Saturday Symposium: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

Good morning! A special hello to all new readers who have found us within the past couple of weeks. We hope you’re enjoying our posts, and for those who haven’t seen our Ask Us! form yet: if you have ideas about future topics, you can send them to us there. If we choose to write on your topic, we’ll email you back. If you have any other type of inquiry for us and want a guarantee of a direct reply, use our Contact Us form. If you emailed us within the past week, it might take us another week to get back to your query. Since last Saturday, we’ve gotten three times our normal amount of email! But we will get back to you…we promise. 🙂

It’s time for today’s Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week, we taking our question from a set of reader queries and comments. Sarah’s reflection from two weeks ago on Christian Formation and the Cost of the Culture War has been getting a lot of attention in other places on the Internet over the past several days. As more people have written to us and commented on the post itself, we’ve seen questions like, “To what extent are students actually Christian if they can’t name basic Christian doctrines? Does it matter if a person doesn’t know official teachings? Isn’t faith more important? What, in your opinion, does it mean for a person to be a Christian?” We are posing these questions to you for this week’s Saturday discussion. As you respond, please be mindful of the fact that our readers come from a variety of faith traditions, including non-Christian traditions. Respectful disagreement is always welcome.

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

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6 thoughts on “Saturday Symposium: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

  1. Hey Sarah and Lindsey

    I am not confident enough to think I have the best answer to questions you are posing today. But here it this point in my life, as a new follower of Jesus, I am bursting with desire to know other Christians yet I am struggling to find that connection in a formalized church setting. Although, I feel connected in my heart because I am drawn to Christians and I benefit from their stories and their wisdom everything seems to change gears when doctrine or discussing the meaning of scripture comes up. For example take same sex relationships (and I am not trying to open up another discussion) Should I or should I not attend a church that affirms or marries same sex couples? AND just as troubling should I attend a church that will not allow a gay person to attend church or receive communion who is in a same sex relationship? I am not a teacher of doctrine myself yet there are ministers who do not agree on this topic, right? So who am I to believe? This is not the only point of difference that has divided church denominations. It has been my experience that doctrine seems to affect us inordinately on a very deep level of at the point of all our fears. It is the fear of being wrong about doctrine which stops us from being open and transparent and asking questions. Is it the disappointment / disillusionment / realization that we cannot live up to doctrine that makes us leave a church or not go to church.

    As a side note this very conversation came up between me and group of co-workers this week. One woman admits she will never go to a church yet she is very passionate about Jesus. She does have an unusual take on one scripture that made me go… whoa wait a minute where did you get that idea. But I cannot doubt her enthusiasm and belief in God or whether she is a Christian or even her salvation. My question to church goers especially evangelicals is: Do you even realize how many people are not attending church AND may never be convinced to attend church, yet they believe in Jesus?

    So it is hard for me to be fully convinced that doctrine or what church you go to is what makes you a Christian. Perhaps you might flourish better in one church over another. Knowing God’s love- not God’s doctrine, not God’s knowledge or the best argument- knowing God’s love is what makes us His. I can only say that many people outside churches can relate to the reality of the criminal on the cross. We don’t know what his crime was and I often thought about how Jesus saved him there on the spot. The man died that day in the moments after he was told he was saved. He never made up for his sins, he never apologized to anyone, he never had to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. He never had to endure testing and temptations over and over again. He never attended a church or participated in communion. Yet there he was given the free gift of eternal life.

    This makes me pause and baffles me to no end. So when I am struggling with so many questions and confusion over doctrine or what church I should attend I realize I could die tomorrow with very little to show for myself. So when I tell myself, in the end I won’t be good enough I remember the criminal on the cross. He was good enough because of his faith in Jesus, the Christ. He knew who Jesus was. I am wondering if it is that simple?

    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks so much for your input in this discussion. It can so hard to locate a good faith community, especially as someone who’s just getting started at following Jesus. Lots of lines divide Christians from one another. Figuring out what’s “essential” is hard!

      We appreciate you raising the way doctrines are often used as a fence in some communities to keep undesirables out. Coming from our perspective as people who look to Church history when we’re scratching our heads, we have seen that a lot of the historic developments of doctrine have come as people have tried to clarify who Jesus is. For example, the Council of Nicea was called, in part, to deal with the teachings of Arius. Arius taught that Jesus wasn’t actually God because Jesus was created by God. This kind of teaching affects what we believe about Jesus. The people gathered at Nicea declared that Jesus was indeed God, which is one of the early doctrines of the Church. Lindsey has found it helpful over the years to ask “Is the purpose of this statement to teach me something about who Jesus is?” as a way to cut down on some of the noise.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Sorry this is super long. For each question I gave a short answer and a long answer. Please feel free to read the short answer and skip to the next question if you’re not interested in long answers.
    Short answer (to the 2nd question): NO.

