Let’s Get Biblical: What Does the Bible Have to Say about the Definition of “Christian”?

I have long endured critics who say that we are not Christian based on the Bible. No amount of sincere witnessing of one’s faith in the Savior of mankind and of one’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer, as Son of God, as Creator, and as the promised Messiah will satisfy those who choose never to be satisfied. They will always find an objection, some reason why your Jesus is a different Jesus. But for those with open minds who have wondered if our critics are right, let’s take a look at what the Bible actually says about the definition of Christians.

The word “Christian” occurs only 3 times in the Bible. Each occurrence, however, gives us some insight into the debate about who can be called Christian. If you’re going to start casting people out from Christianity on the basis of the Bible, you had better start with what the Bible has to say about this term.

Here are the three occurrences, in order: Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16. If you’re not willing to accept people’s proclamation of belief in Christ as the commonsense and gracious standard for being Christian and instead want a more exclusionary definition rigorously based on the Bible, these are the key verses to understand. Now let’s see what they have to teach us, in context.

Acts 11:26, in the Context of Acts 11:15-30

15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning.

16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.

17 Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?

18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.

20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the LORD Jesus.

21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.

23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.

24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.

25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:

26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.

28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:

30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

In verse 26, we learn that the term “Christian” was what others called the disciples, who in the New Testament tended to call themselves “saints” rather than “Christians” per se (e.g., Acts 9:13, Eph. 2:18-20 and many others). The term obviously stuck and spread and we are certainly happy with it, though “saints” still applies in the original biblical sense. But what do we learn about these people in Antioch who were called Christians? The next verse gives us a telling clue: “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.” OK. If we want to whittle down the definition of “Christian” based on how the Bible uses that term, we can suggest that real biblical Christians will have prophets among them, or rather be willing to receive prophets sent from Church headquarters.

The context of Acts 11 tells us more. It shows a Church suffering persecution, with active apostles and disciples reaching out to diverse geographical regions and doing missionary work. They preached repentance (note “repentance unto life” in verse 18). They had baptism by water and the gift of the Holy Ghost. They had a central organization that sent Church leaders to preach and conduct the work of the Church in remote regions. They exhorted believers to “cleave unto the Lord.”

Finally, in light of a prophet warning of famine to come, the Church organized temporal relief efforts to help the saints cope with food shortages.

So far I’m feeling rather comfortable with what the Bible has to say about “Christians.” Prophets, gift of the Holy Ghost, baptism, missionary work, organized central ministry with broad outreach via apostles and disciples, and organized Church welfare efforts, and perhaps even something compatible with a food storage program to cope with predicted famine in advance (might be reading too much into the text there). OK, my testimony is still intact.

Acts 26:28, in the Context of Acts 26:22-29

This is Paul’s famous encounter with King Agrippa. Here’s part of it:

22 Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:

23 That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.

24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.

25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.

26 For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.

27 King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.

28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

29 And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.

Agrippa, not Paul, the term “Christian,” but that’s no problem. What was the persuading that Paul was doing? He was teaching the basics: that Christ suffered for us, that he was killed and resurrected (yes, a real, physical Resurrection), that there were witnesses of the real and tangible resurrected Lord who had seen Him, and that He continued to be a light to the world. He wasn’t getting into fine metaphysics or details of theology and complex interpretations of scripture, but the basics.

Paul, in his teachings, emphasizes the word of the prophets. Again, “prophets” and “Christians” are being paired in the Bible. We also ask the world, “Believest thou the prophets?” Paul, though, was referring to the writings of past prophets, though he himself as an ordained apostle called by Jesus Christ through revelation was also a modern prophet.

We also learn that outsiders like Agrippa called the Christian religion an expression of madness. Check.

Believing in the basics of Christ as Savior and resurrected Lord, accepting apostles and prophets, and being called crazy: testimony still intact.

1 Peter 4:16, in the Context of 1 Peter 4

1 Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;

2 That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God.

3 For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries:

4 Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you:

5 Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.

6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.

8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.

9 Use hospitality one to another without grudging.

10 As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

11 If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

12 Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:

13 But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

14 If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.

15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.

16 Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.

17 For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?

18 And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?

19 Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.

Hmm. Gospel preached to the dead, list of sins to avoid and emphasis on the need to obey the Gospel, future accountability to God, and need to live in the Spirit now. I’m still OK with this. My testimony has survived yet another challenge. How’s that anti-testimony doing, fellow Christian?

Fortunately, I don’t require that others pass through all these hoops to be called Christian. If you sincerely believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, welcome to the club! Of course, there are some very cool things we’d like you to consider adding to your faith to strengthen your covenant relationship with the Lord and your understanding of the majesty of His Atonement, but we can talk about that later.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

56 thoughts on “Let’s Get Biblical: What Does the Bible Have to Say about the Definition of “Christian”?

