What is a Christian?

Last week when I posted the new blog article, “Merry Christmas from CNN” I sent an email to the two CNN promotional contacts that had initially sent the material. I included a link to the MCOI blog review of their upcoming program CNN Presents: After Jesus – The First Christians as a courtesy. To my surprise Jennifer Dargan, Director CNN PR responded back:

Thank you for this link – and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and attention to detail in your thorough and researched review. We really do appreciate that our programming inspires thought, discussion — and even critique like yours. Thank you for taking the time to notice our show.

She also suggested that I watch Anderson Cooper 360 that evening. The second hour was a special asking the question, “What is a Christian?” Jennifer suggested that she would be interested in my thoughts on that program as well. Fortunately I was able to record it and watch it several times over the past few days. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings on the program for reasons that will become apparent as we go along.

Over all I do think Anderson Cooper and the CNN staff attempted to be as fair and unbiased as they probably could. They sought out and interviewed conservative Evangelicals along with liberals as well as a church that holds to New Age views. They gave what appeared to be a completely open door or rather open mic invitation but the Evangelicals interviewed never stepped through or picked up the mic with the answer to the four word question, “What is a Christian?” Anderson Cooper set up the question and the program:

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans is a Christian. So what is a Christian? How is the definition changing? No matter what you believe. No matter what your faith. Chances are the answers will one day touch your life. What do you believe?

The segue into the program sets up some scenarios, “Patriot Pastors,” which are those who are calling for involvement in the political system in an attempt to hold the moral line. “The End of Day” teachers who are focused on eschatology and the soon return of Jesus. A Gospel of Money, or what we (MCOI) and other discernment ministries expose as false teachers of what is known as Word Faith theology. Specifically in this case, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen were highlighted. Lastly, protecting the planet or Green Christians were interviewed and commented on. The main problem in the program begins right here. The question, “What is a Christian?” has already been abandoned and replaced by trying to answer it with various things that Christians may do. I am not suggesting this was intentional. Rather, those who were interviewed for the program fixated on what they do or what their particular priority or sense of mission was and consequently didn’t answer the actual question. What is a Christian? If I was a journalist in Anderson Cooper’s shoes and those of his staff, and let the subjects of my question that I interviewed answer the question and the answers I received immediately directed me to what “Christians do” I would accept that as the answer and may not realize that I had been distracted from the original question.

After the opening outline of the various groups Anderson Cooper continued:

Thanks for joining us tonight. If you were expecting a sermon or civics lesson, sorry you won’t find one here. This is an hour about religion and politics. But first and foremost we hope it is a vivid color snapshot of your neighbors and our country and how we all have a stake in this question that seems to bring thousands of answers. What is a Christian?

If one doesn’t have a clear and understandable working definition of what a Christian is then looking at the various groups, those that actually are Christians, those who claim to be Christians but are not and those who are false teachers within the church would indeed be confusing. An honest person and/or honest journalistic team who is trying to define the term in this setting is destined to failure and increasing the confusion rather than reducing it.

In order to address this I thought it might be helpful to use an analogy. If I were producing a special to answer the question, “What is a physician?” and looked across the landscape of the medical field using the same methodology that was employed in this program I would begin with the question, “What is a physician?” After wandering the nation and interviewing every group that claims to do healing I would try to reduce the material down to 4-5 representative groups and let them answer the question. In the introduction I would have an emergency room with doctors doing triage. I would have family practice doctor meeting calmly with a family about preventative medicine. I would have an imposter dressed in a white lab coat prescribing medications. I would have natural care advocates who are opposed to medications and shots as being body pollutants. Finally, I would have doctors who are now calling on spirit guides to perform psychic healing because they do not want to perform physical surgery which requires cutting the patient. They found surgery to be too bloody and gory, patients were in pain during healing and medications were being prescribed. They found all of this too narrow and confining and could no longer hold to such narrow minded hurtful views of medicine and healing. In general they feel better about themselves now. They also don’t judge witch doctors and others who practice healing arts or even those they gather with who do not believe there is even such a thing as sickness or the physical universe. Although they are tolerant of all of these other groups they are very intolerant and judgmental of the group who has the proper credentials and the narrow view that goes with it. In that special I would open with:

Thanks for joining us tonight. If you were expecting a health education or guidance in healthcare, sorry you won’t find that here. We hope over the next hour to give you a vivid color snapshot of your neighbors and our country and how we all have a stake in this question that seems to bring thousands of answers. What is a Physician?

