Thursday, October 23, 2008

What is a Christian?

In the days when Jesus walked the face of the earth, His followers were not called “Christians”. The word “Christian” had not yet been invented—and would not be until quite some time after His death. In the days of Christ, His followers were called disciples.

The word disciple(s) occurs 272 times in the New Testament. The great majority of these relate to the discipleship of Jesus Christ. There are a few that don’t, because Jesus was not the only one that had disciples. The Pharisees and John the Baptist also had disciples. But the great majority of the references relates to the disciples of Jesus Christ.

The word disciple was applied to the followers of Jesus Christ not only during His lifetime, but also for some time after His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Here are some examples:

Matthew 28:

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

In this verse “teach” means “make disciples of.” The following are some more verses that illustrate this point:

Acts 1:

15 And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, …

Acts 6:

7 And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied …

Acts 9:

1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, …

* * *

10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; …

* * *

36 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, …

The word “Christian” occurs for the first time in the New Testament in the following context:

Acts 11:

26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

The word “Christian” was in fact a nickname applied to the followers of Jesus by the unbelievers; which is why it took a long time before it gained currency among the Christians themselves as a common adjective to be applied to them. The followers of Jesus still continued to be called “disciples” within the church for a long time after that, as the following verses illustrate:

Acts 13:

52 And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost.

Acts 14:

28 And there they abode long time with the disciples.

Acts 20:

1 And after the uproar was ceased, Paul called unto him the disciples, and embraced them, and departed for to go into Macedonia.

* * *

7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; …

Acts 21:

4 And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days: …

Interestingly, in modern LDS scripture the word disciple is used in preference to the word “Christian” when referencing the believers in Jesus Christ. The word “disciple” occurs 54 times in the Book of Mormon, and 23 times in the Doctrine and Covenants. The Book of Mormon is an ancient Hebrew-Christian text, so that is not surprising. But the Doctrine and Covenants is a completely modern book of revelations; and it prefers the word “disciple” over “Christian” when referring to the true followers of Jesus—as is the case in the New Testament. Here are some examples:

D&C 1:

4 And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.

D&C 18:

27 … and the Twelve shall be my disciples, and they shall take upon them my name; …

D&C 41:

5 He that receiveth my law and doeth it, the same is my disciple; and he that saith he receiveth it and doeth it not, the same is not my disciple, …

D&C 45:

32 But my disciples shall stand in holy places, and shall not be moved; …

D&C 52:

40 And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.

D&C 84:

91 And he that doeth not these things is not my disciple; by this you may know my disciples.

D&C 103:

28 And whoso is not willing to lay down his life for my sake is not my disciple.

This leads us to the first important conclusion we must draw in our quest to define the word “Christian”:

Point #1: A Christian is a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Having determined that a Christian is in fact a disciple of Jesus Christ, next we need to establish the criteria by which a true disciple can be identified. In the days of Christ, that was relatively easy. The disciples were those who followed Him and obeyed His instructions. The ordinary Jews or the Pharisees of that time did not appear to have any difficulty identifying the disciples of Jesus, as the following verses demonstrate:

Matthew 9:

14 … Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?

Matthew 12:

2 … Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.

Matthew 15:

2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? …

Matthew 17:

16 And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.

Luke 9:

40 And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not.

Luke 19:

39 And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.

Of course, not all of those who followed Jesus were necessarily sincere in their discipleship; but Jesus had a way of driving away the insincere ones, and retaining only the sincere and committed disciples. Here are some examples of things He did or said that would drive away the insincere or uncommitted disciples:

Matthew 8:

19 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.

20 And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.

22 But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

John 6:

64 But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.

65 And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.

66 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

So in the days of Jesus it was not too difficult to identify His true disciples. Those who followed Him and “walked with Him” were His disciples. The question becomes a little harder when we look to the period beyond His earthly ministry. But luckily, Jesus has not left us completely clueless about that. He has given us many clues as to how we can still identify His true disciples, even after His death:

John 8:

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed

John 13:

35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

John 15:

8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

Matthew 7:

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Luke 6:

46 And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?

John 14:

15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.