  1. The term "Christian" simply means "follower of Christ". The difference between Christians and Mormons really hinges on the "Christ" you are following. Christians believe in a tri-une God, three in one, while Mormons focus on three separate and distinct beings, their "Christ" being one of those. It's a bit like pretending a tulip is a rose and no amount of evidence to the contrary will change your mind.

  2. Anonymous, if you believe in the authority of the Bible, you'll have to acknowledge the conditions that the word "Christian" was used in it. You'll notice that "tri-une God" doctrine was not included in reference to the word "Christian" in the Bible (nor does it appear anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter). So far, Jeff's definition of Christian makes much more sense from a biblical standpoint.

  3. Very good discussion of what the Bible actually says when it uses the term "Christian", Jeff. It's this type of parsing of the actual text and the attendant non-parsing of the text by many of those who say we aren't Christian that illustrates exactly why we believe we are Christian and many others don't.

    It also is fascinating to me that we are the inclusivists and people like Anonymous are the exclusivists. Certainly worth considering, when paired with the silly claim that we believe only Mormons will be saved.

  4. @ anon, Thanks for your concern. It seems however that you might be mistaken about the scriptural LDS doctrine on the nature of God. I encourage you look for yourself to see what our scriptures say about the unity of the Father Son and Holy Ghost. For your convenience I have listed some of the many references emphasizing this oneness in restoration scripture. This list can be found by looking in the Book of Mormon Index under the word “one” before replying, please read at least half of these references in context.
    2 Ne 31:21, Mosiah 15:2-5, Alma 11:44; 2 Ne 11:27,36; Morm.7:7 D&C 20:28; 35:2; 50:43; 93:3. Also see the testimony of the 3 witnesses.
    I also encourage you to look up the word “unity” in the topical guide of an LDS printing of the King James Version of the Bible for more similar references.
    As far as I know (correct me please if I am wrong) , 1 John 5:7 is the only biblical scripture that without question emphasizes the oneness of all THREE members of the Godhead, the Father Son and Holy Ghost.

  5. @ Anon continued..

    Of course LDS doctrine ALSO does teach that in one way the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are individuals. I assume you will see this as a contradiction so stick with me please.

    If you were to describe to me what a penny looks like you might tell me it has a picture of Abraham Lincolns head on it. I might later look at a penny and see the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. At that point I could either label you as a deceiver and a liar, or I could flip the coin over and realize what you were telling the truth. Is it so blasphemous to suggest that describing the nature of God might be at least as complex as describing a coin?

    A contradiction only exists when two statements cannot simultaneously be true. The oneness and separateness of the Godhead all makes sense in light of Jesus Christ’s statement recorded in John 17:11. (note that after this prayer Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to have physically morphed into one physical being but still in some sense retained their individuality and could still be distinguished from each other)

    No set of scripture emphasizes with more clarity the Unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost than do the Book of Mormon and the D&C. Sure there are other ways of interpreting biblical scripture outside of how the mormons do, but I for one can’t see how our understanding of God contradicts anything in the Bible.

    Hopefully something in my rambling makes some sense.

  6. Jeff, I like that in defining what a Christian is you did not rely on the standard approach of, "Christian = X" but more on looking at the context in which the term appears in the Bible, and why people were given that name. By looking at the context we see what else was expected of people who were called "Christians", and not what declared to be "Christian" several hundred years later.

    I find it interesting that when someone like our friend Anonymous insists that we are not Christian, it is because we are no trinitarians and do not hold to the decree of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (which oddly enough does not automatically make us Non-trinitarian). But there have been many Christians did not, and do not (not just Mormons!), agree with what was decided through the Ecumenical Councils. By insisting that being Christian is contingent on being a trinitarian, in the strictest sense of the word, whitewashes over the many varieties of how theologians have viewed the question of the relation between the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. We only have to look at Tertullian, who originated the term "Trinity", to see that he referred to the Trinity as "three people, one substance". Under Anonymous's strict definition of Christianity, even "the founder of Western theology" would not be a Christian.

  7. It is an unsavory game, Quantum. Good comments.

    Anon, the tri-une concept of three persons of one substance is not taught in the Bible. One can argue that it's consistent with the Bible, but show me the beef. Your beef is that we don't agree in how we interpret statements on God's oneness, though we fully accept Christ's statement that He and the Father are one. The issue is in what way are they one? Here there is room for discussion without the unsavory innovation of defining Christians as those who agree with you. To understand the issues regarding the oneness of God, and to see that there is a strong biblical case for a unity of heart, mind, and will rather than of substance, see my LDSFAQ page on the oneness of God.