The answer to “What is a Physician?” is actually pretty simple. The term “Physician” means a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy who is legally qualified and licensed to practice medicine. This recognizes them for what they are and is independent of what they do. They may be an emergency room physician or a family doctor. They may be a heart specialist or sports doctor. In other words the term “physician” defines what they are but their focus or specialty defines what they do. What they are tells us nothing about whether they are a good or a bad physician, honest or dishonest, nor even that their abandoning accepted medical practice to embrace something that is false and harmful makes them any less a physician. Conversely, because they may be a physician doesn’t mean that what they have now embraced is actually medical treatment or even good regardless of whether it gives them warm fuzzies. That we have a Frank Abagnale, Jr con man type in the mix impersonating a physician, giving medical solutions and writing prescriptions which may be helpful or harmful does not change the answer to “What is a Physician?” In fact, the correct definition of the term is what is used to expose him as a fraud. It is, to be sure, narrow minded and intolerant to hold all claiming to be physicians to such a restrictive definition I suppose but I really don’t see a public hue and cry to abandon such intolerance and just recognize anyone and everyone who claims to be a physician as a physician.

Defining by Practice

The first group that was looked at was Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio and Pastor Russell Johnson. Johnson and his congregation, like many Evangelicals, are concerned about the ACLU’s continual attack of Evangelical’s freedom of belief and expression, the increasing paganization of the culture, abandonment of the morals which have guided the nation and embracing of what they believe is the torture and murder of innocent humans who are unable to defend themselves. Interspersed between video of Johnson preaching we hear the voice over of the reporter, Gary Tuchman:

From the pulpit of the Fairfield Christian Church he delivers a confrontational message

Another clip plays and Tuchman continues:

Two months ago with the mid-term elections approaching, Johnson thundered against a different set of enemies. Supporters of gay marriage & abortion.

Focusing in on an aspect of the message and church life of Johnson and Fairfield, the challenge to be involved in voicing their views and using their votes in government policy, Johnson is labeled as a “confrontational,” preacher who thunders his message and doesn’t “mince words.” Of course, if we disagree with someone else’s views it is very easy to demonize them through our selection of descriptors and bias the hearer of our case. This is also helped by having a liberal theologian on board and CNN had Rev. Dwight Hopkins, an American Baptist and Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School who weighed in:

I think we have to make a distinction between those who use very militaristic language, who wear their collars as pastors on the one hand and on the other what Jesus Christ says in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

I have listened to this several times and read and reread it since I transcribed it and still find that it is a meaningless and undefined statement. What did Jesus say and how does it differ? How is saying certain behavior is sin militaristic? We are left quite in the dark on this.

However, this neither proves nor disproves the validity of Pastor Johnson’s teaching. It unwittingly erects a derogatory label and makes it easier to dismiss the pastor and church as fringe. Conversely, it also seems to validate conservatives mistrust of the “liberal media.” More importantly it doesn’t define, “What is a Christian.” Many Christians do not believe in being involved in government while others do. There is no hard and fast rule on this. Some believe in being involved in the military and are supportive of defending against evil threats on our shores and helping our allies. Others are opposed to being in the military and are pacifists. These issues to be sure are important but are in-house debates. They do not define what a Christian is. This would be more of an example of Romans 14 and the gray areas or difference of practice among Christians in important but secondary issues of the faith.

The next group profiled is involved in environmental activism. Not all Christians agree on this issue and again, involvement or non-involvement in this issue doesn’t tell us what a Christian is. The end times teachers are looked at. Again, not all Christians agree on this. There is a wide variety of belief in a number of areas. When is Jesus returning? Is there a rapture and if so when? Should baptism be sprinkling, pouring or immersion? I could go on but the short hand of this would be that denominations exist largely due to orthopraxy (how to practice the faith) not orthodoxy (what the faith is). Christians disagree on important but secondary issues but all true Christians agree on the essential doctrines of the faith and the definition of what a Christian is.

The Imposter

Anderson Cooper had a segment looking at the prosperity gospel teachers, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. The fundamental problem is they are false teachers of the highest order. I have to say that I was very glad to hear Richard Land, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethic’s and Religious Liberty Commission and Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners (a part of the post modern movement within the church) denounce this as heretical. I suppose I am used to leaders, like Don Wildmon and James Dobson who are busy calling for boycotts on non-Christians who live and act like non-Christians but ignore false teachers who are popular within the church and are therefore far more dangerous. A.T. & T., Ford or Wal-Mart may make a charitable donation to a Gay activist organization but no one looks to these corporations as spiritual teachers representing God.

