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What is a Christian? (and other Religious labels)

Updated on June 18, 2012

The Christian label has a lot of importance in society. For some it involves a sense of pride while for others it's used pejoratively. The word carries so much weight that the use and misuse has had a profound impact in many people’s lives. Historically religious labels have enough importance that people are willing to kill and be killed for their label. For the rest of us less interested in war it's still useful to look at how religious labels may promote segregation and exclusivity.

Oh God, more with the ketchup?
Oh God, more with the ketchup? | Source

Possible Contradictions

Are you a Christian if you believe in some of the popular tenets but not all? Maybe. What if you don't believe in any of the popular tenets but you practice Jesus' teachings daily? Probably. Are you a Christian if you go to church twice a week BUT fail to be compassionate and forgiving to others in your life? No. If you fail to embody the central teachings of Jesus’ message you are not Christian. You may want to be Christian and/or want to be seen as a Christian but you are not Christian until you put his teachings to work. Concrete examples:

Sometimes we live in our own boxes...
Sometimes we live in our own boxes... | Source

Definitely NOT Christian...

-Claiming your interpretation of the Bible to be fact

-Going to war for land, resources or revenge

-Believing Jesus will not forgive you for your sins

-Treating non-Christians differently

NOT necessarily Christian...

-Memorizing and arguing over nuances and semantics of the Bible

-Going to church

-Believing Jesus died for our sins

-Being a member of a Christian community

NECESSARILY Christian...

-Extracting important spiritual concepts from the New Testament while recognizing it is NOT the only sacred text in use and publication

-Going to church to refresh yours and others’ spirit of kindness and humility

-Believing Jesus was an important figure trying to help us get along with one another NOT be separatist and exclusive

-Promoting and embodying compassion, forgiveness, peace, harmony, kindness, acceptance and humility

Virtues versus Knowledge

Just knowing a lot about a particular religion is not the same as practicing the core values of that religion. The quality of your life is the yardstick to measure your devotion to the teachings, not your intellect. Knowing a lot about Christ does NOT make you a Christian. A follower of Christ doesn't need to be able to recite Bible verses as much as practice humility, compassion and forgiveness in their daily lives. You are a true follower of Christ if you are practicing his teachings. The act of going to a Church doesn't equivalent to being Christian. It's only when you are practicing Christ-like attributes that you are a Christian.

...we have to find things in common with others before our world will see true unity!
...we have to find things in common with others before our world will see true unity! | Source

Other Religious Labels

Other religions deal with the issue of labels too. Some Jews refer to non-Jews as Gentiles. Some Baha’i refer to people not born from parents of the faith as seekers. I've participated in many different religious study groups and I've always been fascinated at how each person in the community views “outsiders.” Some have made me feel very welcome and excited to be there while others have been very exclusive and elitist. My experiences with Catholic and Mormon churches have probably been the most uncomfortable... You're either with the “in crowd” or you’re not. Mormon churches have meetings for everyone and than also secret meetings just for true Mormons. Everytime I've gone to a Catholic church I'm not allowed to participate in some of the rituals unless I'm a member of their church. Usually I get dirty looks as an outsider that doesn't frequent their church. Labels are very important to these people. It determines how they will treat you and what you're allowed to participate in. The Baha’i faith has felt the most welcoming, which comes as no surprise because their emphasis is on unity and world peace. The bottom line is that you must actually embody the core theme of the religion in order to accurately identify with its label. Otherwise, do away with labels altogether!

Photo by SFO
Photo by SFO
Photo by Joshua PIne
Photo by Joshua PIne


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    • HowToLoveOne profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Pine 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Note a distinction between #1) Holy Bible & #2) the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ taught forgiveness and loving your neighbor. The Bible covers many concepts in addition to Christ's teachings including the many apostles interpretations of Christ's teachings. It's more important to focus on the teachings of Christ and not every excerpt from the Bible. There are sacred texts from cultures all over the globe that teach concepts similar to Jesus' teachings and add to them (see the Bahai'i Faith on this). I don't believe it's very Christian to be a "Bible Beater." The Bible Beater is the type of person that harps on this or that excerpt but fails to understand/practice the core message. A good Christian doesn't hold their religion higher than their neighbor. A Chirstian spreads the message of Jesus without shoving Christianity down someone elses throat. The message is what's important not the Church. There are many people that spread Jesus's word without being associated with the Church.

    • profile image

      CJ Sledgehammer 

      6 years ago

      "Extracting important spiritual concepts from the Bible while recognizing it is NOT the only sacred text in use and publication" - howtoloveone

      Would you mind expounding on this thought?

