Does the term ‘Christian’ mean anything anymore?

It is probably true to say that most of us think we know what the term ‘Christian’ means. Many of us use this term, believing we understand it and that everyone else understands what we mean by it. However, the term is used in a variety of different ways by various people. When we use the term ourselves, we cannot be sure that others understand it in the same way. So, what does the term ‘Christian’ actually mean, who does it apply to and how precious can we be about it?


The word ‘Christian’ or ‘Christians’ only appears three times in the Bible and is a translation of the Greek word Christianos which simply means ‘follower of Christ.’ We could argue then that the term ‘Christian’ can be applied to anybody considered to follow Christ. However, the obvious problem we run into is that there are a wide variety of traditions, beliefs and practices that all consider themselves to be following the teachings of Christ. Moreover, as is common in some circles, we cannot simply say that we follow Christ therefore anybody who disagrees with us is not following Christ and thus cannot be termed ‘Christian.’ This sort of thinking can only lead to the question ‘where do we draw the line?’ On this basis, we could not draw it on denominational lines as disagreements exist within denominations. We could not even draw it at one particular church as not all are in complete agreement within individual churches. Therefore, we end up reducing the term to one individual and making it meaningless as a descriptor.


Some have sought to argue that the term should only be applied to those who ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31a).’ Again, however, we run into the problem that this also contains some ambiguity. Most evangelicals would see belief on Christ as manifest in a ‘conversion experience’ – a turning away from sin and a seeking forgiveness through the atoning work of Christ. However, other traditions might see this more as a general acceptance of the moral teachings of Jesus. Whilst there are arguments to be made, and a real answer to be known, regarding the nature of belief on Christ, the reality is that – in the same way that people understand the term ‘Christian’ in different ways – many understand the concept of belief in Christ in different ways too. If we simply say a Christian is one who believes on Christ we still find the same issues arise when we come to consider what is meant by belief ‘on Christ.’


We must ultimately recognise that ‘Christian’ is a descriptive term. We may wish to keep it for particular people and traditions with whom we agree but we are perhaps not at liberty to do that. The term is typically applied to any person who believes that Jesus Christ was the messiah prophecied in the Old Testament, was the son of God and whose life and teachings form the basis of religious belief and practice. This rules out any tradition that merely considers Jesus to be an important prophet as well as those traditions that accept the teachings of Jesus but alongside, equal or lesser to, other prophets. This means that, despite whether we agree with their teachings or not, we must consider Catholics, Anglicans, Non-Conformists, Liberals, Conservatives, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists, amongst others as traditions belonging under the descriptive umbrella term ‘Christian.’


Given the broad spectrum to which the term ‘Christian’ can be applied, to what extent can we say the term means anything anymore? Evangelicals tend to use the term ‘Christian’ to apply to those whom they consider to have been ‘saved’ through belief in Christ. This would be manifest through a conversion experience in which the believer repents of their sin, seeking forgiveness through Christ’s atoning work on the cross. For a Liberal, however, the term ‘Christian’ might be applied to anybody who accepts the moral teachings of Jesus and seeks to apply them, as they see fit, in their own life. For the Catholic, the term ‘Christian’ can only be applied to those within the Catholic church. The range of beliefs, even amongst these three, is broad and yet if all come under the descriptive umbrella ‘Christian’ how can we say that the term really carries any meaning?


In reality, the term ‘Christian’ acts as nothing more than a descriptor of a wide-range of traditions based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ. The broad spectrum of beliefs to which the term ‘Christian’ can be applied ultimately makes the term now meaningless. The different traditions who belong under the umbrella descriptor of ‘Christianity’ would use the term ‘Christian’ to infer all sorts of different beliefs and practices that would exclude many who might otherwise be included under the term. Moreover, it is clear that a Non-Conformist, Fundamentalist Evangelical has few beliefs in common with a High-Church, Liberal Anglican. When we apply the term ‘Christian’ to both these groups we begin to see how useless the term has become in explaining anything of those it is intended to describe.


Perhaps where the term is useful is in describing a general tradition. Although the term ‘Christian’ is a descriptor that is broad and wide-reaching, its use is perhaps less in describing those who belong under it so much as in establishing those who certainly do not belong. For example, whilst we may struggle to see what certain Christian denominations have in common it is clear that those from the Islamic or Hindu traditions certainly do not fit under the descriptor ‘Christian.’ The term acts better as a descriptor of those who do not belong than it does of those who do.


Nevertheless, we must conclude that the term ‘Christian’ has largely lost its meaning. We may, within particular denominations and traditions, use it as a shorthand to describe those who subscribe to our particular beliefs but really this is not the proper use of the term. Given that the term has largely lost its meaning, perhaps we should rethink calling people to ‘become Christians.’ In reality, we might know what we mean when we say this but it is highly likely that others mean something else.

2 comments

  1. What other terms should be used instead of 'christian' then? How can we name people who are 'christian' in the evangelical sense of the word?

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  2. I suppose we can either use another word like 'saved' or we can just give a caveat before or after using the word 'Christian.' I'm just making the point we can unnecessarily cause confusion by insisting on our own meaning of the word that is often not shared by others.

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