* * *

21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

John 15:

10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love.

1 John 5:

2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.

* * *

3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.

Matthew 7:

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 5:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

These verses (and more that could be given) identify the characteristics of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. A true disciple is someone who believes in Jesus and lives by His commandments. However, since “believing” in Him is something that can be faked; therefore it is the second aspect of the criterion that is emphasized above all else in the scriptures cited. Anyone can falsely claim or pretend to “believe” in Jesus, and identify himself as a true disciple. But faking the “fruits” is not such an easy thing to do. That is why Jesus has made the fruits the determining factor by which a true disciple can be known, rather than the mere expression of “faith”. That was the major fault that Jesus found with the religious teachers and leaders of the Jews—they outwardly professed faith or belief, but lacked the “fruits” to prove it. He quoted to them the prophecy of Isaiah:

Matthew 15:

7 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,

8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.

So it is easy to fake a belief in Jesus Christ; but it is not so easy to fake obedience to His commandments. Hence Jesus has made that the final deciding factor by which a true disciple—a true Christian—can be identified. This leads us to the second and final conclusion in our attempts to define the word Christian:

Point #2: A Christian is someone who brings forth fruits expected of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Having determined an accurate barometer by which to decide what is and what is not a Christian, it is interesting to see how we can apply this criterion to various Christian churches, and see how they measure up against that standard. Of course, it is not a civil or charitable thing to do to try to judge another church’s Christian credentials. I think that we should allow every church or religion to define itself. If somebody told me that he is a Muslim or a Zoroastrian, I would take his word for it that he is what he claims to be, and respect him for his religion. I wouldn’t tell him that he is not really a Muslim or Zoroastrian; but he is a Jew or a Buddhist! However, since many Christian churches have taken it upon themselves to question the Christian credentials of Latter-day Saints, I think that makes it “open season” for them, and permits us to scrutinize them for their Christian credentials.

With so many thousands of churches in existence, it is not practicable to try to survey every one of them to see how they measure up against this standard—neither is it my intention here to determine which churches are truly Christian and which are not. The purpose of this article is to decide on an accurate, biblical and theological criterion by which the “Christianity” of a church or denomination can be determined. The application of the criterion I leave to others. But an example on how such a criterion might be applied in practice might be helpful.

There are some large Evangelical charismatic “mega churches” (or their leaders) that have been involved in financial and moral scandals. I would say they are not bearing the right “fruits”. Some churches, like the Episcopalian in the United States, not only condone homosexual practices; but even ordain practicing homosexuals to their ministry. I don’t think that they are bearing the kind of “fruits” that Jesus would have approved of. I would be inclined to rank these very low in my scale of Christian credentials. The Catholic Church has had a long history of actions such as the Crusades or the Inquisition that would count as negatives in the list of “fruits”. At times in its history the Catholic priesthood has been very immoral and corrupt. They count as large negatives. But at the same time the Catholic Church has come a long way since those days, and instituted many reforms that cancel out many of the negatives. Of course, not everything in the history of the Catholic Church has been negative. The positive points outweigh the negative ones. I would be inclined to rank them higher in the scale of their Christian credentials than the mainstream Protestantism.

Some small fringe protestant groups like the Amish people have exemplified the “fruits” of discipleship far above their fellow Protestants or Catholics. I would be inclined to rank them higher than all the rest in the scale of Christian credentials.

There is one group, however, that scores lowest of all in my estimation in the scale of Christian discipleship; and they are the Protestant, right wing, conservative, Baptist, Calvinist, “Evangelical” Christian groups who not only have very little “good fruits” to show for themselves; but even reject it as a matter of theological principle. They say you don’t need to do good at all! All you have to do is “believe,” and you are done! It is one thing to accept a correct principle, but fail to live by it; it is quite another to adopt a totally false principle, and actively promote and teach it and live by it, and be ideologically fanatical about it. For the first there is a hope; for the second there is no hope! They fail the test of “judging them by their fruits” at the most basic level, because they don’t believe in any “fruits” at all! I would rank them the lowest of all in the scale of Christian credentials as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

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