      Be well - C.J. Sledgehammer

    • Sparklea profile image


      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      HowToLoveOne: Thank you for your feedback. You HAVE sparked a great discussion with this outstanding Hub. Blessings, Sparklea :)

    • HowToLoveOne profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Pine 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Spark- you totally captured the spirit of this hub. There are times when we are acting "Christ like" and times when we are not. My intent in writing this was to spark the discussion about what it means to be "Christian" and... if you really want to get meta- ... what it means to practice goodness, forgiveness, etc... thanks for your insight

    • Sparklea profile image


      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      HowToLoveOne: First, I love the title. Excellent hub, excellent comments and response.

      I have been a Christian for a long time. I've tried it all: 7th Day Adventist, talked with Jehovah Witnesses, been in the company of Mormons, have friends who are devout Catholics, have been a member of 3 different churches. (I am Protestant).

      I cannot begin to count the number of books I have read or the evangelists I have listened to: Joyce Meyer, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Robert name a few.

      In answer to your question "what makes a good Christian?" ...for myself, I cannot provide an answer.

      I've made so many mistakes! I pounded "religion" into my children. It was all I knew at the time, I was so young and naive, still searching. I thought I knew it all. I did NOT.

      I guess it all comes down to the heart. I fall down, I get up. I ask God to remind me of His Presence every day second by second. I try NOT to "tell" about God, but to "show" by my life and the way I live it.

      I fail, over and over again.

      That being said, I think most of us are quite perceptive. We know the difference between genuine and plastic. I know of Christians who have destroyed people emotionally and spiritually. This is what gives Christianity a bad name.

      All of this is my opinion only.

      I really enjoyed this hub, I voted up, useful, awesome and interesting. Blessings, Sparklea :)

    • TiffanyTWeber profile image


      6 years ago from Washington D.C.

      Sadly, I actually went to church with some very judgemental individuals growing up and it always made me sad. I always felt that leading by example and allowing people to come to know God by seeing Him work through his followers was a better way than talking at people and making them feel small. I grew up in a Jewish/Catholic household and have studied other religions as well. I'm a Christian (the noun), but believe that there is beauty and something to be learned by all religions.

      "Which aspect is more important to being "Christian" 1)Following your interpretation of the bible literally? OR 2)Following the spirit of Jesus' teachings?"

      For me, this is where a good church comes in. I've had a Christian education in school and am comfortable reading and interpreting the Bible for myself, but I also enjoy listening to a solid preaching of the Word that is fairly literal. While our times are different, the gist of the message applies. So for me, a Christian does both. There are clear "requirements" of Christianity/salvation, i.e. a belief and acceptance of Christ. He is the basis of the faith. In addition to that, yes, Christians follow Jesus' teachings.

      I think there's a fine line with interpretation (the "spirit" of Jesus' teachings can be distorted). People misquote and twist the Bible all the time to make it "nice" or "politically correct." It is not the job of a religion to make everyone feel good. So while we live in a unique time period and certain details change (i.e. the women in Prov 31 spun flax and wool and I go shopping), the message is the same. (She cared for her family and so do I -- No, it's not a barefoot and pregnant passage... she's actually a business owner and very independent - cool, huh?)

      The trick is to seek the message without contorting it. Yeah, it would be nice if everyone believed in God and behaved properly and loved each other. But we don't. We have free will. We have false gods. We have other religions. Christianity believes that there is one God and it is their God. There's really no getting around that. It's not that it's being exclusive, that's just what the Bible says. So, if people don't agree, then there are other spiritual paths to consider and then you just hold your breath and hope that the Christians are wrong. :)

    • Kitaine profile image

      Michelle Smith 

      6 years ago from Pennsboro, West Virginia

      There is much debate as to whether or not God does or does not condone war. It is fact that God did sanction war for his people the Israelites in the old testament. Deut 7:1,2,5; 9:5; Lev. 18:24,25; Josh 2:9-13; 9:24-27 God also gave them the "law" to live by. Whereas, once the messiah came - the "law" was done away with, gentiles were allowed to become Christians, and Jesus said you must love your brother - that no longer was it necessary to do "an eye for an eye" and so the basis was that before Jesus they needed the law to remind them they were sinners and to have rituals and constant sacrifices to forgive them of their sins then Jesus came and since Jesus's sacrifice and the ransom being applied the law is no longer necessary - and in fact he stopped his apostles from fighting and told them - Matt 26:52, 2 Cor 10:3,4, Luke 6:27,28, John 6:15, John 18:36, Matt 22:39 - So it is taken to be understood by most that since Jesus's coming it is not acceptable to participate in war.

    • HowToLoveOne profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Pine 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Kitaine- Excellent scripture. Jesus' words remind me of Alan Watts' "The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are". In the second chapter he talks about "Good" and "Evil" being different sides of the same coin. To the everyday observer they seem like they they are doing battle with each other... as separate entities, one loser one winner. The truth is really that they are both parts of something much bigger. If Jesus didn't see that separation (either with me or against me)than maybe being a good Christian means to love and treat Christians and non-Christians equally?