The last section looked at a couple, Billy and Christy Wynn who had been raised Baptist and had questions which were not answered:

Billy and Christy both grew up Baptist, believed in God and went to church every week until their teenage years when they became what some call questioning Christians.

Sadly, I understand the plight of Billy and Christy far too well because I meet them regularly. They have left the faith of their childhood and in this case embraced the New Age views of the Unitarian Church. Christy says:

You can come in and you can have your own thoughts and you can have reason and you can have doubt and nobody will judge you for that.”

Those are words that the church needs to hear. Can Christians ask difficult questions without being looked down on. Can a Christian have thoughts and reason? Was Jesus just kidding when he incluided the mind as an element of faith in Matthew 22:37? Anderson Cooper and his staff have done an excellent job of demonstrating the cacophony of claims, teachings and variations along with the confusion one on the outside sees as the church. I think all serious leadership should purchase and view the DVD available from Anderson Cooper 360 and review it with their church leadership, other churches and para-church ministries. There is of course far more in the program than I can comment on in this article but I think Anderson Cooper and the CNN staff are to be commended for their effort. Much of the problems I have raised here have more to do with Evangelicals lack of clarity and taking the opportunity to give a clear answer. In the case of this program I didn’t detect any overt bias on the part of Anderson Copper and CNN. That leads me to the final point.

In the last few minutes of the special Anderson Cooper asked Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethic’s and Religious Liberty Commission, point blank, “What is a Christian?” Remember, this is the question had not been answered through out the previous 55 or so minutes of the program. There it was, a slow motion pitch right over home plate, in the strike zone and I sat up straight in my chair only to hear:

It means that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It means a command to be the salt and light of the world. It means to obey the command to go forth and share the gospel. Never seek to impose it. Never use coercion, but as an act of love to seek to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.

Well, let’s see. That may be a moralist or it may be a list of things that a Christian may or may not do, but this isn’t what a Christian is. So, it seems that for the record I need to state that a Christian is one who recognizes they are a sinner and are condemned as a result (Romans 3:23) They have believed and called on Jesus Christ as being fully God and fully man (Romans 10:9-13). They believe He was crucified, died, buried and physically resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) and as a result we are born anew and are joined to God as an heir with Christ. The definition is simple. Living together as a family of believers and speaking clearly to culture on the essentials seems to be more more difficult.


What is a Christian? — 18 Comments

  1. The assertion that 9 of 10 Americans is a Christian is clearly wrong. Are they including all members of every family where someone claims to be Christian? Why is there such strong opposition to Christian attempts to impose their views on others if there are so few non-Christians?

    These so-called journalists should try harder to report the truth…

    Here is Wisdom !!

  2. Don, responding to Richard Land’s remarks:

    “Well, let’s see. That may be a moralist or it may be a list of things that a Christian may or may not do, but this isn’t what a Christian is.”

    Don, I don’t know how much of Land’s comments they edited, nor do I know if an answer was given to one question, and then clipped and used to answer another one, which I have seen done with little children on a TV special once.

    I have friends who had their children on some kind of group discussion show a few years back, dicussing terrorism and how the USA was dealing with it, and a mother pointed out to me that a very outspoken child, whom we both know, answered a question at one point, and then that answer was used in the editing to answer another question. The net effect was to make her answer look a just this side of insipid and a little bit stupid. Her real answer to the question was articulate and to the point, according to the mother who got to be there the whole time, but they edited her real response out.

    Many years before this, I saw some pro-lifers being interviewed on one of the (then) three networks, and I was told the same type of editing and rearranging was done.

    So I always ask myself if this is what the person being interviewed actually said in response to that particular question.

    It would be good to find out from some of those interviewed how the process went and what they think of how they came across.

    One thing they left out was the Bible’s definition of a Christian, and I am glad you pointed this out:

    “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

    Of first importance, according to Paul:

    “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again, the third day according to the Scriptures.”

    “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness which is by faith from first to last.”

    “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    Because a person becomes a Christian by faith in what Jesus did, to discuss all kinds of other commitments Christians may have or endeavors they may be involved in, is indeed to talk about what is off the point, which is faith in a Risen Savior for the forgiveness of sins, and freedom from guilt, which God tells us we cannot get rid of by ourselves, so He did it all for us.

