What Makes Something ‘Christian’?

In a previous post I argued that it’s not always “lame” (to quote Gregory Thornbury, President of The Kings College) to use ‘Christian’ as an adjective. While I did provide an example of at least one case where it could be helpful (e.g., “Christian philosophy”), I didn’t say much about what makes something Christian. To fix that shortcoming it might be helpful to consider a comment attributed to the President of my own school, Gary Nelson. During a forum this past January, President Nelson spoke about what makes, and what doesn’t make, for a “Christian Seminary.”1 The Tyndale Seminary Student Association relayed part of his talk at the forum in the tweet below.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to locate the video of the event, so all we are left to go on is this tweet above. Still, what we do have is insightful in a couple of different ways. First, the positive. There is certainly something right about this in that anything qualified with the term ‘Christian’ ought to in some way reflect the actual life of Jesus Christ. This seems to be what Jesus has in mind when he talks of judging a tree by its fruit. If we are truly fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ then how we treat others should be radically different from what we see in the world. This, of course, not only means that we are kind to those who are kind to us, but it also means we respond differently to those who attack us. When someone criticizes us, or what we believe, we don’t harbor resentment or plot revenge. Instead, we respond in a manner that reflects our commitment to Christ. When we see friends, or even enemies, being treated unjustly we speak out against the injustice and even actively work to oppose it.

President Nelson is surely right. These ways of living should be true of a “Christian school” (or anything else being qualified with the term). I would add that we should also be suspicious about those places that do not embody these kinds of commitments.

What I’m not so sure about is whether our commitment to treat others as we would want to be treated is the same thing as being Christian. The quote above, taken alone, could be read in two different ways and one of them seems mistaken. First, one might take the claim “A Christian [school] isn’t ‘Christian’ because of the content it teaches, it’s about how we live” to be saying that content is irrelevant to whether or not a place is Christian. That is, the way the members of a community live is sufficient for being Christian. This first understanding of President Nelson’s quote seems to be very much in the spirit of the famous saying often (wrongly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

This quote attributed to St. Francis and this first reading of President Nelson both overlook the fact that content, including words, are necessary components to both the Gospel and to living genuine ‘Christian’ lives. Contrary to what we regularly see proclaimed in today’s culture, there is something unique about Christianity. Christianity is different from most other religions in that it is not primarily about becoming a better person, nor is it primarily about how we treat others. Christianity is different from every other religion in that it spells out God’s actual plan of salvation (and our need for it). No matter how nice you are to your unbelieving neighbor, those kinds of actions alone will never bring him to realize that Jesus Christ “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:3-4). No amount of kind actions will generate these beliefs unless those actions are accompanied by words (pace the misquote of St. Francis), and those words must have a specific Christ-centered content to them (pace the first reading of President Nelson’s quote). Specific Christian content (as defined above) is required for anyone to keep God’s commandment to “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23).

Fortunately, there is another reading of President Nelson’s quote that isn’t prone to the problems noted above.2 If the way the members of a school live isn’t sufficient for being Christian, then maybe neither is the content of the what is being taught at that school. That is, what President Nelson might be saying is that a properly Christian school will be about far more than just the content in its classrooms. Content matters, but it’s not just the content that matters. It seems this is one of the problems Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day. Even though they had the right content, it was all they had. Like them, if a school today focuses on content alone it can easily begin to forget about the obligation to live in a way that reflects the life Jesus lived. This is what comes out in the rest of the 1 John 3:23 passage quote above. We are to keep God’s commandment to “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

In sum, how we live is important, but so is content. In fact, each are necessary (and, perhaps, jointly sufficient) to use the term ‘Christian’ properly. This applies to entire schools and also to its constituent parts (like a philosophy department). I’m proud that this something Tyndale Philosophy continues to try to embody in our teaching and research.

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  1. This tweet was about a “Christian Seminary” but since what follows applies both to seminaries and universities, I will use the more generic “Christian schools.” ↩︎
  2. I also strongly suspect this second reading is much more in keeping with President Nelson’s actual views. From my time teaching in the classroom I’ve learned that what I say isn’t always what people hear or even later attribute to me! ↩︎
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