What IS a Christian, anyway?

Transparent cross superimposed over a question markI had a friend ask me today what my definition of a Christian is.  I resisted the question to some degree, as I remain extremely troubled by the obsession many have, with drawing lines to delineate who is “in” and “out” of fellowship, orthodoxy, or whatever.  I am not taking anything back that I said in my Word About Creeds.  Nevertheless, if I claim to want people to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ, it follows that I must have some idea about what this concept means…at least as I use the terms.

I hope I’ve made it obvious in my writing that while I believe the Christian church–particularly the church in the United States where I live–has severely messed up its witness and faithfulness to Jesus, I am not saying therefore that the people I criticize are (necessarily) not Christians.  It will give some Christians grief to see me quote the Quran at this point, but it’s eloquent when it says:

Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al-Ma’idah, 5:48)

In other words, I presume that *all* Christians (and others, for that matter) get some things right, some wrong, and that our merciful Father will sort it out some day if, in fact, the sorting matters to him.

I am also not saying that all those who meet the criteria I give below are going to heaven, and all who aren’t are going to hell.  The issue of salvation is an entirely separate question–and in fact the wrong question to be asking at this juncture.

But with these caveats, I offer the following four criteria that I believe sufficiently define one who follows Jesus:

  1. Jesus’ Divinity.  The New Testament is quite clear that Jesus represented himself as divine, and any follower of Jesus must acknowledge him as such.  This is not the same thing as endorsing classical Trinitarianism…as I have previously written, I personally believe that the “co-equal person” argument in the doctrine of the Trinity fails to wrestle adequately with those scriptures in which Jesus clearly delineated himself as other than, and subordinate to the Father.  I use the term “wrestle” quite deliberately, as I believe there’s a tension in the scriptural characterization of Jesus that can’t be fully resolved.  The Trinity is one limited, inadequate attempt to resolve it; my own characterization of Jesus as divine but submissive to the Father is another.  Either is a genuine attempt to be faithful to the way Jesus characterized himself, and either, I suggest, fulfills this first criterion.
  2. Jesus’ Humanity. Just as the scripture is plain about Jesus’ divinity, it is categorical that from the incarnation on, Jesus became honest-to-goodness human flesh.  He ate, he bled, he suffered, he partied.  The Gnostic denial of Jesus’ flesh is outside the pale.  The follower of Jesus recognizes his true humanity.  (note in this and #1, I’m avoiding the classic phrase “Fully God & Fully Man.”  I think that phrase is actually nonsensical and does nothing to advance either understanding or orthodoxy).
  3. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  The incarnate, fleshly Jesus really, truly died and was really, truly raised to life by the Father.  The many theological implications of this fact are the subject of some dispute, and I certainly have an opinion on them.  But there are genuine Christians who have very different opinions than I on what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished.  They are still Christians, and so am I.
  4. Jesus’ Lordship. This is the point at which the I most clearly depart from the idea that a “credo,” a list of “what I believe,” is of utmost importance.  If one “believes” that Jesus is Lord, that “belief” can only be expressed in submission, obedience, and discipleship.  The fact that Jesus is Lord means that all the other things and beings that pretend to the throne are NOT lord.  Nations, individuals, belief systems, political philosophies & parties, all are subordinated to the call and command of Jesus, or else he isn’t Lord, and no amount of “believing” otherwise can change that.

I hope you noticed that all four of these criteria start with the name of Jesus.  That’s no accident.  It is the name of Jesus, and his position in your life, that makes you a Christian, or not.  And frankly, those who are, and those who aren’t, are to be found in some unexpected places.

18 thoughts on “What IS a Christian, anyway?”

  1. Kurt Willems

    Dan… good stuff overall. I’m not quite with you on point number one. For me Jesus is the full revelation of the Father… they are indeed one. Look at Jesus and you see God in his fullness. Jesus represents one revelation of this same being and the Spirit another. As you know, I tend to emphasize the “one-ness” while believing that the “3-ness” matters as well.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Hey Kurt, thanks for popping in. I fully understand your objection to #1…but remember #1 here is merely saying that both where you stand, and where I stand, are legitimate positions for one who is committed to Jesus and his Lordship. Which position is “right” is not, actually, my point here.