    And that is good news!

  3. It is possible that his comments were edited however, in the panel discussion setting it doesn’t seem to be the case. I had emailed a copy of this review prior to finalizing it to Richard Land at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethic’s and Religious Liberty Commission and have not received a response back.

  4. Don,
    I imagine that sometimes tv programs get named like books in the publishing industry and the title/cover isn’t the best descriptor of what is inside, but it is distressing that no one quoted a creed, or even attempted a Biblical definition of basic “Christian” beliefs. Shows how much our identity is lost or confused, I suppose. But it does make me want to get back to the basics of Bible reading, teaching, and prayer. And also to be very aware of the so-called “Christian” content in almost everything. If we, as Christians cannot clearly define ourselves and our beliefs, how can we fault the world for being confused?

  5. Don, thanks for the reply. So it appears that his answer was to that question. I hope he replies to you.

    CNN asked:
    “How is the definition changing?”

    That kind of question, on something so central and basic, bothers me for two reasons I can think of now:

    1) I can understand that language and usage changes with time, but the Bible provides a very clear idea of what it is to be a Christian, and Scripture clearly implies that it is the same regardless of the times or cultures. So I don’t believe people should redefine the term.

    Jesus said He had other sheep, who would hear the message, and would believe, and Peter said the Lord is not slow about His promise (of coming) as some would count slowness, so the Bible envisions future times, and it doesn’t strike me that the central message would change.

    Paul taught the Bible itself said Abraham was justified by faith, same as we are, and there Paul was taking us not to the future but to the past, as the book of Hebrews also does. This faith in God is what is central throughout the Bible. To have faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin is what it means to be a Christian. All else is off the point.

    This special seems to be more about not “what does the word Christian mean,” but “what does it mean to you?” Or, “what does it mean to me?”

    As you said, this coverage focused more on side issues which can be divisive (to me they aren’t) such as eschatology and political involvement, and the whole thing appears, not having seen it, but from reading your quotes from it, to suggest that the word Christian can mean many different things these days. In addition to your comments about focusing on externals and side issues and works, I wonder if this focus helped to splinter the very meaning of the word “Christian” to many people. “For me it means this.” “For me, it means this.” So I don’t like the question. The definition should not change.

    2) The question “what does it mean to be a Christian,” with the suggestion that the definition is changing, was asked to too narrow a group, IMO. How about going around the world, where there is real persecution going on, and asking those believers what it means to be a Christian? Seems to me they’d get a better answer from people who are truly laying their lives on the line.

  6. Why is it so tricky for genuine Christians to define what a Christian is? Your summary of a genuine believing of the good news of Jesus as summarized in 1Cor 15 the first paragraphs is masterful.

    I think the SBC fellow was trying to squeeze the cultural mandate of “being light and salt’ (but HOW does one do this?), the great commandment of loving one another (but HOW does one do this?) and sharing the great commission (but How would anyone ever want to do this?) was intriguing as a kind of Bible overview. He left out the creation mandate but hey, TV can make us all blink.

    Your point seems to be that all this ‘doing’ is not what makes one a Christian nor does it at the root define what a Christian is. The radical belief based on the historically accurate documents (the New Testament) that Jesus is who he says he is and did and does what he says, is what makes one a Christian. One can artificially pump up and perform the other tasks for whatever reasons and motivations, but without this radical, foundational Belief in JESUS himself, it is a fine CNN show… But in the words of the old Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?”

  7. I do think Richard Land did “blink” in that setting. It is unfortunate for one can take a clear stand in a kind way but sometimes we become distracted by trying to persuade how “nice” we are and miss the actual point. It strikes me that is what happened here.

  8. Quoth Don Veinot:

    The main problem in the program begins right here. The question, “What is a Christian?” has already been abandoned and replaced by trying to answer it with various things that Christians may do.

    I do believe His Utter Subliminity Screwtape encourages this twisted view of faith in Christ, in the senior devil’s correspondence with Junior Tempter Wormwood:

    What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of “Christianity And.” You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychic Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

    — C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

  9. “What is a Christian?” I believe a Christian is a sinner saved by grace.
    For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 A christian should emulate Christ. One who is obedient to the teachings of Christ.

