Monday, October 9, 2023

How to define real Christianity


Who, really, is a ‘Christian’?

Sadly, we now live in a society where even asking such a question is seen as being judgmental. But surely there’s a definitive answer, even if it offends someone.

Dictionary definitions are all over the map. One says, “One who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” But another says Christianity means, “Treating other people in a kind and generous way.” 

The last definition is patently ridiculous; lots of people of religions other than Christianity treat others in a kind and generous way. What has been called “the Golden Rule” (‘Treat others as you would like to be treated,’ Matthew 7:12) has parallels among nearly all religions, from Buddhism to Baha’i, Judaism to Jainism.

The other definition seems closer to the mark, professing belief in Jesus’ teachings. The problem with that one is that many folks who clearly don’t practice Jesus’ teachings, many who don't even know what those teachings are, still call themselves Christians.

Is that good enough? Can we define a “Christian” as ‘one who believes in Jesus’ teachings'?

Let's look at how we came to that word “Christian”.

Jesus called his followers disciples, but that Greek word was not unique to Jesus – Paul no doubt described himself early in life as a disciple (follower or student) of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel, in a speech to the Jewish rulers, described a troublemaker named Judas the Galilean as “drawing away (a Greek word linked to 'apostasy') disciples after himself" (Acts 5:37). The elders of the congregation in Jerusalem warned Paul that the leaders of the Jews viewed his teachings as “an apostasy from Moses. . .” (Acts 21:21)

Some Bible scholars posit that devout Jews of Jesus’ day dubbed his followers derec hanotserim, Hebrew for ‘the sect (or the Way) of the Nazarene’, and that Saul and other persecutors may have shortened it to simply ‘The Way’. Jewish enemies are quoted as using the term ‘The Way’ about them half a dozen times in the Bible (Acts 9:2, for example). In turn, those early Christians may have accepted the term, turning it from pejorative to compliment by linking it to the phrase, “The Way of Jehovah”, used nine times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs 10:29). Adding some backing to that speculation is that Luke used exactly that term to describe the instruction of a disciple named Apollos in Acts 18:25.

For about the first six years after Jesus’ death, his followers were almost exclusively Jewish. The Jewish leaders viewed them as a breakaway sect of Judaism. A couple years after they began to include Gentiles in their preaching the biblical account tells us, “… The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Ac 11:26 WEB) 

The word rendered ‘called’ could be taken to mean people in general calling them that, perhaps even using it as a derogatory term (like the followers of Sun Myung Moon being called Moonies). However, Bible commentator Adam Clarke (as well as others) noted that the Greek word translated‘called’ here is consistently used throughout the New Testament in reference to messages from God. The word is used, for example, in Luke 2:26 where it speaks of a man named Simeon being ‘advised by the holy spirit’ that he would see the Messiah before he died. Thus some Bible translations render Acts 11:26, “… the disciples also were divinely called first in Antioch Christians.” (Young’s Literal Translation.)

For the next fourteen centuries, people all over Europe and the Middle East called themselves ‘Christians.’ They did so even throughout the Dark Ages when most of them couldn’t read, when they had no actual knowledge of what Christ taught his followers to do and believe. There was only one church choice for believers – Catholic. It was called “catholic” because the first definition of that word is “universal”, and that was sadly fitting: as the kings and popes conquered other peoples and absorbed their pagan beliefs into the Church it truly became a universal mishmash of non-biblical, non-Christ-like doctrine.

As those kings and popes began to encounter other empires that could not be absorbed into their universal church they coined a couple new words: ‘Christendom’, for themselves (meaning all the kingdoms ruled by kings they considered Christian) and ‘Pagandom’, the Islamic, Asian and African worlds ruled by kings that wouldn't kiss their rings.

Even after Martin Luther’s protest broke significant chunks of claimed Christians away from Catholicism, kings and clergy still included those Protestants, politically at least, in Christendom.

It's really too bad the term Christendom has faded like Shakespeare’s English. "Members of Christendom" would certainly be a much more accurate term for the millions of professed ‘Christians’ living today.

So if all those who call themselves Christians are not really Christians, what’s a Christian?

The best definition of Christian would have to come from the Bible. One of the original Christians, Peter, said that Christ left “a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Peter 2:24) 

If we do our best to closely follow the model Jesus set, we can properly call ourselves Christians. If we do not, we cannot. What model did Jesus set?

  • Jesus taught his followers to pray to “OUR Father,” that is, his father as well as theirs. (Matthew 6:9) He never taught anyone to pray to him.
  • Jesus’ taught those early Christians to use his Father’s name (John 17:6), even though their Jewish leaders were discouraging people from using it.
  • Early Christians preached about Jesus, but they also taught the gentiles the importance of turning from pagan gods with names like Dionysus, Zeus, and Apollos to Jehovah God. (1 Thess. 1:9)
  • Early Christians had no special garments, special titles, or salary for clergy. In fact, they had no clergy. Matthew 23:1-12)
  • Jesus rejected special titles for himself. (Luke 22:25, 26; Mark 10:17)
  • Jesus exemplified humility, giving credit to his father for his teachings. (John 7:16)
  • Jesus took no money for his work. He died penniless despite being able to perform amazing miracles. (Mark 15:24)
  • Every Christian was expected to preach, and was taught to do so. (Matthew 28:19, 20)
  • Early Christians were united. They ‘spoke with one accord.’ (Acts 4:24)
  • Early Christians knew what Jesus wanted them to do, and they did it. “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:13) How many of Jesus’ commands can you name? How many are you doing?
  • Jesus commanded Christians to love one another ‘just as HE loved them.’ (John 13:34) He loved us enough to die for us; who would you be willing to die for?
  • Early Christians did not hate other Christians; in fact, they were forbidden to do so. (1 John 2:11)
  • Jesus taught that marriage was forever (Matthew 19:6), that sex belonged only within marriage (Matthew 5:32), and that engaging in homosexual practices did not have God’s approval (Luke 17:29).
  • Early Christians obeyed even dictatorial authorities (Matthew 5:42), yet they refused orders that contradicted Jesus’ commands (Matthew 22:21).

I could go on, but this has gotten too long already. Suffice it to say, you will find very, very few Christians that meet this definition of Christianity. But they do exist. They are on the hard, narrow road, rather than the broad, easy one.

Everyone else who calls himself a Christian is really just a member of Christendom. 

To read Part One of this discussion, click here.

Please feel free to leave a comment. 

 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this site by purchasing a book.


  1. Excellent consideration of the early church and what the Christian church should be today!

  2. Wonderful synopsis Bro Bill, I often use the distinction between Christendom and Christianity as you have. Much AGAPE