Back when the term was first coined, “Christian” was synonymous with “death sentence”, which is why anyone who identified as Christian in those days lived undercover and on the run. Jesus warned his followers that they’d be considered outlaws, and so they were. Most were killed for the sole reason that they were Christians, but they willingly chose death rather than renounce their faith and lose their place in God’s Kingdom. This shows how highly valued being a Christian once was to those who were Christians.
Nowadays, the standard definition of “Christian” has significantly changed from the original incarnation. A Christian in today’s post-modern world is someone who attends church on Sundays, follows the Commandments (more or less), gives to charity, lives a comfortable if somewhat bland life, but is otherwise indistinguishable from non-Christians. Post-modern Christians easily blend in with the same world that once persecuted and killed them. They marry, they divorce, they have careers, they have children, they have mortgages, they have pensions, they have investments, they retire, until finally they go to their eternal reward never really understanding or even wanting to know what it means to be born-again or to follow Jesus. This is a standard-issue Christian in the 21st century.
So what happened? How did Christians go from being #1 enemies of the state to being dismissed as inconsequential?
We could say “the devil happened”. Without a doubt, the worldly church has been infiltrated by the devil to the point that it is now more the congregation of Satan than of God, but that’s only part of the equation. The devil can influence, tempt, coerce and threaten, but he can’t force people to do anything against their will. He can’t force people to stop being Christians in the original meaning of the term (that is, he can’t stop them from being born-again followers of Jesus). He can’t force people to water down their faith or adjust their lifestyle to where it is indistinguishable from that of unbelievers or even outright Satanists. Only individual Christians themselves can choose to do that.
Which brings us back to the question: What is a Christian?
Christians were persecuted and killed because their beliefs were considered a threat to the status quo of the powers-that-be, who were then (as now) under the authority of Satan. Jesus, whose most violent act was to overturn a few tables, was considered such a major threat that he had to be eliminated, on the assumption that eliminating him would also kill the movement he’d started. Ironically, eliminating Jesus in the mortal realm only succeeded in unleashing him in the spiritual one, where his influence was exponentially stronger. You can’t kill God’s Spirit; get rid of one genuine believer, and others will stand up in his place.
Knowing that he was not going to succeed at eliminating Christians, the devil focussed instead on compromising them to the point where they would no longer be a threat to him. He did this through infiltrating the worldly church with anti-Christ doctrine and splitting into denominational factions what was originally the same church at different locations. He also did this by making Christianity the official religion of many countries and regions, which was accomplished by blending Christian traditions and beliefs with pagan traditions and beliefs, so that the “NEW & IMPROVED!” Christianity would be more easily accepted by the non-Christian masses.
Somewhere along the line, being born-again and following Jesus were dropped from the definition of being a Christian. Those prerequisites were still in scripture, but they weren’t in the state-created, state-sanctioned, mainstream church. Instead, you were a Christian if you lived in a certain country or region, or you were a born a Christian if your mother was a Christian. Genuine spiritual rebirth was no longer needed, because allegedly you were automatically reborn at baptism (a few weeks after birth) or at confirmation (around age 12 or 13). As for following Jesus, the Gospel was essentially replaced by creeds that differed from denomination to denomination, but were the same in that they introduced lies that denominational adherents were forced to recite, memorize, and regurgitate. Some of the creeds even stated that if you didn’t believe them, you were eternally damned.
Again, the devil can seduce and bully you, but he can’t force you to do something you don’t want to do. Sometimes the consequence of not doing the devil’s bidding is torture and death at the hands of the state or other worldly authority, but that’s how it is. Jesus warned us it would be that way, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it is. He also taught us that the world is under the authority of Satan, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we find that to be the case. The Catholic organization’s nearly 1000-year reign of terror against genuine Christians, called the Inquisition, was dressed up to look like a holy war, with the papacy and its adherents heralded as the good guys and genuine Christians framed as the bad guys. The torture inflicted by the so-called good guys on the so-called bad was so heinous, I refuse to describe it here. Let’s just say it involved demon-level atrocities that only demon-infested people could have devised and carried out. And yet the people promoting the torture and those carrying it out considered themselves to be Christians doing God’s will.
