What does it mean to be a Christian?
Christianity is a word. Like most words, it has a specific meaning. It's true that some words can have their meaning change over time, but the word Christianity is not supposed to be one of them. Christian is the word used to describe people who follow Jesus of Nazareth and believe what he believed about God, himself, and reality.
Jesus lived on earth during the early first century AD. His followers (like myself) believe that he was God in human form who died for the sin of humans, and rose from the dead before ascending back to heaven. Followers also believe that Jesus' disciples and other biblical authors (who were eyewitnesses or interviewed eyewitnesses) accurately recorded the things that Jesus said and did. Other Christian manuscripts describing first-century people and events were also created. The manuscripts about Jesus and the manuscripts about his first-century followers have been assembled into what we now call the Bible. The New Testament to be more specific. There have not been any credible additions to the Bible that Christians universally accept for many centuries. Most protestants do not accept any books written later than the book of Revelation (circa. 90-95 AD) as holy scripture.
Why am I going over this brief history of the New Testament? The New Testament is how we know what Jesus said and did. It is significantly more detailed than any other documents written about Jesus by people of that time period. If being a Christian means following Jesus then knowing what Jesus said and did is of the utmost importance. The New Testament is the only reliable record that allows us to determine what Jesus said and did. The New Testament has not had any additions for a very long time. This would also mean that details about what Jesus said and did also have not changed. So why do we have new "Christian" movements from time to time?
Does the meaning of being a Christian (follower of Jesus) change? Are humans discovering new details about Jesus in our modern era? Were there parts of the new testament nobody read until recently? I think the answer to these questions is no but let us dive a little deeper.
If you were to make some observations in the past and again today you might think the answer to the above questions is yes. Today If you compare the beliefs of various groups that use the word Christian (to varying degrees) you will find a very diverse and sometimes conflicting set of beliefs. Groups like Mormons (LDS), Jehova Witnesses, Christian Universalist, and modern churches that sometimes use the label "progressive Christian" all have some beliefs that incorporate God, Jesus, and the Bible to varying degrees. These beliefs often look very different and conflict with traditional Christianity. Where do these new beliefs come from and why are they associated with Christianity?
False Teachers and Theological Drift
If a Christian group's understanding of God changes, then their beliefs will begin to slowly change (i.e. drift) in a different direction. A person's understanding of God is often called Theology (the study of God). Proper theology requires a reliable source that contains details about God (i.e. the Bible). My observations lead me to believe that most people with theological drift are getting their theology from people instead of the Bible. The bible hasn't changed so new ideas are not coming from there. The people they follow claim to be Christian and to be experts on the Bible, but they convince you (often without you noticing) to decrease any value you place on the Bible and to increase the value you place on their views about God (or your own internal thoughts and feelings) . Essentially replacing the authority that defines being a Christian from the Bible to a limited human being (or group of humans). Limited because no one person or group of people can have a complete (or anywhere even close) understanding of reality. We make the change of getting our view of Jesus not from people who saw and knew Jesus but from the opinions of people who lived 2000 years later. The phrase often used to describe this type of influencer is "false teacher".
[2 Peter 1:6, 2 Peter 2:1]
The phrase false prophet can apply at times as well. Jesus himself warned of false prophets: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” -- Matthew 7:15
Do we need a reliable Bible to be a Christian?
In my opinion, elevating (giving more weight, value, or importance) the ideas of man and lowering (decreasing priority, value, or importance) the Bible is not just a bad idea, but is also self-destructive to the very definition of being a Christian (Christ follower). The Bible contains the record of what Jesus did. If we doubt what he said and did then what exactly are we claiming to follow? If we are picking and choosing what parts of the Bible to accept and follow, then are we following Jesus or just a pseudo-Jesus shaped by our own opinions and desires? How can a Christian with a low view of the Bible engage in debate with another Christian about the nature of following Jesus? Any Bible passage mentioned that makes your position look incorrect can be discarded with a simple response, "I don't accept that portion of the Bible!" Essentially setting up a situation where a Christian with a low view of the Bible can believe almost any falsehood that they like without any means for finding the truth and correcting course.
Is the Bible inerrant?
Do we have to believe the Bible is 100% error free to be a Christian and receive salvation from sins? No. There is clear biblical evidence for this (thief on the cross, Jesus forgiving sins of blind man, etc…). This does not mean it is smart to have a low view of the bible and only accept 86% of the bible as accurate! This would allow someone to shift anything they don't want to believe anymore from the 86% to the 14% side whenever they desire. It robs the bible of its critical role of correcting us with authority. Its ability to help us find the path when we are lost. If someone cannot accept biblical inerrancy but they still want to have a coherent view of Christianity then they will need to believe the bible is nearly error free. A belief that the bible is almost error-free allows one (who doesn’t accept biblical inerrancy) to acknowledge that the bible may have a few problems but it can still be the reliable record we need about how to follow Jesus. It would still have a high enough position to guide us and correct any false beliefs that may have snuck in.
