The Christian label

by Barry Newton

We isolate ourselves at our own peril if we fail to confront the situation that Hans Küng’s observation and doubt describes. Even this ecumenical Catholic theologian proclaimed, “There is so much that is called Christian. But is it all Christian just because it is called Christian?”/1

While the emphasis was his, we must engage the underlying question if we are to rise above an uninformed superficiality. Who and what is Christian? Each of us needs to grapple with what shapes our perspective on this matter.

Whenever believers, unbelievers or the media slap the label of Christian upon an entity, they make a judgment. Similarly whenever a preacher identifies someone or something as Christian, he imposes a judgment.

However, are those claims true? Do we agree with them? More significantly, how did we arrive at our assessment?

People use many principles for determining who or what is Christian. Some are more formal. Others are blatantly pragmatic.

Consider these common solutions:

  • If our culture commonly labels it or them Christian, it is so.
  • If selfless love or goodness is evident, then they or it is Christian, especially if they claim to follow Jesus.
  • Whoever believes a set of truths about Jesus and desires to follow him, both they and/or their practices are Christian.
  • If a historical legacy can be traced to someone, whether this be Christ or a respected preacher, then we can be confident they or it is Christian.

While what God calls Christian might happen to be characterized by any or all of these, a search of the New Testament would seem to repeatedly refute the notion that any of these principles constitute the primary principle by which heaven identifies what is Christian.

Examining the New Testament we discover that the consistent underlying principle for how God identifies those who belong to him involves whether a person has entered into the New Covenant relationship Christ’s death provided. This relationship begins when people, who believe the message about Jesus, choose to acknowledge and rely upon Christ by being immersed.

As concerning which practices are Christian, the New Testament does not use Christian in this manner. To preserve the spirit of the inquiry, we need to ask what teachings and practices come from God and Christ? The obvious answer is, whatever God has provided Christians through scripture.

It is precisely at this point Christians are given a warning. Disciples are warned against making judgments, that is, declaring something to be good or bad, which is not expressly specified in scripture (1 Corinthians 4:4-6). Paul’s usage of judgment language takes us back to our earlier observation about judging.

When anyone declares someone or something to be Christian, on whose authority and by what motive do they make this determination? Are people aligning themselves with God’s revealed perspective or are they stepping out upon their own confidence about what is true?

Do our statements clarify for the world God’s perspective or contribute toward humanity’s chorus of confusion? Who and what do you call Christian? Just as significantly, why?

1/ Hans Küng, Why I Am Still A Christian, p. 30.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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