Faith & Spirituality

What Makes a Christian? A Progressive Christian’s View

August 10, 2017

What makes a Christian? This is a question that on the surface sounds really simple, but in reality is quite complex. Whilst most Christians have their own idea about what makes them a Christian, an idea which often coincides with the beliefs of their Church, the very fact that there are so many different denominations shows that the answer to this question is really anything but simple.

So what makes a Christian? Is it someone who believes in God? Is it someone who chooses to follow the teachings of Jesus? Is it someone who accepts Jesus as their Saviour? Is it someone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God? Or is it something else entirely?

Image of Cross cut out of a wooden block, showing green light behind. The words, "What Makes a Christian" are written across the bottom of the image.

It’s a question that  plagued me for many years, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t possibly call myself a Christian when I disagreed with some of the more conservative interpretations of what it means to follow Christ. Despite a deep connection with the Bible and a firm faith in God, I knew I sat on the fringes of Christianity and didn’t really fit in to the more traditional profile of what it means to be a Christian. But I kept being called back to Christianity and finally realised I could belong, because I consider myself to be a Christian.

This shift was not so much in my belief, but rather my understanding that being a Christian isn’t this clear cut thing. The works of Progressive Christian scholars such as Marcus Borg along with historians such as Karen Armstrong and Diarmaid MacCulloch really helped in this understanding. And so in 2017 I chose to be baptised and confirmed as a member of my local Methodist Church – the church I had known since childhood and have attended regularly since returning to my hometown.

what happens when we try to pigeonhole christians?

I found it rather interesting when somebody in a Facebook group recently decided to tell me that I couldn’t possibly be a Christian because there’s no such thing as a Progressive Bible-believing Christian. According to this person, you cannot believe in the Bible and interpret it in a progressive way. Which is exactly how I felt about Christianity for a very long time, so I get it… I’m not angry or sad about it, how can I be when I held the exact same belief not that long ago. The only real difference is that I was on the outside looking in whilst making this assumption and this person is on the inside looking out. However just because I understand it, doesn’t mean it is right! In fact, if anything, it does Christianity a great disservice.

So this led me to wondering just how many other people might have the same notion that there is a very specific way to be a Christian, a way that is unchanging and inflexible and which doesn’t have room for someone like them. How many of these people might feel more able to explore Christianity if they realised there are many different things which make a Christian? And how might we, as Christians, make it more welcoming and accessible to them?

Well, for me, the answer is of course communication. I’m a writer (and a linguist), so sharing thoughts and ideas is as natural to me as breathing and sleeping. It’s why I blog in the first place, and it’s what I feel called to do as a Christian – to share my faith so that others may feel encouraged to explore faith themselves. So let me tell you a little bit about what it means to me to be a Christian.

sharing my story as a progressive christian

First of all, I am a member of the Methodist Church. I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to be a member of a church to be a Christian, but I do think having a Church Family to help and support you in both your exploration of faith and challenges of every day life can be truly invaluable. Whilst there is a place for quiet solitude in our walks with God, there is also a real need for comfort and support, as well as celebration and laughter. We are called to love, and it is hard to do that alone!

Image of small cross with heart Christmas tree decoration and the Bible verse Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. "The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

So why did I choose the Methodist Church? Well, there are several things that are quite distinct about Methodism, including the fact that lay people play a major role in the running of the church, and there is a firm commitment to social justice within the Methodist movement. Both of these are really important to me, because they remind me of the parts of Jesus’ life and ministry that most deeply impacted me – the value he placed on ordinary people, and the importance he placed on care for the most deprived outcasts in his world.

There is another part of Methodism which I truly love as well, and that is the fact that it values reason as part of its fourfold approach to life as a Christian. As explained on the Methodist Church’s website, this means that, “We are called to love God with our minds as well as with our hearts. To the best of our ability we need to think things through in the light of reason. This means becoming aware of different points of view, and using our own critical thinking to make sense of God’s world.”