      Jesus did in fact say he and the Father are one. He *also* said “not my will but thine” (suggesting two distinct wills) and “no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father” (suggesting distinctness). This is the tension of which I spoke.

      Which is why I phrased this criterion as acknowledging Jesus “divinity” without requiring a specific, imperfect squaring of that circle…

  2. Jonathan

    Hi Dan,
    I have nothing to argue here but fully affirm the way you reframed what is a Christian. I think that on other theological or doctrinal position we can and would have diverse views and I think it’s ok. What you presented here would bring more unity among Christians for that matter.

  3. Derek

    Hi Dan, I was recently asked a similar question and have not responded – still pondering. One thing I appreciate about your post, something that had to be said but for some reason never occurred to me – is that the question of what makes a Christian is not the same as the issue of who is saved.


  4. jasdye


    Being a trinitarian, I tend to argue the importance of the orthodoxy of Kurt and my position. So #1 was also hardesr for me to grapple with – but nowadays I begrudgingly agree that one not be traditionally orthodox to be Christian.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I appreciate that, Jason, and had already gotten that impression of you anyway. Part of why I wrote this is that I wanted to make clear on the other side, that even when I’m challenging some long-held tenets of orthodoxy, I am not trying to create a new category of exclusion, just to re-open examination of some things I think have gone unexamined for far too long. It became important for me to state that I am not for the abolishing of all standards, and certainly not denying the faith of those with whom I disagree. I just wish more of them would, like you, extend me the same grace.

  5. Cadog

    Dan, your comments here and elsewhere, and the others on this post, bring to mind a favorite quote of a favorite actor in a favorite movie (African Queen), when Bogie says to Katharine Hepburn, who plays a missionary, “And you call yourself a Christian …”

    Mitt Romney does, and it is getting evangelical folks’ knickers in a twist. A real dilemma for them — a highly moral guy who names Christ as Lord and supports most of the positions they hold dear … but how terribly inconvenient that he is a Mormon! I grew up in the 60s when his dad, equally Mormon, served effectively as my home state’s governor … and if he is like his dad, Mitt won’t likely try — and would not succeed if he did – in bringing on the the United States of LDS.

    I appreciate your thoughful dialog and arguments … good ones, though I would have to part ways over the trinity issue too. You probably have considered all the objections to your position (including that Jesus chose, in a temporal and physical sense, subordination as a necessary prerequisite to his substitutionary atonement –while still being EQUAL TO God; cf. Php 2:6ff).

    And that does sort of spill over to the authority issue that I mentioned to you on another blog … will save that for later.

    May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all —

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Hey Cadog,

      I know the Mormon issue gives a lot of more mainstream Christians heartburn. Here’s where I’ve landed vis-a-vis Mormonism:

      (1) Without speaking for the whole church, I can tell you that I have personally known Mormons who have clearly trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord in a way I cannot deny. Therefore I have been forced by individual personal experience to conclude that at least some Mormons *are* Christians.

      (2) There remain some issues with Mormon theology that I think are pretty obviously in opposition to, or at the very least unsubstantiated by Scripture. However, in all frankness and honesty, I don’t see those exceptions as any more antithetical to the Biblical portrayal of God than I see (as just one example) in rigid Calvinism. I can’t truthfully say one troubles me more or less than the other.

      I doubt there are *any* Christian groups that don’t have some odd or less-than-fully-Biblical teaching. I am convinced that all of us have serious gaps in our understanding, our theology, and our praxis. It is precisely for this reason that I have set my list of (I believe, defensible) criteria quite broad.

      And with regard to your question on the Trinity, Phil. 2:6 specifically states that Jesus did not grasp at equality with God even though he was “in the very form of God.” I would argue that specifically points toward an inequality to which Jesus submitted rather than rebelling and demanding his “right” to be equal.

      I understand you’ll likely see it differently, but while Jesus’ kenosis was certainly temporal, Phil. 2:9 states, not that Jesus reclaimed his former position, but rather that “God has highly exalted him.” These are not equivalent concepts.

      And finally, you alluded to Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. I probably need to sum up my objections in a single post, but if you take a look at my various articles on atonement using the subject index at right, you’ll see that I repudiate penal-substitutionary atonement as being an extrabiblical and unbiblical concept as well.

      Grace and peace to you as well!

