What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

Upon whom–and why–would we, as Orthodox believers, bestow the title “Christian”?

It’s a matter that the Church has wrestled with from her very earliest history.

You can almost hear the sadness in the voice of St. John the Evangelist as he tells his flock that some former members of his community are not now–and apparently never were–”Christians.” Instead, he declares that they are antichrists. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19).

As centuries of theological controversies raged in the Church, and the Ecumenical Councils affirmed the Orthodox Faith regarding the person of Jesus and his relationship to the Godhead, schisms separated communions of believers. The Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches divided the Christian world dramatically. Yet, even so, it is not the confessed belief of the Orthodox Church that the only people properly called Christians are those formally and organically within the ranks of canonical Orthodoxy. By the grace of God, the Mystery of Faith flourishes also outside her boundaries. Many Orthodox Christians began their faith journey in either the dizzying array of Protestant Churches or the Roman Catholic Church. And they were Christians in those places, even as they would later come to further nourish that faith within the community that preserves the Original Faith with full fidelity.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of what it means to be a Christian.

We can begin to approach an answer if we look at the sacramental practice of the Orthodox Church when she receives a new convert. I was baptized on August 28, 1966 at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin by the Reverend William Redman. He baptized me in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, pouring water three times over my head. When I was chrismated Orthodox, at an OCA parish in Columbia, Maryland in 2003, my Lutheran baptism was considered valid. (Now, I am aware that there are Orthodox jurisdictions that do rebaptize new converts even from the Roman Catholic Church. But the fact is, they shouldn’t. The clear voice of tradition has affirmed that baptism with proper form, performed by someone intending to baptize, is valid.)

We would include under the banner of “Christian” all who affirm the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed. (Setting aside the matter of a certain Western addition.) And many Christians whose communities do not necessarily use it liturgically would still assent to all that the Creed expresses. These too are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

And then comes the hard part. If we are forced, as Orthodox Christians–rightfully proud of our adherence to the Deposit of Faith–to issue a verdict on the status of certain specific communities, we will finally have to draw some lines which exclude some. Faith communities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons publicly hold views on the person of Jesus and his relationship to the Godhead that run counter to that which we hold and cherish as our Orthodox Faith. If this means we cannot include them within the ranks of what we call the “Christian Church” to the same extent we would, say, an Anglican, we ought not to apologize as if our verdict were impolite. After all, we are equally excluded from what they define as the true faith.

But ultimately, in a world where faith of any kind is marginalized, we should take great care in how we explain our position to persons in such communities. While theological distinctions are important and necessary, they should be communicated with gentleness. I have had the privilege to work with members of both the groups I mention above and have found them to be sincere and upstanding individuals. On the challenges confronting the Church today in areas of morality, religious liberty, and even just a sense of basic values, such people are allies and friends, not enemies of the Faith. And we must never forget that Jesus separates the Sheep and the Goats on the basis of what they have done, not on what they believe. Jesus warns us that some people who believe themselves to be in his company will be disappointed. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the Will of my Father who is in Heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).

There are a whole lot easier names to bear in this world than “Christian.” As Gilbert Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” As a result, anyone willing to publicly wear the title “Christian” will not receive a public refutation from me. And when I explain in private those things that divide us, I can be sure I will get further if I am “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

So what does it finally mean to be a Christian? At its core, a Christian is a Follower of Jesus Christ. And in the Orthodox Church we have the privilege to follow our Lord, energized by the fullness of his Sacramental Mysteries, praying and worshipping him in the safety and security of the community which clings to true revelation. But Jesus himself warned us that some who think they are his followers will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. As a result, I’m going to spend more of my energy perfecting my walk as I follow him, rather than scrutinizing the steps of those with me on the way.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Keith Massey was born and raised in Wisconsin where he…
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