The Essence of Christianity

September 1st, 2011 / 64 Comments

“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.” I like this ancient saying. But I’ve been wondering lately what the essentials of Christian faith might be.

Living a Life of Love

I’m pretty convinced that God most desires that we love. Jesus summed up the Jewish commandments by saying we ought to love God and to love others as ourselves. As I see it, love is at the heart – essential – of the Christian witness. The chorus of the old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” has some truth.

At their best, Christians don’t just love in any particular moment. They develop loving habits and characters. Such Christians exhibit a heart of love. As the apostle Paul put it, they “imitate God and life a life of love, as Christ loved them.”

But Christians don’t have the corner on the love market.

NonChristians love too. I know some Buddhists who love, and compassion is a significant part of Buddhist faith. The Dalai Lama is a great example of someone who acts lovingly and has developed a character of compassion.

I even know atheists who act lovingly. They say they can be good without God.

So while love may be essential to the Christian faith, it doesn’t necessarily distinguish Christians from nonChristians. Most people talk about the essentials of Christian faith, at least in part, to identify what makes the Christian different from the nonChristian.

Say the Sinner’s Prayer

Many people I know think the sinner’s prayer of commitment – accepting Jesus – represents the essential difference between Christians and nonChristians. “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” they might ask.

Those who emphasize (sometimes almost exclusively) the moment of decision to follow Christ either explicitly or implicitly say that the essence of the Christian life – around which we all ought to unite – is the conversion experience. Christians have been “saved.”

But this approach is lacking in many ways.

Many of us know people who said “the sinner’s prayer” but subsequently changed not one whit. We know people who say they accepted Jesus into their hearts but never attend Church. Other such Christians don’t really know anything about Christian beliefs. And some continue to live life oriented toward sin.

Is saying a prayer of commitment to Christ the essence of Christianity?

Have the Right Beliefs

The line I quoted about essentials and nonessentials is usually used in the context of doctrines. Most use it to say, “Let’s not sweat the small stuff. We agree on the major doctrines.”

Most Christians I know, for instance, think the mode of baptism one chooses is nonessential. Most Christians think nonessential whether one thinks the Bible has errors or is inerrant. These issues matter, but they don’t distinguish Christians from nonChristians.

But a growing number of Christians reject the notion that right beliefs comprise the essence of Christianity.

For one thing, there’s little or no agreement about which set of beliefs are essential and which aren’t. The multiplicity of Christian denominations is evidence that Christians can’t agree on doctrines – even essential doctrines.

Even if people agree about particular formulations of beliefs (e.g., the Apostle’s Creed), how Christians interpret the meaning of these beliefs can differ widely.

Take Christology as an example. Early creeds affirmed that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It’s paradoxical. Two Christians can wholeheartedly affirm the creeds but have wildly different interpretations of what it means that Jesus is both human and divine.

Besides, everyone I know emphasizes one side of the divine-human Christological equation more than the other. They may say they affirm both equally. But Christians I know reveal in the way they pray, worship, and talk about Jesus their emphasis upon either Jesus’ humanity or divinity.

Or take the contentious issue of God’s nature. Few issues seem more important. And yet Christians disagree about whether we should understand God primarily in terms of God’s power or love or holiness or something else.

Participation in Christian Community and Practices

The slipperiness of belief leads many to say what makes a person Christian has more to do with association with the Christian community. These people say the essence of Christianity is involvement in a community of Christ-followers and following the liturgy, rites, and practices of the Church.

This way of thinking has much to commend. It recognizes that community shapes our thinking, habits, lifestyles, and orientation in the world. When people disagree over beliefs, for instance, they can still unite around the celebration of Eucharist. A person may have a strange view of eschatology, but the essence of Christian faith is participation in the community not a particular view of end times.

Others worry about making participation in Christian community and practices the essence of Christian faith. After all, they say, this sounds like salvation by works. And it sounds as if one’s motives aren’t as important as one’s actions. Doing something with wrong motives seems opposed to Jesus’ teachings.

Besides, as they say, “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” And prayer, rituals, and meditation aren’t uniquely Christian practices.

So… Which Is It?

What are the essentials around which Christians ought to unite? Is the essence of Christianity love, commitment, belief, or community? Should we pick two or three instead of just one? Does a person have to excel in all four to count as a “true Christian?” Who is a Christian?