  6. Stephen G. Parker

    God’s grace and peace to you, Dan. Thanks for another fine article. I enjoy the way you can be so open-hearted while maintaining your own particular viewpoints.

    I particularly want to thank you for making the point in your last comment that Jesus (peace be with him) specifically rejected the idea of being equal with God- at least according to what Paul said in Philippians 2:9. In one of my articles defending the idea that the Bible is strictly unitarian (http://mystic444.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/bible-verses-that-seem-to-teach-that-jesus-is-the-one-true-god-part-3/), I pointed out that Paul seems to be making a deliberate contrast with the actions of Adam in the Genesis story of creation. I paraphrased this paragraph from Philippians 2 in this way:

    “I want you to think and act just the same way Christ Jesus thought and acted. He, like Adam, was in the form (image and likeness) of God; but unlike Adam, he did not even for a moment consider trying to be equal with God – which would be theft! Instead, he fully humbled himself in submission to God – taking the form (image and likeness) of a servant. Like Adam, he came into life in human likeness, and was found in human form. But unlike Adam, he became obedient to God, all the way to death – even death by crucifixion. Because of this humble submission and obedience, God has exalted him and given him an authority which is greater than any other authority. Everyone – in heaven, on earth, and in the underworld – will submit to his authority, acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord. He has this authority from God the Father, and so God will be glorified through him.”

    Although I didn’t make this point in that article, the statement that Jesus (peace be with him) was given a name superior to all other names – and everything in heaven, earth and the underworld will be subject to him – demands one qualification: his name (or authority) is not superior to that of his Father, the only true God, and God Himself will not be subject to Jesus’ authority. Just the opposite is true; Jesus will always be willingly and lovingly subject to the authority of God. This qualification was deliberately stated in another of the letters of Paul: 1 Corinthians 15:

    1Co 15:27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 1Co 15:28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

    When the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy – claiming he made himself God because he said God was his Father, and that he and his Father are one – Jesus denied the charge. He claimed that the only divinity he had was what he held in common with humanity in general; all are sons of the Most High, and all are therefore “gods” in keeping with the Psalm he quoted (Psalm 82:6). The incident I am referring to is of course found in John 10 (see verses 27-36 in particular).

    You and I will no doubt disagree on what it means for Jesus to be “Divine”, and what is implied (or not) in the “I Am” statements of Jesus. But I definitely appreciate your ‘liberality’ of spirit, and your willingness to take issue with some teachings of traditional orthodoxy (such as the Trinity issue).

    I may or may not be a “Christian” by your definition; but I definitely seek to be “muslim” in the spirit of that term’s actual meaning: one who is subjected and submitted to God (as you pointed out previously in another excellent article). That holy and truthful spirit – God’s anointed messenger Jesus – was, is, and always will be “muslim” (subject to God his Father); and I seek to emulate him.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I appreciate your comment, Stephen, and peace be also upon you.

      You are, I believe, correct in your exegesis of both the Philippians and 1 Corinthians passages. I actually like your paraphrase of Philippians which parallels my own thoughts pretty closely.

      I think you may be overinterpreting Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, but in degree rather than in kind. I see Jesus’ response as stuffing the Pharisees’ hair-splitting back in their faces by pointing out David’s terminology, but this response cannot be taken out of the context of Jesus’ other divinity claims, including some of the “I AM” passages to which you alluded. In other words, I do not think you’re accurate in stating Jesus “claimed that the only divinity he had was what he held in common with humanity in general…” for in fact he elsewhere claimed significantly more than that.

      You are therefore quite correct that I doubt we come to the same definition of what Jesus’ divinity means. Here I do not so much wish to “win you to my side,” as to encourage you (and others) to recognize that there is a not-fully-resolvable tension in the various sayings of Jesus regarding his divinity. This tension makes capital-M Muslims squirm as much as Christians and Jews…but it is real, I believe. It is my observation that Christians may try to elevate Jesus’ position beyond what he would acknowledge, while Muslims and Jews see him in a lower place than he represented. Both are error that requires further examination, meditation, and prayer.

      So are you “a Christian by my definition?” Well, I guess my main answer to that question is “who said I get to define?” I proposed these criteria primarily to open what has been all-too-often a closed question, not to lay out a set of rules by which I presume to have the right to adjudge anyone “in” or “out.” That question is finally one you have to answer yourself, with God. I think I’ve offered a useful tool for such self-examination, but that does not mean that I have arrogated to myself the right to apply that tool to others.

