from there (and honestly, where can you go besides wholesale rejection? That’s what you should do with evil).

            As for the resurrection: the life-affirming present power that causes hope to come from even the most horrific of circumstances, and the future hope of a renewed cosmos are both appealing aspects of Christianity.The resurrection of Jesus is the catalyst for both of these aspects. Life springs up from death. Death is not the end of anything. Even the darkest, most hopeless situation can be reversed and experience new birth and growth. This is resurrection. Pauline theology carries this theme through and through. And it’s a very strong, very appealing theme to me…and apparently to millions of other people.

            All in all….I just can’t go where you go. The resurrection as an actual historical event is affirmed by so many intelligent people (including the owner of this blog), that I simply find no reason to believe otherwise. To imply that only fools or unthoughtful people affirm this belief is to imply that Ben Carson, NT Wright, Simon Conway Morris, Robert P George, Donald Knuth, Marilynne Robinson, PD James, Robert Jackson Marks, Michael W McConnell, Alister McGrath, Martin Nowak, John Polkinghorne, Charles Margrave Taylor, John Suppe, and so many more are fools.

            I don’t have much appreciation for “anyone who is thoughtful will obviously agree with me” comments.

          • Craig

            Luke, if any of your purported non-fools made the same claims as you, I would challenge them in just the same way. It’s nothing personal. You are not being attacked.

          • I will say that I stayed in this stream about the resurrection for a long time. I thought the reasons/arguments for were more compelling than the ones against. But, I also had a vested interest in believing it to be the case. At this point, I find the reasons against the resurrection to be more compelling.

            In the big picture, though, if all of Christianity hinged upon the “right” historical answer (interpretation of the data) to that question (something that Wright seems to imply), that would be a very sad sort of religion.

            Which is why proposals like Rollins’, which seem to discount the importance of the question itself, are so interesting to me.

            I say, let the historians duke this question out – which I highly doubt the consensus will ever be the kind of claim made by much of Christian academia.

            My commitment to the Way of Jesus is not even dependent upon his existence.

          • Luke Allison


            Fair enough. I’ll believe you.

            “My commitment to the Way of Jesus is not even dependent upon his existence”

            And I’m perfectly okay with that. I personally find Christianity largely a depressing notion without any kind of veracity to its truth-claims. I think Wright as a historian has given some good demonstration of why Jews in the 1st Century would not have been extremely likely to make the claims they did without some kind of reality to back them up. But, again….I’m not shoving that down your throat.

            Ultimately, I agree with you that actions and lifestyle are far more important to the relevance of the Way of Jesus than any kind of intellectual assent or historical reconstruction. I just tend to be a fairly up-and-down type of person. The evils and horrors of the world are enough to drive me to despair on an hourly basis. Some days, I swear the only thing that keeps me actively engaged in life is the hope that restoration is occurring and will occur, regardless of my perception. This is impetus to live out the Way of Jesus as both a “good” way to live and a “fuck you” to the seemingly implacable horrors of the world.

            That said, I understand that many Christian theologies don’t deal with that problem very well either.

          • Rob, you get two Amens for this: “My commitment to the Way of Jesus is not even dependent upon his existence.”

            Even if the Jesus of the Gospels were a fiction (and I believe he is, by which I mean I am certain the character in the Gospel might bear a resemblance to whoever the real Jesus was, but is nonetheless a departure from that real person) “who” he is is less important in the scope of reality than the path he paved.

            It begs a simple question: does it matter more that we walk the path, or that we bow in reverence to the guy who paved it?

            You, I, and many, many others would no doubt answer: The path is more important than the pathmaker, no matter that the path is named after him.

          • Luke, thanks for your honesty.

            For me it was a process of positing “what if this is not the case?” then trying to figure out how to live without out, what other “theories” about these things are around, and so on…until eventually I just said, “Well, it looks I actually can deal with reality without committing myself to this, so does it really matter?”

            And, honestly, I haven’t really considered it in any way necessary to my life since then.

          • Great points, R. Jay.

            I guess my question would be, what is uniquely gained by believing that the resurrection actually happened, that could not be gained by disbelieving it?

          • Luke Allison

            “I guess my question would be, what is uniquely gained by believing that the resurrection actually happened, that could not be gained by disbelieving it?”

