Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defining the Word "Christain"

After reading the comments on the last article, one might be tempted to ask: Is there a clear, universally accepted definition of the word "Christian," or is it somewhat vague to fit most people who profess some belief in Jesus? My understanding was that the term Christian was reserved for those churches that confessed the truth of God according to the historic and universal creeds. Thus, Christian meant one who believed in God as triune, three persons, one Godhead. It also meant one who believed in Jesus as fully God and fully man (the Two Natures of Christ.) Using this definition any number of different churches are included, even if they do not formally subscribe to the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian.) However, historically within the mainline Christian denominations, certain religious organizations have not been included, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Christian Scientists , some of the most popular of the American-born groups, even though they have similar vocabulary and may claim fidelity to the Bible.

However, in common usage, the term “Christian” is defined very broadly, and in many cases would include organizations that otherwise would deny basic beliefs of the historic faith such as those referenced above. Consulting a dictionary is little help. Dictionaries reflect common usage, not historic usage (aside from etymological background, which also is of little help in this case.) The answer to the question at the beginning therefore is no, there is no clear, universally accepted definition of Christian, and yes, the usual use of the term is quite vague and is used to include people who have some belief in Jesus. The dilemma is similar to our national use of the word “God.” We say “In God We Trust.” We make a pledge claiming to support “one nation under God.” But which God? Don’t all religions ultimately believe in the same God? Some believe this. But it makes no sense. How can you have mutually exclusive definitions of a divine being and say that it refers to the same being? Or for that matter, how can you reconcile those who believe in multiple gods with one that is monotheistic? So it is with the word Christian. We have mutually exclusive groups all claiming the same term, and with that comes a predictable watering down of the definition.

Thus, when I refer to myself as a Christian and a member of a Christian Church I have no idea how people ultimately understand me. To many it is simply a way of saying that I don't belong to any of the other major world religions such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. But considering the broad definition of Christian, such a differentiation means little in terms of my theological understanding of God, the Bible 0r the truths contained within that sacred text.

Members of the LDS church may wish to refer to themselves as Christian, and based on general usage they will have many who will not object (especially those who do not understand the significant theological differences between Mormons and mainline Christian churches.) Yet since they are, by their own definition, a renewal movement that understands current mainline expressions of Christianity in error and themselves as the true Christian Church on earth, we have to at least admit that some defining of terms is needed if we are to communicate effectively. For now I am going to use the term as it was once understood, basing my identity as Christian from the historic universal creeds that long defined the boundaries of what was orthodox (another potentially confusing term!) regarding who God is and how He has chosen to redeem the world. If a potential convert could not confess his faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed, he could not be baptized and received into the Christian Church. This has been the practice in the church for at least 1,900 years. If others wish to introduce more novel interpretations, so be it. But history must judge.


Lug Nutmegger said...

One simple correction to your otherwise fine post; you write that Mormons are "by their own definition, a renewal movement that understands current mainline expressions of Christianity in error and themselves as the true Christian Church on earth." The LDS faith actually uses the term "restoration" not renewal.

Splitting hairs probably but a nuanced difference nonetheless.

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Thank you. Correction noted!