How Do We Define “Christian”?

2.3 billion people today profess to being a Christian

As of research done thru 2015, there are 2.3 professing Christians in the world today. That represents about 31.2% of the world’s population. This information was obtained thru the Pew Research Center. Is it possible that this number of “professing” Christians is not an accurate representation

It is also extremely conceivable that this number only represents those who profess, in some fashion, to be a Christian, in other words they think they are Christians. If the Lord is correct, and I like to think He is, then that number may only be a fraction of who truly are Christian.

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he that doesn’t believe shall be condemned. 17 And these signs shall follow those that believe: in My name they will cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not harm them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.” –Mark 16:15-18 (GFS)

But you have to keep in mind here that Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience and maybe that’s who these words were meant to apply. The reason I say this is that in Acts 15 we have the scene where there is a big discussion among the Apostles and the Elders of the Church regarding what Gentiles have to do to be saved.

1 And some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a great argument and discussion with them they determined that Paul and Barnabas and others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and the Elders about this question. –Revelation 15:1-2 (GFS)

The Apostles and Church Elders define the conduct of the new Gentile believer

The Apostles and Elders heard discussion on the matter from Peter, Barnabas and Paul. After this, James, the brother of Jesus spoke and gave the necessary requirements for Gentiles who were turning to the Lord.

19 “Therefore I determine that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 19 But that we write to them that they abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses from old times had in every city those that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it pleased the Apostles and Elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men from among them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brethren. 23 They wrote a letter that said, “The Apostles and the Elders and brothers rejoice with the brothers which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. 24 Since we have heard that some from among us have troubled you with words upsetting your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised, and keep the Law,’ to whom we gave no such order. 25 It seemed good to us, being of one mind, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas who will tell you the same things by their words. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things you shall do well. Farewell.” –Revelation 15:19-29 (GFS)   

The first Christian, or group of Christians is identified

So here we see that the requirements for Gentiles turning to the Lord is less than the requirements that are listed in Mark 16:15-18. Remember, when Jesus spoke those words no-one knew about Gentiles entering the Kingdom of God. The Apostles didn’t even know about it for many years after the Day of Pentecost. Peter was arguably the first to encounter Gentiles who were going to be saved in Acts 10. The possible exception to that would be Philip in Acts 8. It is not known for sure who was first. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch could have been such that the Eunuch had already converted to Judaism and was no longer a Gentile. It seems more likely that the Eunuch was a Gentile as he was reading Isaiah and didn’t understand it. If he had converted to Judaism, it would seem that he might have an idea of what he was reading. In either event there were no Gentiles in the Church until many years after the resurrection of Jesus. This was a fulfillment of Romans 1:16.

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power or God to salvation to every one that believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. –Romans 1:16 (GFS)

The next verse that would support that a definition of a Christian would be more like Acts 15, rather than Mark 16 is found in Acts 16:30-31.

30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved and your household.” –Acts 16:30-31 (GFS)

Here, Paul clearly says that this is a requirement for being a Christian. While further writings of Paul, and others, expound on this subject, for the time being this was the basic definition of a Christian. Paul’s additional writings didn’t so much add to the definition of what is a Christian, as it perhaps clarified some of the things that inherently should be seen and felt upon true conversion. This clarified definition had an understanding of the concept of repentance (Acts 20:21), the idea of being a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and separation from the world (Ephesians 5:11-12 and 2 Corinthians 6:17). But up until this point in time the definition of a Christian or what it took to become one was simple.

Testifying both to the Jews and also to the Gentiles, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. –Acts 20:21 (GFS)

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold all things have become new. –2 Corinthians 5:17

11 And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is a shame to even speak of the things which they do in secret. –Ephesians 5:11-12 (GFS)

Wherefore “Come out from among them and be separate,” says the Lord, and do not touch anything that is unclean, and I will receive you. –2 Corinthians 6:17 (GFS)

Gregg F. Swift, J.D.