            What is uniquely gained is the belief that the risen Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father. This means that his way has been validated (as in Philippians 2:5-11) as the “way” which sums up God best. Our perspective now shifts from God as a fearful and vengeful tribal deity to God as the crucified, suffering, and life-affirming Messiah, the one who welcomed in outcasts, beggars, and untouchables and who calls his followers (and empowers them) to do the same. This means that whoever purports to be “Lord” of the world is actually an already-defeated pretender to the throne. Whether that’s Rome, Germany, or America, the truth holds fast. The political and sociological ramifications of this belief are far-reaching. There is so much more to it. The uniqueness is Jesus’ Lordship. That’s what could not be gained by disbelieving it.

            That said….obviously, you could come to these conclusions without belief in an historic resurrection. You just couldn’t come to them informed by the active Lordship of Jesus.
            You could, however, as R Jay has proposed, come to them through recognizing and following Jesus’ Way (you yourself have said that you are at least haunted by the echoes of Jesus in your life). Which is fine by me. Ultimately, I gave up the “heaven/hell” narrative of Christianity long ago.

          • Luke,

            So much of what you said used to make so much sense to me. At this point, I guess, most of what you said just creates a lot of questions that I just don’t think I have the patience to dig into anymore. I’m not sure if that’s intellectual laziness, or honesty…or maybe both.

            It’s just much easier for me as a non-historian to let the historians interpret the data – in as non-biased a way as is possible. Just like I’m not going to waste my life challenging the scientific consensus on climate change. Or whatever else.

          • Luke Allison


            Understood. I probably have the same questions, but obviously I’m responding differently.

            I’m genuinely not trying to get you to believe anything, or prove to you why you should go along with me on something.
            Here’s my final statement: regardless of belief, let’s all purpose to reject the self-centered blind consumerism of our culture and try to live lives of embrace and intentional sacrificial love. Especially to those who are being rejected or forgotten by the majority.

            That is all!

          • Luke Allison

            Oops…real quick too….after reading your blog, Rob, I have to say that I’m feeling what can only be described as a powerful sense of “love” for you. Take that for what it’s worth!

          • Thanks! I’ll take it!

          • sound and fury signifying nothing

  • Curtis

    Great response. But I’m disappointed we haven’t made some attempt to clarify what, exactly, we are trying to define. Go to your favorite online dictionary and type in the word “Christian”. Which of the resulting sub-definitions, usually there are five or six of them, are we trying to define? Are we making a distinction between “Christian” and “Christianity”?

    Without clearer understanding of what we are trying to define, the discussion will logically lead into circles, as we found in our last discussion on the topic.

    • Frank

      The problem Curtis is that many people here reject definitions because they find them too confining. If they accept a definition then that know they can be held accountable for it. People want their cake and eat it too. A common flaw in humanity. Thats why here are so many circular arguments.

      Jesus however challenges us to make a choice and live out that choice but we cannot choose unless we know what exactly we are choosing. I think it’s great that people are investigating but at some point you must shit or get off the pot.

    • The problem of definition, Curtis, is at the very heart of Rob’s question. What to define, how to define. And I doubt Rob or most others who participate here are going to take their cues from a dictionary, online or otherwise. I understand what you were trying to point out, but it just isn’t that simple.

      Classical Christianity — by which I mean the brand of religion of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and sola scriptura Protestantism — is the product of a long and complex evolution. If we were to go back in time to, say, 50CE (within two decades of the death of Jesus, before any canonical NT book was written, with perhaps the exception of the letter of James), Classical Christianity would be thoroughly unrecognizable as even remotely “orthodox” to the earliest adherents of “the Way,” and would likely be regarded (and rightfully so) as yet another pagan religion infested with Hellenistic spiritualism and philosophy.

      If the Gospel accounts can be regarded as possessing any degree of accuracy in revealing details of Christianity’s embryonic start, then Mark 9:38-41 may present a key clue that, even while Jesus was alive, there were sharp differences about what defined a “true” follower of Jesus. Is group membership the standard? Is adherence to a certain authorized set of doctrines the standard? Is even identifying one’s self as a disciple of Jesus a necessity to be “included” as far as Jesus may have been concerned (note verse 41)?

      So you may be right, Curtis. This conversation may run in circles. It’s a discussion that has been running in circles for two thousand years. It’s why there were Nazarene Christians, Ebionite Christians, Paulist Christians, Gnostic Christians, and so on. All in the first century.

      But the discussion, circles or not, remains a fully worthy one.