As a Progressive Christian, this means I am able to explore my faith in an open and questioning way, whilst still feeling like an integral part of the Church. Being a Progressive Christian simply means that I personally develop a far deeper faith through my exploration of the Bible and Christianity with a willingness to question tradition, accept new interpretations, and learn more about Religious Literacy.

understanding christianity as an ever-evolving faith

This is far from a new approach to Christianity. As Diarmaid MacCulloch explains in his incredibly comprehensive book, “A History of Christianity“:

“All the world faiths which have known long-term success have shown a remarkable capacity to mutate, and Christianity is no exception […] Many Christians do not like being reminded of Christianity’s capacity to develop […] but that is the reality and has been from the beginning. This was a marginal branch of Judaism whose founder left no known written works, Jesus seems to have maintained that the trumpet would sound for the end of time very soon […] Remarkably quickly, his followers seemed to question the idea that history was about to end: they collected and preserved stories about the founder in a newly invented form of written text, the codex (the modern book format). They survived a major crisis of confidence at the end of the first century when the Last Days did not arrive – perhaps one of the greatest turning points in the Christian story, although we know little about it. Christianity emerged from it a very different institution from the movement created by its founder or even its first great apostle, Paul.”

When you look at how much changed in just the first century after Jesus’ life and death, and then again in the following 300-400 years, it’s actually very clear to see that even in those early days of Christianity there wasn’t a definitive answer to the question ‘what makes a Christian?’ It’s no surprise to me that there are so many different denominations within Christianity, and in actual fact I find that the real beauty of it.

god is big enough for all of us

To me, God is this all-encompassing being that I cannot even begin to fathom, but who I believe has created this beautiful world of ours in all its diversity. So it only seems logical to me that He would create so many ways for us to know Him and love Him. I know that some people find this a challenging viewpoint, even one which might exclude me from Christianity by the very fact that I don’t hold much stock in the idea of true and false religions or a one and only way to know and worship God. And that’s a perfectly valid and understandable position to hold, if that is their experience of what it means to know God as a Christian. But it isn’t for me.

I hear terms such as “Alpha and Omega” or as the Good News Translation shares it, “I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:!3) and I cannot help but think that this includes all expressions of faith.

And when I read verses such as, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:5) I think more about the fact that God created all of us in his image and therefore we can do nothing without Him, than anything specific that we may or may not do. My experience is that we tend to get into trouble and find life far more challenging when we forget this and try to live life by our own means rather than with God’s help.

When I remember the verse, “God said, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) I am astounded by the sheer inclusiveness of this statement – God is what God is. He doesn’t ask for qualifications upon that – He can be anything and everything. Why should we limit that?

accepting our limits in understanding the limitless god

Of course, we are incredibly limited as human beings – there is so much we cannot know or understand, we simply do not have the capacity to see all or be all things. Which is why I think there is beauty in the diversity that exists within the Christian faith.

But just because we are limited, doesn’t mean that we cannot grow. I was thinking today about why I feel so strongly about the importance of a fluid faith, one that enables me to grow in my understanding even if that means questioning things which may have felt like solid foundations for a very long time. And I remembered this verse, “For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10).

And that is what it feels like to me to be a Christian… I have a partial understanding of who and what God is, not a full one. I can be wrong, and I often am. But that doesn’t make me any more or less of a Christian than anyone else. We are all seekers on a path, trying to know God and love God and each other. We have certain signposts and guides along the way, through reading the Bible, praying to God, worshipping together, building our communities etc. But basically we are doing our best, and that’s all we can ever do.

So what does it mean to me to be a Christian? It means seeking a personal relationship with a God who is at once both fully present in my life but also hard to understand fully because of my own limitations. It means loving all of God’s creatures, including my fellow humans, and honouring their own ways of knowing God even if they are different to mine. And it means always being open to the possibility of change – I may believe that God is unchangeable, but that doesn’t mean that my own understanding of God right now is right and doesn’t need to change and grow!

share your story…

I would absolutely love to hear from you in the comments about what makes you a Christian (if you identify yourself as one) or what you think makes a Christian (if you aren’t one yourself). Let’s share our thoughts with each other, in a loving and inclusive way.

And if you’d like to join a friendly and inclusive Facebook group, where you can discuss faith without limits, then please do visit us at The Faith Space.

The Faith Space - image of open Bible alongside Oracle Cards and Crystals

Please note: I have used an Amazon Affiliate link in this post for the book “A History of Christianity”. This simply means that if you click on the link and then go on to buy a copy of the book from Amazon, I will receive a financial reward from the affiliate program. I use affiliate links sparingly on the blog, choosing only items which I believe will be of interest to my readers. Any earnings made through affiliate links help to keep The Family Patch running. You can find out more about this in my Disclosure Policy.

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