  10. Pingback: Midwest Christian Outreach: The Crux » Is Holding Rick Warren Accountable Uncivilized and Rude?

  11. Hello All

    I was only able to catch part of that program. I as a devout Christian would like to watch the whole thing. I do not like to make any statements until I have all the facts at hand.

    Can anyone here tell me where I can get a copy? God Bless

  12. when the meaning of a word gets lost in antiquity it is always good to go back to the roots of the word to dig out the original meaning.Thus ,we need to find out why the people of Antioch[Acts 11;26]first called the followers of Christ christians….”Christ-like folks.They must have looked like Christ in their walk and talk.Again we should look at the message that Paul preached to king Agrippa untill he asked him”do you think in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian? Acts 26;28

  13. Mr. Veinot,

    Thank you for watching the CNN special, “What Is a Christian?” I would like to respond to your posts regarding my answers. Unfortunately, due to a system-wide server crash, I did not receive the copy of your review; neither did anyone on my staff, prior to posting. Regarding the question, “What is a Christian?” I explained my view more explicitly in remarks that CNN chose not to air. I do not disagree with any part of the last paragraph of your posting. I also would like to point out that part of the answer they aired did include “seek to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.”

    There are two cautions one should learn from this experience: Don’t ever assume that things weren’t said. Remember that unless a program is aired live, which is rare, it was taped and edited. Also, one should not assume that because an e-mail was sent it was received.

    In His Service,

    Dr. Richard Land

  14. Dr. Richard Land, I appreciate your response and correction. Your statements that, “I explained my view more explicitly in remarks that CNN chose not to air. I do not disagree with any part of the last paragraph of your posting.” are very important for that puts CNN in essentially the same position that they were in with their “After Jesus-The First Christians.” They may genuinely not know what a Christian is or they may not care and it is difficult to know which.

    Thank you for your gracious response.

  15. Dr. Land:
    “Regarding the question, “What is a Christian?” I explained my view more explicitly in remarks that CNN chose not to air. I do not disagree with any part of the last paragraph of your posting. I also would like to point out that part of the answer they aired did include “seek to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.””

    Thank you for responding here, Dr. Land. One of the things a Christian is, as Jesus Himself defined it, is a witness (“You shall be my witnesses”) and that implies doing something, but it first says what a person is. Before someone can be such a witness, he first must believe the message and be converted himself, and that is the foundational thing.

  16. Don,
    I really liked your article.

    It is an amazing thing to attempt to read an article or watch a program about “Christianity” written by people who don’t have a clue, don’t care, and even disdain all supernatural possibilities of God, miracles, etc.

    I find it always a culture shock.

    I also find it very frustrating that those that are interviewed are almost always unarmed and lacking any contempletative considerations of their faith (entertaining, pondering, and answering the criticism of others).

    Usually (like the CNN program), the end result is little more than a confused state of mind without any clear answers to who is, who isn’t, or what it is all about when it comes to religion.

    Mostly shows like this merely encourage and progress the religious person as an image of credulity.

    I also find it very strange but consistent that journalists seem to abandon any rational approach to important questions for the entertainment/sensationism crowd. It is something I am no longer dissappointed about, but have come to expect.

    I have to say that this quote:

    “I think we have to make a distinction between those who use very
    militaristic language, who wear their collars as pastors on the one
    hand and on the other what Jesus Christ says in the four Gospels of the
    New Testament.”

    Is nothing but a ruse to direct attention from the confused speaker, rather than answer any question at all. It is real doublespeak for sure.

    One thing I think about (being a Mennonite) is that Revelation is full of “militaristic language”. And I do believe that Jesus is riding out in front on the whole battlefield (General if I might add). Strangely enough, yes some people do infact go to hell forever and ever to burn eternally who do not believe in God, etc.

    Revelation is one of the hardest books for pacificist Christians to deal with.

    You know the rest.

    The fact that CNN noticed you and acknowledged your contribution, is really awesome. As a Christian, I salute you and thank you for your effort and your faith.

    Mike Ferrando
    Washington, DC
    adelphoi agapwmen allhlous

    p.s. A Christian is someone who loves Jesus of Nazareth. They love him because he forgave them for their sins. They love him because he saved them from their sins, and gave them eternal life. They love him because he loved them enough to sacrificed himself on the cross to pay for their sins. They love him because he overcame death and eternal damnation by his death and resurrection (bodily, etc. etc.). They love him because he first loved us. [Your last paragraph was great!] They follow his commandments and take up their cross and follow him because they love him. -mf

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