      • Curtis

        I agree. Before Classical Christianity, there were probably thousands of definitions of what it meant to be Christian running around, and people probably spend more time arguing about definitions than doing actual, you know, Christian stuff. So a group got together and said “enough of this nonsense”. Let’s sit down and hammer out what we agree on, and go from there. And Classical Christianity was born. It’s served its purpose to some extent, but dissenting views have always been around and will never go away.

        So now we open the whole thing up again, and we will be left where we started after Christ’s death. Thousands of ideas of what it means to be Christian, and not much else getting done.

        I’m willing to end the whole discussion by just agreeing to state “orthodox Christian” instead of “Christian”, whenever I use the word, because that is what I mean when I say “Christian”. Everyone is free to do whatever they want to do with the word “Christian”.

        Then we can get on with more important discussions. Like the whether or not the Vikings will make it into the playoffs.

        Arguing semantics is usually a waste of everyone’s time.

        • Thanks, Curtis, for your ongoing input. Glad to see you’re coming around…

        • I admire your faith Curtis. In the Vikings that is. I try every year, but usually move to the alter of Lambeau mid-season.

  • Scot Miller

    This conversation reminds me of Matthew 7:21, where Jesus is purported to have said, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” I think this suggests that orthopraxis trumps orthodoxy. Some people think they have complete and practically infallible beliefs that reflect God’s word/mind, but they act in mean-spirited and hurtful ways (e.g., the treatment of LGBTQ persons, women, non-believers, etc.). So it’s safe to say that people who are genuine followers of Jesus Christ, but doubt the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, trinity, etc., may be the ones who are truly to be called “Christian” rather than the people who have “orthodoxy” nailed down. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

    • I would say that Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis are equal in importance.

  • I like this answers, Tony. This is basically the same answer I provide each year when I run into this issue with my confirmation classes. The statements of faith our kids write are typically well outside what anyone would consider “orthodox.” In fact, many of them are outright statements of doubt and unbelief. So when it comes to what it means for these youth to become members of the church, I always bring it back to whether or not they are willing to profess with integrity that Jesus is Lord. Now, I give them a variety of options for what it might mean to say that Jesus is Lord and suggest that if they can agree with something on that spectrum they are good. I stress the “with integrity” part and give them options to find a way to do so.

    • Curtis

      Right. But if these youth are, eventually, going to be confronted with a choice of how to live out their belief. They are going to have the choice of which faith community, and faith tradition, they want to associate with. There are many, fine, non-creedal “Christian” traditions, whether they be Unitarian, Quaker, or dozens (hundreds) of others, including probably dozens of new ones created each week. They can choose to associate with any one of these faith communities. But if they choose to associate with an orthodox, Christian community that has a specific meaning. A meaning that is important for them to understand and appreciate, as a core part of their faith.

      The fact that there are many choices does not make any one choice less valid, but it also does not remove the fact that there is a choice to make, and there are fundamental, basic differences between once choice and another.

      As long as they get the general trajectory right, these youth may be “all good”. But that doesn’t mean they all end up part of the same Christian church.

  • Wow, great answer Tony! I love the idea of professing “Jesus is Lord,” and that being the yardstick. I also love your distinction of a disciple and apostle, an apostle being one with a more sophisticated and developed set of beliefs. (I’m also, also glad you clarified the Mormon thing)


  • This is the best answer so far, it is internally consistent and externally verifiable. I am uncomfortable with proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”, but if I could be convinced that he is truly a master who acts as a servant, that he holds promises for me but allows me to make my own mistakes and learn from them, that evil can be explained as some sort of constraint that is required for creation to “work”, and that the majority of people who claim to have followed or to be following Christ are just plain wrong, if you could convince me of all that, I might sign on.
    Your historical summary as well as your present application explained the definition of “Christianity” as well as could be done, IMHO. It leaves open the idea that we puny humans must continue to discuss the meaning of “Jesus is Lord”. This precludes the possibility of shaming someone for not doing it and, thank God, the right to kill anyone, just war or otherwise, based on it. That alone could save Christianity from the dust bin of history.

    • Luke Allison

      This is a fantastic reply, Lausten.

  • ME

    Great post by Tony.

    Jesus says blessed are those who do not take offense at him. That’s a sort of litmus test I would offer. Are you offended by Jesus’ claims about himself and the claims made about him in the Bible (in general)? If you are offended are you really his follower?