    — skip to my next “short answer” if you don’t care to read my reasoning —

    There is a lot of disagreement over “basic Christian doctrines.” Catholicism believes different doctrines and has different “official teachings” than protestants. Take Mary, for example. If protestants misunderstand the role of Mary, are they precluded from the family of Christ because they misunderstood that doctrine? Likewise, if Catholics misunderstand the role of Mary, are they precluded from the family of Christ because of that? I don’t think so. So, no, it doesn’t matter if people can name doctrines or teachings. You can be a Christian without knowing doctrines or official teachings.

    Take the question outside of the civilized world – Would a Rwandan refugee in hiding for their life but trusting in Jesus Christ be required to know official doctrines and teachings of the church? No. But within the civilized world, since there *are* official doctrines and teachings, if one does not grow in them, that shows either an inability or an unwillingness to grow. I would give a pass to anyone unable to grow (mental incapacity, horrific history, etc.). For those able to grow but not growing, it is either laziness or rebellion. To some extent, there is a “thumbing of the nose” at God, not growing because “they don’t have to.”

    The funny thing is, they *don’t* have to. I can hardly visualize our savior, dying on the Cross to save mankind, hoping beyond hope that they follow through with the traditions and church teachings or it is all for naught. I don’t see God on that final day, looking at someone and denying them an eternity with Christ because they got the “Mary” question wrong.

    But with that said, the heart that “will not grow” is evidence of a darker issue. And *that* could be a warning indicator.
    Short answer: YES.

    — skip to my next “short answer” if you don’t care to read my reasoning —

    Faith is more important than tradition and the recitation of doctrines and teachings. The Jews of Jesus’ time had traditions, teachings, and doctrines, yet Paul chastises them for relying on that in Romans chapter 2. It counted as nothing, and gave them no advantage over the Gentiles.

    But back to my comment on the 1st two questions, the heart that “will not grow” is evidence of a darker issue.
    Short answer: Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 13:13, Matthew 22:36-39 (among others – these are just examples. It’s an inward thing, not an outward or knowledge thing.)

    Long answer: I think there is a cause and effect question here. What *causes* a person to be a Christian? Faith. Not knowledge. But what is (should be) *the effect* of being a Christian?

    Galatians 5:22-23: But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.

    1 Corinthians 13:13 – So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

    Matthew 22:36-39: Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the 1st and greatest commandment. And the 2nd is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

    When that final day comes, you will not be quizzed on church tradition or doctrines, you will be quizzed on whether or not you loved God and loved people. You will be quizzed on whether or not you placed your faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ’s blood as a free gift.

    *Should* that result in knowledge of traditions, teachings, and doctrines? Sure, all things being equal (which they’re not!) it should. But if it doesn’t, that doesn’t preclude you from spending eternity with Christ in heaven.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for taking time to type our this reply. There’s no word limit on our Saturday Symposium questions. Your comment inspired Lindsey’s reflection this week on being a child of the Church (available at For our part, we think that many readers raised these questions because the students in Sarah’s class were self-identified Christians who had spent their entire lives attending religious services. Several of them had even been educated in Christian schools where it seems quizzical that they wouldn’t have had some prior knowledge about basic doctrines central to their own Christian tradition. You raise an important point for everyone to remember: namely, that different Christian traditions are different precisely because they don’t always share doctrinal understandings.

  3. Holiness is not a matter of what one knows, it is what one does. Holiness is also not dependent on one’s faith (or lack of it). Holiness and salvation is for all. Everyone received the “seed of truth of right and wrong” from God in his heart. One only needs to nurture that “seed” to make it grow and to gain a “well-formed conscience” or a pure heart.

    [CCC 2518: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Pure in heart” refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith.]

    These are the two greatest commandments to achieve holiness:
    Luke 10:27
    1- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.
    2- Love your neighbor as yourself.

    St Augustine had a simple formula for Christians to achieve holiness:

    [The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.”]

    [Seek not to understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand.]

    Believe, then, in order to understand our faith; and the more we understand our faith, the
    more we will believe. Then you will know what it means to be a true Christian.

    Many of the children who saw the Virgin Mary in apparitions were “uneducated”, “unsophisticated” – Fatima children, Garbandal girls, Bernadette of Lourdes, and more recently Sis. Josefa Menendez. It is precisely to those simple people that God reveals Himself for the reason that they are not hindered by their deep knowledge of theological doctrines and liturgical practices (and biases), but in their simplicity and innocence they are more open to God’s voice and inspirations. Remember: The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.

    • Hi Kasoy, thanks for point out that being a Christian be of high intelligence. An increase of holiness is a mark of being a Christian, even as people from other Christian traditions might prefer language of increasing Christ-likeness. There is beauty in child-like faith.

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