What is a Christian, then and now?

Originally printed as an editorial in the Christian Science Sentinel

There's a debate going on. Some observers say that it's partly politics, partly the "culture wars," and partly the effect of media usage, added to the not insignificant influence of particular religious segments in Western society. Yet whatever the arguments, there appears to be growing confusion today when the word Christian is used in public discourse to identify someone.

Some researchers have come to feel that Christian no longer denotes the general characteristics of Christianity as a whole. And because of some of the current political overtones and negative connotations in the media, Martin Marty at "The Christian Century" has noted, "You'll meet more and more people who say, 'I'm just embarrassed to be thought of as a Christian.' " Many good, thoughtful Christians out there today just don't want to be stereotyped according to narrow, often derogatory definitions.

But good, thoughtful Christians shouldn't be embarrassed, and the word shouldn't be allowed to be co-opted through either intentional or ignorant misuse.

After Christ Jesus set in motion the most powerful transforming and redeeming movement the world had seen, the first Christians found that it often took considerable courage to stand for being known as a Christian. What they believed and practiced set them apart. They were the "called-out" ones, which is one way of defining what it originally meant to be united with the early Christian church.

And from the beginning of Jesus' ministry, to be a Christian was at the same time both simple and profound. Simply put, it was to follow Jesus. "If ye continue in my word," Jesus had preached, "then are ye my disciples indeed" (John 8:31). Profoundly, it demanded a willingness to experience a transformation of thinking, a spiritual regeneration that would radically change both the inward and outward lives of those who followed him. Again, Jesus had told the people, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). Jesus' early followers - Christians - went forward everywhere, sharing the gospel, showing the way to be free of sin, healing the sick. It really wasn't a political movement in those first centuries, although the Roman authorities often feared that it was. It was a saving movement, a healing ministry.

Yet, in later centuries, much of its original healing purpose appeared to diminish. Then, in the late 1800s, a woman - a devout Christian - began to heal others as Jesus had called on his disciples to do. This woman, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote of her spiritual discoveries in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." There she explained the wholly spiritual relation we each have to God as His own image and likeness, and how what Jesus taught continues to heal both sin and sickness.

Perhaps there's an indication of what Mary Baker Eddy herself felt most clearly defined Christian when she wrote: "When will Jesus' professed followers learn to emulate him in all his ways and to imitate his mighty works? ... Christians claim to be his followers, but do they follow him in the way that he commanded? Hear these imperative commands: 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect!' 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature!' 'Heal the sick!' " (Science and Health, pg. 37)

What is a Christian, today? Ultimately, this is a question that each person has to answer in his or her own heart. Yet to follow Jesus surely includes both a saving and a healing purpose. It is a mission that can never belong to a select few, but to all who "continue in [his] word." And it's important, too, to realize the great blessing that originally accompanied Jesus' call. His full statement promises, "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

The Christian Science Journal, a monthly magazine, contains in-depth articles on Christian discipleship.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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