  • Pingback: Defining Christianity | Simply Shalom()

  • Pingback: Defining Emergent | Simply Shalom()

  • I totally believe that Jesus is Lord, but I’m intrigued by Rob’s declaration, “My commitment to the Way of Jesus is not even dependent upon his existence.” I’ve heard it said that Christianity is largely a “religion about Jesus”. What the world needs is the “religion of Jesus”.

  • When I study the heresies in the early church, I find that the original concerns motivating the defense of orthodoxy was not the abstract pursuit of “correctness” that is the source of so many arguments today. Their concern was preserving communion:

    This is how Paul described it to his mentees Timothy and Titus:

    “Stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” 1 Tim 1:3-7

    “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” Titus 3:9-10

    What’s to be avoided are foolish controversies and arguments. Paul didn’t have the Enlightenment-shaped rationalist concerns with “correctness” that we have today. The fact that many people have left the church is the fruit of the power plays and culture wars that the knights of “orthodoxy” have engaged in for the last several decades.

    • Morgan, this is definitely an interesting point to consider…

    • Curtis

      If I am understanding you, that is the paradox of definitions, isn’t it? At the same time that a definition excludes people, it also binds people closer together.

      To put it another way, I am not able to enter into communion with another until I have a definition of myself. The definition of myself sets me apart from others, but also makes it possible for me to engage with others in a meaningful way.

      The goal of the creed is not so much to exclude others, but to bind Christians closer together so that we are able to have meaningful communion with others.

  • Was that Podcast reference about me and my boy Nick?

    • Nailed it!

      But also those other guys – who were they again? Stupidchurchpeople?

  • Pingback: Weekly Meanderings()

  • Lock Ledger

    The whole point of being a Christian is to be able to come back from the dead, so I guess in the Western Civilizational sense you could call yourself a Christian.

  • This conversation was fascinating and respectful–thank you to all!

    Some of the comments seemed to be based on assumptions that are fruitfully questioned, such as attributing to the bible divine inspiration. When viewed instead as many varying, personal interpretations and descriptions of “God experiences” by the many writers of the bible, it is easier to conclude that what was written in one passage was the heart-felt viewpoint of one human being, while what was written in another passage, albeit in contradiction to the first, was the equally heart-felt viewpoint of another human being. What appear to be Jesus’ words may have been put into his mouth years later in order to underscore the point of view of a particular writer. We have to read the bible through some filters, yet it is worthwhile reading to appreciate the broad and deep scope of historical interpretation of what is “truth.” What we realize is that we, too, are interpreters of spiritual things and that we, too, have “God experiences” that make up who we are and want to become.

    Rob and Tony, I agree with so much of what you have written–and with the respondents who have chimed in. Thank you for references to well-known proponents of the same viewpoints. An interesting conversation might look at the nuances of difference between “emergent” and “progressive” Christianity. They seem to be evolving somewhat uniquely.

    From my own reading, overlapping with yours, I was gradually led to put into words for laypeople, the ones still in the pews and the ones who have quietly stopped going to church, some ways of understanding the huge obstacles in the way of continuing to embrace traditional Christianity–things like the trinity, resurrection, atonement, and the divinity and/or humanity of Jesus. By bringing those and other concepts back “down to earth,” that is, by de-supernaturalizing them, one can experience welcome comfort among friends who are “still” quite traditional and being part of congregations that still recite the creeds and sing hymns like “Amazing Grace, how sweet the words, that saved a wretch like me.”

    The book is CLEAR FAITH*, and I would relish the opportunity to discuss it with anyone interested in changing one’s viewpoints rather than abandoning all things good that can come with commitment to following The Way of Jesus, one’s relationships with traditional Christians, etc. I also foresee a new, broader-than-Christianity faith (“clear” faith?) that embraces wisdom and perspectives of other world religions and philosophies. In that is hope!

    See for CLEAR FAITH

  • Jeremy K

    Let’s make lots of room for doubts and questions. Let’s make the church as “holy catholic” as we can. Big and broad and deep and wide. Shepherds and Magi and Tax Collectors and Harlots — all in. Let’s celebrate the Gospel. Let us imagine all the ways God will surprise us with his wholehearted love of all creation.

    And yet, if we are talking nomenclature for the here and now, I’m not sure why people would want to self-dentify with such a thing as Christianity if they don’t have hope in a risen Jesus, a living and moving Spirit, and a loving Father. Without those things I’ll shrug off 2000 years of sloppy church and bad habits and call myself a humanist thank you very much.

    I’ll take Jesus in good measure along with Winnie the Pooh, Mark Twain, and David Foster Wallace.