    While Arius, clinging to John 14:28 (says the Father is greater than the Son), lost in the great philosophical battle regarding the nature of God's oneness, his allegedly errant non-Trinitarian doctrine did not get him branded as non-Christian. Maybe heretical and errant, but he and many others were not kicked out of Christianity for failure to accept the formulation for the Trinity that finally prevailed centuries after the New Testament was written. No one that I know of ever seriously argued that he had been worshiping a false, demonic Jesus because his metaphysics was off.

    I think what Anonymous meant when he said "Christians believe in a tri-une God" is "Christians believe exactly the way I believe. Since you have a belief that differs, you must not be Christian." I believe Anon is one of the proud owners of the old CultMaster 2000 software kit. It's dated and in need of major revisions as soon as some volunteer step forward, but it is still the state of the art on anti-cult ministry software, with powerful tools capable of proving anyone besides the registered owner is a member of cult. Awesome tool. Use with caution – and love.

  8. I never could understand that term "Mormons don't worship the same Jesus" Does that term make any sense to anyone else besides those non Mormon so-called Christians? Does their Christ have a different last name? Was their (non Mormon Christians) Savior not born in Bethlehem like our Savior was? Seriously seems like a poor excuse and not well thought out defense of Mormons-aren't-Christians bashing.

  9. This post is not an excuse to throw out all the slurs anti-Mormons use to attack LDS religion. They've been dealt with on other posts here. Let's have some discussion about the topic: what does the Bible actually say about the definition of Christian? And critics, how does your Christianity stack up with what the Bible says about the term Christian? If we required, for example, that true "Christians" have prophets and apostles among them, would you be cool with that? I don't think it would be terribly fair, but it would be more biblically based than, say, requiring that true Christians have to accept man-made creeds that came centuries after the Bible.

  10. Mainstream Christians believe in one God. We believe in multiple Gods. Our Jesus cannot be the same as theirs, as their Jesus is God, not the son of God.

    O Magnum Mysterium. Oh Great Mystery. Simply love those who critisize you.

  11. Anonymous,

    Saying that the only way to be Christian is to believe in the "tri-une" God is exactly the same as saying that the only way to be Christian is to believe in a left-handed Christ or a green-eyed Christ because none of these distinctions (tri-une, left-handed, green-eyed) are biblical.

  12. It is interesting that in both the Bible AND the Book of Mormon, "Christian" is something that other people call the followers of Christ…

    (Alma 46:15)

    Maybe I am only Christian if other people say I am…

  13. Good point, Matthew. If "Christian" started out as an insult ("those damned, cultish followers of that guy, Jesus, whom they call the Christ"), that's just one more thing "Mormons" have in common with the early Christians.

    Oh, the irony.

  14. I really think that, as LDS members, we need to stop trying to play their game.

    After a while, it's time to realize that the problem with Evangelicals is not that they are honestly "confused" about our doctrine and simply need us to explain it better. The truth lies in the fact that they don't want to understand – they don't want to argue with us on principle and scripture. They know we are in the right and they are wrong – they simply plug their ears.

    I don't really blame them for this. It would be difficult to have been raised in an Evangelical family your whole life, to find out that the truth lies with another Church. It's hard to tell yourself that you're wrong.

    We need to stop acting like we need some sort of approval from them to be valid. Mormons are mainstream now. We have a plethora of Mormons in government, the media, in sports and in nearly every other facet of life. I even think it's likely that we'll have a Mormon president elected in 2012.

    It's time we stop having this stupid argument with dishonest people that are not interested in listening at all. It's time start telling the truth and label them for what they are: "Trinitarians". Their doctrine stems, primarily, from a time far removed from Christ's life and the Bible.

    We are the only true Christians left. That's what Joseph's message was when he restored the Church, not to have us fool around with defensive "please include me!" arguments.

  15. Anon:

    It is absolutely, most definitely, a game that those like you are playing. It has nothing to do with what you or they believe to be right. It's pretty simple to distinguish between someone who honestly wants to learn about the Mormon faith and those who simply want to rile up and create contention.

    You say that the LDS church suffers? In which way? Our membership continues to grow, our prominence in the world increases day-by-day, and we gain more respect as contributing members of society. The very fact that you make this statement tells me you are dishonest. If we were truly "suffering" why would you be so concerned about changing us?

    You can envision me however you want, it doesn't change the fact that we are, indeed, right and you and other Trinitarian religions are most definitely, without a doubt, wrong.

    I know for certain that attempting to put on a facade for "you" isn't going to change your grievances with the Church, so why should I waste me time arguing? Better to save my energy for someone who is interesting in honest learning.

  16. Wow, it's amazing how judgmental those in the church can be towards one another: even when basing our presumptions upon a comment left on a blog. Do we really have to resort to accusations and name calling?