  7. Clint S.


    First-time reader. If you believe in the Lordship of Jesus, and the subsequent implications of His Lordship, then your heart would break for anyone who doesn’t believe that Jesus is Lord, including Muslims and people of other faiths, because they’re lost. I don’t buy into this notion that we should be inclusive of other faiths or religions to the point that we accept their beliefs as truth, or that we embrace their ideals and beliefs as being a useful offering to the dialogue of our Christian faith. It is very clear in scripture that Christ is the way to the Father, the only way. He came to die on our behalf, as our substitution for a death that we deserve. It’s about “knowing” Jesus, which we can only accomplish through salvation and being born again through His Spirit.

    Are we to love Muslims and people of other faiths? Of course, and the greatest gift of love that we can give them is Christ Himself, and the truth of His saving Gospel. It is impossible to know Christ while at the same time denying that He is Lord. And it will be impossible to ever see the Father without knowing Jesus as Lord. Jesus is the only way to the Father, otherwise why did he have to die? Denying Christ as Lord is denying everything.

    I believe that our time is very limited before Christ’s return and that, therefore, we should be living with a sense of urgency in spreading the true Gospel of Christ to those we come in contact with. This is not a time for dialogue, it’s a time for speaking the truth into lives that are lost and searching for truth. We need to do this with a Spirit of humility and love, the Holy Spirit working through us. If we truly love others, this is what we will do…Grace and Truth!

  8. Spencer


    I know I’m about 10 months late with this comment, but had just stumbled upon this article while investigating the topic in question.

    I’ve been a follower of Christ my whole life (some days more so than others). I wrestle, as do all that are confronted with this topic, as to what makes a Christian and what does not.

    I enjoyed reading this, and while you may have experienced criticism in a malicious form in the past, I think the level-headed dialogue that the majority of these comments have put forth are a testament to the good-willed nature of your inquiry.

    I would like to raise a few points I see as salient in light of the discussion, and see if this old post might otherwise breathe new life.

    Firstly, I appreciated the rigor with which most of the followers of this blog have applied to thir study of this topic in particular. It is great to see a biblical, exegetical approach to this topic. That being said, my first point contains two questions:

    1. I we are to question (and I think we are) the validity of our doctrinal values, theological foundations, and finer points of Biblical understanding, we should also question our reliance on that very foundation. Can we trust that the bible is what it claims to be, that it is God-breathed (to use a classically cliched idiom). By quoting Pauline letter and testament, and using them as means of defending our suppositions, we are, inherently, adopting theology that was set out by Paul and used by the early church for theological practice. Should we not also ask ourselves, with regards to Philippians, for example, whether that letter and it’s doctrinal statements, is reliable as a way of navigating the grander topics of the Trinity and Jesus’ humanity? Are Paul’s doctrinal statements bulletproof?

    This leads to my second question: Do you see the Bible, however you may choose to define that document, as essential to naming Jesus as Lord, not including outlying circumstances that those without a Bible handy may at times find themselves in (as in the age-old question regarding tribes in otherwise untouched reaches of the planet who’ve never had the Bible available in written form)?

    Secondly, regarding the divinity of Jesus (and tying to my inquiry about Biblical inerrancy and infallibility), how do you reconcile your views to the much-misunderstood representations of Jesus as divine conqueror, and ultimate authority in the cosmos? Does this image of Jesus not seem to indicate that Jesus is, in fact, equal in, or perhaps in a higher place of, authority with the Father, since the Father has bestowed upon Jesus this position? I do understand Revelation treads rather murky water, however the imagery contained therein, as well as that of Isaiah and Daniel, Would seem to suggest an otherworldly “oneness” that could’ve only been conceived by man through revelatory experience (a’la smelling salts and God’s grace) and taken as a point of faith rather than a verifiable fact of theology?

    Again, really enjoyable to read,

    Kind regards,


    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Spencer, it is absolutely _never_ too late to raise probing questions such as these on my blog! Thanks so much for weighing in.

