What is a Christian?

I appreciate Dando’s brave introduction to one of the central points of contention between Evangelicalism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know he spoke from the heart. It is never easy to say what you feel when you know those convictions will be open to criticism, a point with which I now fervently empathize. I thought Dando’s definition of Christianity was interesting, so here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

Clearly, when speaking of whether Mormons are Christians, the definition of the word “Christian” will largely determine the outcome. Reader rcronk cited several dictionary definitions, which Dando accurately described as common usage definitions rather than theological definitions. And it would make sense that Mormons would use the common usage terms rather than the theological definitions. First, those theological definitions are formed with respect to a specific theology — Evangelical Christianity — that non-evangelicals such as Mormons do not espouse. And secondly, since Mormonism has no theological seminaries or professional clergy, it likely does not even have a “theological definition” of Christianity. Mormons use the word “Christian” in its common usage, which is inclusive rather than exclusive.

Interestingly, for most of the world’s population, the word “Christian” doesn’t have a theological meaning, but a common and practical meaning. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,* less than a third of the world’s population identifies itself as Christian. For the other two thirds of the globe, the the question of whether Mormons are Christians is easily answered by determining whether Mormons believe in Jesus as their Savior, or whether they believe Him to be the Son of God. The theological definition of “Christian” for a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist lacks the restrictive criteria of the Evangelical theological definition.

Under the Evangelical definition of “Christian,” denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox Christians may not qualify as Christians. Their understanding of grace vs. works, saints, and required sacraments for salvation do not conform to that of Evangelical Christianity. As more than 20% of the world’s population, these denominations make up almost two thirds of all denominations that are affiliated with Christianity. Clearly, I think, the Evangelical theological definition of “Christian” has legitimate use within Evangelical denominations, but that definition is not how the vast majority of the world thinks of Christianity. In fact, it isn’t even how the majority of Christianity defines the term, if we are to include Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians under the umbrella term “Christians.”

I see the word “Christian” as a category or a general indication of belief. Dando sees it to mean “Someone who believes as I do.” When Mormons talk of Christians, they do not exclude other believers in Christ with whom they have theological differences. Like most of the world, they are merely referring to the distinguishing factor that sets those believers apart from other world religions. I would therefore use a more inclusive definition of Christianity because I don’t think it makes sense for Protestants, making up less than 10% of the world’s population, to enforce a definition that has no meaning to the other 90%. I would simply ask if a person or denomination believes in Jesus Christ as the Savior or Redeemer, the Son of God. If the answer is yes, I would happily consider myself in the company of Christian worshipers, regardless of our other doctrinal differences.


* Data from 2005 available here, and a pie chart here. Note that, for organizational purposes, Mormonism and other “Marginal Christian” groups have been included in the graph segment for Christianity. If those groups were to be excluded, the percentage of Christians in the would would be smaller still.

1 thought on “What is a Christian?

  1. There are, no doubt, Fundamentalist who do not consider Catholics or Orthodox to be Christian. Their view is a minority opinion. There are few people with any sort of seminary education that can justify that position.

    “Evangelical” is an adjective that modifies the word “Christian”. The two words are not interchangeable. The same is true of the word “Protestant”. I am not attempting to define the word Christian to mean either Protestant nor Evangelical.

    I will give my definition of the word Christian in the individual and organizational sense shorty.

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