      Tiffany- I'm so glad you feel my pain about the exclusivity some Christians exemplify, seems very un-Christian to me. For someone who got into Christianity later in life it was a huge turn-off to listen to those that grew up learning no other religions or philosophies.

      You made a great distinction of "Christian" as an adjective vs. a noun... I may just need to edit this hub! That distinction was the subject of many discussions in my life. Here's my question to you and other readers: Which aspect is more important to being "Christian" 1)Following your interpretation of the bible literally? OR 2)Following the spirit of Jesus' teachings?

      I was unaware that God sanctioned war! It doesn't surprise me it was in an older text because God was perceived as much more spiteful and violent when the Old Testament was written. Everything I've read about the teachings of Christ (not necessarily the entire Bible) leads me to believe that Jesus does not condone war, violence, hate, separatism, etc.

    • TiffanyTWeber profile image


      6 years ago from Washington D.C.

      I think the Bible is very clear about the "exclusivity" that you talk about. God's word IS open to everyone which Jesus exemplified by sharing with tax collectors and prostitutes. He preached everywhere and to everyone inviting all to follow Him. You're right, Christians should be open and loving to everyone and the fact that many are not is sad and a huge turn-off for many; however, everyone, no matter how good they are, are not Christians.

      Jesus also said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." This is pretty clear and is substantiated in other verses in the New Testament.

      There are a lot of religions out there, and if you're using Christian as an adjective as in "That's not a very "Christian" thing to do," then you're right in a lot of your points.

      We are human, though, after all, and even Christians who work to emulate Christ's life and teachings falter. It's a continual process, like any relationship, that requires work.

      If you are to be a Christian (the noun), then the Bible is clear on that. It's only through a belief in Christ - not as a historical figure, but as the savior. (While there are other sacred texts, the Bible is the only sacred text for the Christian faith and all of Christian teachings from from it.)

      The Apostle's Creed is a good basic overview of the belief that is part of the Christian faith.

      "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."

      My other gripe in your article is that you say that you're not a Christian if you "go to war for any reason." So, does that mean that the people who defend our country in the US military are not and cannot be Christians?

      If you read the Bible, you'll see that God's people went to war (Old Testament). They didn't race out to slaughter, but they did defend themselves and war was sanctioned by God. (Read this:

    • Kitaine profile image

      Michelle Smith 

      6 years ago from Pennsboro, West Virginia

      That "separatism" and "exclusivity" is also what seems to be what bothers me the most about most religions out there. The belief that if you are not one of "us" then you are separate from "us".

      I found a very interesting verse in the bible from which Jesus was talking to John one of his apostles about some men who were not 'with' them that were expelling demons and John says (the apostles) tried to prevent them from expelling the demons(the men who were accompanying them) but Jesus told them not to prevent them...

      Mark 9:38-40 It says

      "John said to him:"Teacher, we saw a certain man expelling demons by use of your name and we tried to prevent him, because he was not accompanying us. But Jesus said: "Do not try to prevent him, for there is no one that will do a powerful work on the basis of my name that will quickly be able to revile me; for he that is not against us is for us."

      So basically from what I gather straight from Jesus's mouth is that that separatism attitude is a very humanistic attitude and not the kind that Jesus has. What do you think about that scripture?

    • HowToLoveOne profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Pine 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      After much consideration and a great bike ride I decided to remove the phrase, "NOT be separatist and exclusive" from the criteria for a true Christian. I also added "very" to Jesus' stats, per your comment. You are right, Jesus was and still is a VERY important figure. Ya go Jesus! “THE” figure is what worries me.

      The "separatism" and "exclusivity" that I mentioned was in reference to Christ followers who believe that you must be Christian in order to receive God's word. When a person creates an exclusive path to God (Christianity, Judaism, etc.) They are not really following the TEACHINGS of Christ. Instead they are worshiping a religion and creating disharmony amongst their fellow non-Christian friends.

    • noturningback profile image


      6 years ago from Edgewater, MD. USA

      I do admire the spirit in which you wrote this hub and I do agree on most of the identifying marks of a Christian, albeit one, you wrote "Believing Jesus was an important figure trying to help us get along with one another NOT be separatist and exclusive"

      As a Christian I believe Jesus to be wholly God and wholly man, not just an important figure, George Washington, Caesar, Napoleon etc. these were imporatnt figures. Jesus Christ is "The Figure" for Christians and He is who we should emulate. If we make mistakes along the way, so be it, we repent and move on. We must truly repent though, repentance does not mean we say were sorry and do it again and again.

      This last part, is my opinion of true repentance, but the part about Christ being more than an important figure, that is truth for all true Christians.


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