What does it mean to be a Christian?

What does it mean to call yourself a Christian? A month or so ago this question came up in a couple of different conversations in the span of a few days. In one of those conversations I was a little surprised when a person who has been around progressive Christianity circles for many years answered the question in a very traditional way. For them, to be a Christian meant to believe the right doctrines – to believe in and accept Jesus as a personal savior who died for our sins to save us from hell and to believe in teachings such as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Unfortunately, this definition of Christian that they were taught as a child was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that they couldn’t see past it nor live up to it. I believe that this is a common experience in our world today and, as a Christian minister for whom this path has been incredibly meaningful, it saddens me.

This and other conversations got me to thinking once again about what does it mean to be a Christian.

I have for many years been uneasy with the dominant images of Christianity in our media and culture. When many (most?) people think of Christianity they seem to think of fundamentalist strands of our faith – often rigid biblical (selective) “literalists” who have no tolerance for anyone that doesn’t agree with them. These are the people who, whether or not they realize it or would admit it, use their religion not to guide their lives but to reinforce and cling to the racist patriarchal heterosexist hierarchies that they were taught as a child were “God’s way.” That this is often understood to be the true face of Christianity makes me cringe.

There seems to be two Christianities in existence. One is a cultural Christianity. This is the religious affiliation that most often gets put on display in our politics. It’s the “correct” thing to be in our culture but it has little to do with our spirituality or our relationship with the Divine Presence. This is the Christianity that simply reinforces whatever we want it to. This is the gun-toting Jesus of the NRA, the immigrant-hating Jesus, the Jesus that thinks rich people are blessed and favored by God – which isn’t really Jesus at all. Many, but not all, of the so-called fundamentalists fall into this category.

The second Christianity is the spiritual path of those who try to follow Jesus and his teachings. This is what I think of when I think of the question “what does it mean to be a Christian?” For me, it is simply someone trying to live in relationship with the Divine Presence by following Jesus and what he taught us. This is the Jesus who told us to love not only our neighbor but also our enemies. This is the Jesus who hung out with and cared for the rejected and oppressed. This is the Jesus who believes we can live together with compassion, in peace and justice.

Doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and even Jesus as dying for our sins to save us from hell are meant to teach us spiritual truths. They often need a lot of un-packing as over the centuries we’ve too often gotten away from the spiritual truths behind these teachings and they have instead become a means for the church to control people. Atonement theories in particular have often been preached in an abusive manner. That we believe these doctrines literally matters very little. They are not what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to follow what Jesus taught: try to live a life centered on unconditional love.

Luckily, I do believe progressive Christianity is becoming increasingly visible in our world but I also wonder sometimes if it’s enough. Does the term Christian itself have too much baggage? Should Christianity be abandoned to the fundamentalists and what I’d call the cultural Christians? I’ve sometimes pondered whether instead of Christians we might just call ourselves followers of the Way, as the early Christians called themselves. I don’t know if that would do any good or not. But, whatever I call myself, I do know I want to keep trying to follow the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who preaches the Good News of God’s love, the one who told us to love our enemies as well as our neighbors.

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