I have a love-hate relationship with the word “Christian”. Jesus never used the word, but the early born-again believers claimed it. So the love part of my love-hate relationship is using “Christian” the way the early believers used it – to identify genuine born-again followers of Jesus who were so committed to serving God in Jesus’ name, they would rather be killed than renounce their faith. These were true believers who were worthy of being called followers of Jesus, and of calling God their Father and Jesus their friend.
On the other hand, the “hate” part of my relationship with the word “Christian” flows from how watered down to the point of meaningless the term has become today. What value is there in identifying as a Christian if the word is synonymous with someone who is, at best, well-meaning but impotent or, at worst, a hypocrite or con artist?
So what is a Christian? Is it time to reclaim the term, to bring it back to its roots and original meaning, or is it too late for that? Has too much damage been done, too much water flowed under the bridge for the notion of Christian ever again to mean what it did 2000 years ago? The devil has been busy over the millennia, knowing that while he can’t prevent conversions and rebirths, he can muddy the waters and poison the wells so that the converted and reborn have a hard go of it and nominal Christians just spin their wheels, getting nowhere.
If you ask me, as a born-again believer, what a Christian is, I’ll tell you this: It means, first and foremost, to be genuinely reborn through a genuine rebirth experience. Being genuinely reborn, Christians then have God’s Spirit with them 24/7, to varying degrees (never as much as Jesus had, but still enough to guide them in the Truth along the Way and to enable them to communicate with God and Jesus constantly and directly, through prayer). Being reborn and having God’s Spirit with them 24/7, Christians can then take their place in the Kingdom of God, surrounded by their brothers and sisters in Spirit in the cloud of witnesses mentioned by Paul and described by John. They can also either prepare to teach and preach the Word, or actually teach and preach it. They should be doing one or the other: preparing to teach and preach, and then, when emboldened by the Spirit, actually doing it.
Born-again Spirit-filled Christians who live in the Kingdom and who are either preparing to teach and preach or are actually doing it also take their cue entirely from Jesus on how to act in and interact with the world (e.g., follow the Commandments, love their enemies, treat others as they’d want to be treated, etc.). Christians, in the truest sense of the term, don’t make choices based on how they feel or what the world says is OK to do – they look to Jesus to see what he did when he was on Earth in a human body. Jesus is their sole example of how to live their lives. In the Gospels, Jesus first taught them theoretically what they should do, and then he walked it out practically for them to see the theory in action. He told them, and then he showed them; he told them, and then he showed them. This is the hallmark of a great teacher and preacher.
Finally, Christians always have their eyes on the prize, which is Heaven. Living their lives day by day, as Jesus showed them to do, the only long-range plan they make is getting to Heaven. Making it to Heaven is the overarching goal and guiding light that draws them ever forward and upward, no matter how bad things get on Earth.
This, then, is what a Christian is – one who is a born-again, Spirit-filled believer who lives in the Kingdom and is always consciously in the presence of God and Jesus, who either teaches and preaches the Word or is preparing to do so, who follows in Jesus’ footsteps according to his example of how to live in the world, and who is aiming for Heaven and therefore only does and says those things that are worthy of someone aiming for Heaven. This, to me, is a Christian, and I base my definition on scripture.
Even so, I also know that the term “Christian” will never again mean to the world what it meant at its inception, and that lamenting how cheapened the worldly definition of Christian has become will not change worldly Christians into authentic ones. Only they can choose, on an individual basis, to want that change to happen, and only God can make it happen. So while I distance myself from using the word “Christian” to describe myself to the world, I still use it with God and Jesus; I still stand among my Christian brothers and sisters in the cloud of witnesses as one of countless Christians who have stood before God throughout the ages, following Jesus’ example of how to live in the world and being guided and emboldened by God’s Spirit as I make my way carefully, carefully, and with fear and trembling, Home.