      I think that the first response, with regard to your foundations question, would be to refer you to the various posts on this blog regarding Biblical inspiration, most particularly this one, in which I try to sum up my position. I think you’ll see, first of all, that the notion of the Bible as “God-breathed” in the classical sense is to my judgment incomplete at best, and possibly completely incorrect, in that (1) 2 Tim. 3:15 cannot reasonably be taken to refer monolithically to the entire canon, (2) “Theopneustos” may well mean “in-spirited” in the sense of God’s action on the word and the hearer when it is read/studied, not just as a claim of sourcing (this also touches on my pneumatology…look up my series on the Holy Spirit for more there if you wish). In the final analysis, I ascribe much higher authority to the words of Jesus than I do to those of Paul; however, Paul’s epistles still offer us a great deal of value in looking at how the church interpreted a lot of stuff, and the more I look at them, the more I’m convinced I have greater issues with what purports to be “Pauline Theology” today, than I would have with what poor Paul actually said before theologians misappropriated it.

      Regarding Christology, note that I do not, in fact, appeal primarily to the epistles, but rather to Jesus’ own testimony concerning himself. You can find a lot of that summarized here, and you’ll note most of my references are the gospels. But I hope you also notice that what I’m laying out here is an observed tension between Jesus’ claims of divinity and humanity that I do not presume to try to reconcile.

      As to your question whether I “see the Bible, however you may choose to define that document, as essential to naming Jesus as Lord,” I may need your help to unpack what you mean in the question. I don’t think we really have a clue about Jesus’ lordship except as taught by himself and testified by his followers, and the Bible is where we find that stuff. But the rest of your paragraph seems to imply to me that the real question is one of soteriology–a la the confession of Jesus as Lord as a condition to evade damnation (please forgive me if I’m putting words in your mouth). To that I would answer merely “wrong question,” and point you to my multiple postings on salvation, in particular perhaps this one on conscious punishment vs. universalism.

      Finally, I do not see how you can come up in any Biblical text with the notion of Jesus in any way superior to the Father. 1 Cor. 15:27-28 is the clearest evidence to this, though I would point also to the many times Jesus himself clearly testified as being distinct from and subordinate to the Father (see the Christology post I linked above). I don’t see ontological oneness coming out of these passages. I’d be curious to know more of where you think you see that evidenced.

      I hope this response conveys to you that I welcome further engagement, because I do. Please come back, and challenge me further!



  9. Rich G

    Hi Dan,

    I am also a first time reader. Stephen directed me to your web site. I do believe in the Trinity but hold animosity toward anyone who doesn’t believe the way I do. I have a deep respect for anyone trying to know God better than they do now. Something that I think will take a life time and I still would have only a partial understanding of God.

    How do you interpet John 2:19 Jesus answered, and said to them: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. And with Acts 13:30 But God raised him up from the dead the third day. Who raised Jesus from the dead? God, Jesus, are they one in the same? Or two seperate beings? I may be impossible to explain in human words, or at least I haven’t been able to.

    Rich G

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Thanks for coming by, Rich. No, I don’t think taking all of Jesus’ sayings together, we can conclude they are one and the same. Individual texts, such as the John one you quoted, might suggest this, while others such as Luke 22:42 and parallels suggest the very opposite. My argument remains that we must hold these in not-fully-resolved tension. The dogma of the Trinity, I believe, oversimplifies the relationship in order to resolve this tension, and results in error.

  10. Rich G

    I agree with your statement but would change it slightly. I would say that the dogma of the Trinity simplifies the relationship in order to resolve this tension, and does not completely define the Trinity. I don’t think there is error in defining the Trinity, just an incomplete definition of the Trinity. Basically, I understand the Trinity this way: There has never been a time that God has not existed. There will never be a time that he does not exist. That God has created two dimensions, a spiritual one, and a physical one. By trying to understand Jesus, one example, that he preexisted prior to his birth, (John 8:56) you can understand the Holy Spirit. Using Jesus’ preexistance example, the Holy Spirit existed before God created the spiritual dimension. Actually, understanding Jesus helps us to understand God.

  11. Dan Martin

    But none of the things you point to, Rich, have any bearing on whether Jesus is an incarnation of YHWH himself or, what I think is closer to how Jesus actually represented himself in the Gospels, a distinct and subordinate, though still divine and eternal being. But it would really make more sense to discuss this on this thread where I actually laid out my thoughts on Jesus as relates to the doctrine of the Trinity.

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