    As to the aubject at hand, I did meet a fair share of people on my mission that wouldn't accept us as Christians. But the majority I met did, and respected that. One of my favorite experiences was with a group that we met in one city. Initially, they seemed intent on disproving us as Christians (as I'm sure they were told to do to poor LDS missionaries). They were respectful, though, and accepted that we believed in Christ, even if we disagreed on specifics. We were invited to a weekly Bible study that we genuinely enjoyed: it let us see these good Christians in a different light. It also let them see these LDS missionaries in a way that they hadn't before, I think replacing a lot od the misbeliefs that have been propogated about us. When were tranferred I think they genuinely accepted us as Christians.

    Some will never accept us as Christians. And to most others, I believe only our actions will change their minds.

  17. CF, such posts are not for the deaf, but for those who can listen but who might otherwise be misled. It does make a difference and there is a need to help people not be scared off by deceptive arguments.

  18. At CF,
    I do not think that only having about 1% of the population being active LDS means you are quite mainstream yet. Certainly Mormons are known, but most people do not consider Mormons a Christian religion so getting elected to be POTUS might be a leap.

  19. mkprr said: As far as I know (correct me please if I am wrong), 1 John 5:7 is the only biblical scripture that without question emphasizes the oneness of all THREE members of the Godhead, the Father Son and Holy Ghost.

    Interestingly, this 2-verse passage was not in the original text! It was added during the Middle Ages, and while it still appears in the King James Version, modern Bible translations such as the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and others tend to either omit the Comma entirely, or relegate it to the footnotes. The official Latin text of the Catholic Church (a revision of the Vulgate) also excludes it.

    For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma_Johanneum

  20. CF
    I will try again. My many trinitarian friends are not dishonest, or playing games. They are good folk that do their best. They are not afraid of truth.

    To put them down as less than good God fearing folks shows contempt.

    They are living souls with families, parents, children. Refer to President Hinkleys words about them. He said they have great beliefs. We just have more than they do.

    Meet them on their ground and love them.

  21. @ Netzatch,
    Thanks for the link, I stand corrected, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants then seem to be the only Christian scriptures to emphasize the oneness of all three members of the Godhead.

  22. CF- I can tell you from experience (as a former Evangelical) that it's difficult to get Evangelicals to listen to you because the Evangelical message of salvation is ultra simple and easy. They believe that confessing with one's mouth that one is a sinner and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior ensures an eternity in heaven. It literally takes 10 seconds for them to "get saved". No work. No fuss. After that, it's all a "personal relationship" with Jesus, so you don't have to explain your actions to anyone. No good deeds necessary.

    I know many Evangelicals who vehemently defend their faith, but they can't provide a crumb of evidence for sola Scriptura or sola Fide, the cornerstones of their faith. They don't have a clue what the early church fathers believed or even what Martin Luther believed…but most will go see a Kirk Cameron Christian-themed movie in a second. Evangelicalism is a very "dumbed down" version of Christinity.

    I have to disagree with you that you (Mormons) are the only real Christians left. I think it is Christ's job to decide who the real believers are. I'm a Catholic and I have no doubt I'll see many of my Mormon brothers in heaven.

  23. I think the lesson learned here is in spite of evidence or facts that would prove your point, people will still hold on to their beliefs. It might be that the belief is so well in grained in them or that it was taught to them at such an early age that they will not question it, but in the end, they go back to that belief regardless of what they are given in terms of evidence.
    Anyway, they are more apt to listen to what their heart is telling them than what facts you might offer up as proof. It isn't being deaf, it is holding on to truths that they know to be true.
    That is not so hard for anyone here to understand I think.

  24. A man convinced agianst his will, is of the same opinion still.

    Now repeat 10 times.

    You think your behavior is based on what you know. In reality your behavior is based on what you feel.

    Get into the heart of a man and you will change who he is.

  25. @mkprr

    There is one passage in the New Testament that deals with the one-ness of Father and Son. We Mormons use it along with the BofM and D&C scriptures.

    The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ praying to his father. Christ thanks his father for the "disciples" given to him, and prays that they (the disciples) might be one in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one.

    20 Neither pray I for these [disciples] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;

    21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

    22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

    "Even as" in verse 22 comes from the Greek "kathos" – often used in the New Testament in front of quotes ("as it is written" or "as the prophets have said") and in other situations where a translation of "just like" would be appropriate ("be merciful, as your Father in Heaven is merciful").

  26. Along related lines, there's only one verse in the Bible that uses the phrase "faith alone" (or "faith only" in some translations). It's James 2:24 – and it again raises questions about those who say we aren't Christian for not accepting their doctrine of salvation by "faith alone".

    Another inconvenient irony.