The next section will reference the bible many times in order to make a case for what Jesus said, did, and believed. If you don't believe the Bible is reliable, then using the bible as an authority will have no weight with you. This is kind of the point that I am making. If the bible isn't what you use to define following Jesus (being a Christian) then what is? How can you make any coherent claims about Jesus? If this describes you and you consider yourself a Christian, then I recommend considering the points below while setting aside your negative thoughts about the bible for a little while.
Following the real Jesus
If we want to understand what being a Christian means, then we should review what Jesus said, commanded, did, and believed.
Jesus had an extremely high view of scripture:
But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:4
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Matthew 4:7
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Matthew 4:10
“If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—” John 10:35
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ...” Matthew 21:42
“But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.” Matthew 26:56
“ Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? …” Mark 12:24
“ For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” Luke 22:37
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:27
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, Luke 24: 44
Other references to Jesus mentioning scripture: Matthew 22:32 Mark 12:26 Mark 11:17 Mark 14:21 Mark 14:27 Luke 10:26
Jesus believed he was separate from, one with, and equal to God. *
*Yes, those do seem contradictory, that is why the trinity is a core Christian belief. It is the not fully comprehensible (understandable) reconciliation of those statements.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” -- John 8:58
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. -- John 1:1-4, 14
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” -- Matthew 28:19
Also, see Hebrews 1.
For more info on the Trinity, (since there is too much to include here). See this article: https://www.gotquestions.org/Trinity-Bible.html
Jesus commanded us to love God and others. He cared about everyone:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” --Matthew 25:31-46
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” --Mark 12:29-31
Jesus believed he was the only way to heaven and he was the one who will judge mankind:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” --John 14:6
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” --John 3:36
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” --John 3:18
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” --Matthew 25:31-46
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” -- Matthew 7:13-14
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” -- John 8:51
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” --Matthew 10:32-33
Jesus cared about the truth:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” --John 14:6
"You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” -- John 18:33-38
John 4:21–24 (LEB): Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, that an hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for indeed the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the ones who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus spent time with sinners so he could share the truth with them to bring them spiritual healing (rightness before God) that goes beyond physical needs:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” -- Luke 15
The Samaritan Woman at the well. John 4.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This saying is true, and it can be trusted. I was the worst sinner of all! -- 1 Timothy 1:15 CEV
Other passages about Jesus and sinners: Luke 7
Jesus said sin had an eternal consequence:
This commentary is relevant:
“Don’t fear those who kill the body,” Jesus said, “rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28; see also 5:29-30; 23:15,33; Luke 10:15; 16:23). Commenting on Jesus’ teaching about an “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), John Broadus wrote: “It is to the last degree improbable that the Great Teacher would have used an expression so inevitably suggesting a great doctrine he did not mean to teach.” According to Jesus, hell is real.
What Do All These Statements from Jesus mean?
If we don't do or say or believe the way Jesus did, then we are not followers of Jesus regardless of what we think or what label we apply to ourselves. If we do believe and behave like Jesus in a few areas but ignore many other areas, then we are a Christian (Jesus follower) but we are a poor shadow not properly reflecting the one we claim to follow. We may even do damage to how outsiders view Jesus and what they think it means to be a Christian.
Didn't humans write the Bible?
Yes and no. Traditional Christian doctrine (teaching) is that God wrote the Bible through the human authors that God selected. This is called the inspiration of scripture. Why would people believe that words written by humans are actually the words of God?! Now you are asking the right question. This is the most important question someone trying to understand God and the claims of Christianity can ask. If the bible is just a great work of historical literature written by man, then we can glean what we want about Jesus and discard anything we don’t like. If the bible is the word of God, then it is literally the most important collection of documents in the world. Strangely, most Christians and skeptics talk about the bible plenty, but they rarely investigate the supernatural claims made by Christians about the bible. Investigating this fully is beyond the scope of this post, but there are many good books on this. Have you read any of them or did you discard the Bible without giving it a chance? How many books have you read on other less important topics?
Here are some passages about scripture from the writers of the scriptures:
Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. -- 2 Peter 1:20-21
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. -- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Recommended Book List:
7 Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible - Amazon
Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ - Amazon
Our God is Triune - Amazon
Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books - Amazon
How we got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot - Amazon
Who is your Authority ?
If your views of God have been shaped more by humans than by the Bible, then you need to ask yourself a few questions: Why do I place so much value on human opinion? How do I know they are right and the Bible is wrong? Have I thoroughly researched the veracity of the Bible and found it without merit? How many books on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts have I read and considered their claims? Do I rely too much on my own subjective feelings when I interpret reality?
The New testament text has not and should not be expanded to include every modern idea that people wish it to include. God does not change. The Bible does not change. Jesus does not change. Following Jesus is very difficult to do well but the way to follow Jesus does not change. If none of these things have changed then any modern cultural or church ideas or beliefs that conflict with the Biblical Jesus are not Christian beliefs. They are man-made claims masquerading as Christian beliefs.
The proper role of the Bible in a Christian's life is the role of final authority. It is the primary guide for a Christian. It is the revealer of bad ideas. It is the exposer of false beliefs. It corrects us and grows us. It challenges us and pushes us out of our comfort zone. It is the light in a world full of darkness.
A final scripture verse to end with:
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”