To be honest, I haven’t got this figured out. I’m still thinking about essentials and nonessentials.

I do believe Christians ought to strive for excellence in all four categories. But I’m not sure which are essential and therefore should be used to identify those we rightly call “Christian.”

“Do we have to choose?” someone might ask. “Why not let God decide?” another might say.

I think having an opinion on this issue matters a great deal. It shapes how we decide to live and what we decide to do. It influences where we invest our time and energy.

If we think saying the sinner’s prayer is the essence of Christian faith, for instance, we ought to focus our primary attention there and not worry much about the others. If we think right beliefs are most important, we ought to spend much more time teaching these beliefs than most churches spend.

Your thoughts?

Add comment


Kim Fields

Jay, I absolutely agree and only wish that you had shared this with me 30 years ago.  It would have saved me a lot of prayerful struggle.  Then again I would not have been in a place to hear your words of wisdom then.

Of course, we are still left with the more ticklish question of salvation, which is related but not necessarily the same. 

Thank goodness God has these questions figured out for I can no longer claim to have absolute answers to either.


Gene Schandorff

Let’s start with St. John’s first letter. Seems like he’s saying that there are three “essentials,” each of which you’ve included in your list. The first is “doctrinal” Do we affirm both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus? I’m not bothered by our tendency to emphasize one over the other, mostly because my own sense of where the emphasis should fall seems to shift depending on all sorts of things. The second is the first on your list. John says,  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

We are mostly quick to identify everything evil as coming from the enemy. Why are we reluctant to recognize that all love comes from God, your love, my love, a mother’s love, a Buddhist’s love . . .

Love does not make us Christian, the absence of love certainly identifies us as non-christian.

Finally, John says (and this one makes me really uncomfortable) “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

So, Tom, if nothing else I’ve suggested a shorter list. Thanks for provoking thought around this really important question.

Daniel Fleming

If love is primary to Christian unity, then it would seem all who respond to the Spirit in love share in some form of Christian identity.  In this way Christian unity seems to extend past the Church.

Mark Russell

Great blog. My vote is for some of all of the above but that is a bit of a cop out!


George Lyons

For about a year now, I have been wondering whether the difference between essential and non-essential beliefs might have to do with the practical implications of a given belief: Does this or that belief promote a life-style of love (e.g., the fruit of the Spirit)?

If a belief has no compelling implications for our demeanor / behavior, it is non-essential (e.g., how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). But to the extent that a belief tends to promote Christian behaviors / dispositions, it is essential.

That many Christians have not considered the behavioral implications of their beliefs may not indicate that these belief are non-essential. We may simply not have thought seriously enough about these articles of faith. (Maybe we teachers and preachers are responsible for this failure to connect faith and life.)

Whether or not this hunch is / is not helpful in this discussion, it seems to me that most average Christians have not thought rigorously about the practical implications of their faith. They tend to treat beliefs as merely personal opinions and behaviors (etc.) as if they are arbitrary and disconnected divine commands.

Dave Fraley

What (or who) is a Christian is not an important question! The real question is “Whom do I serve?”. It is our identification (relationship) with Christ and the fact that we do good in His name that makes us Christian. A Buddhist is not a Christian but can certainly be motivated and encouraged by Christian ethics and/or by the Holy Spirit. It is relationship, for me, that defines what it means to be a Christian, both vertical and horizontal relationships. God knows the heart. He is the only judge. I gain a great deal of comfort knowing that I do not have to decide.

Chris May

Thanks for the question.  Our assumptions about such things leave us all thinking we agree with one another.  When we start to actually wrestle with the words “we assume everyone understands”, we discover our thoughts are actually very different. 

However, it seems to me that the quest for a definition of “essentials” is tricky business.  I think it is what lies behind, at least in small part, what we have come to know as the “fundamentals of faith”.

Cody Marie Bolton


Your blog got me thinking about love and what is love to me, to Christians and to others. From my experiences, I have seen two different types of love. Love in the nonChristian world and what I call “genuine love” in the Christian world. I hope I can explain it here.

NonChristian love, as I have seen it, mimics Christian love. It’s a person who mows their neighbors lawn; it’s a person who gives money to the homeless. Usually, I have seen this action of love come from feelings of pity and sympathy. NonChristian love isn’t a shallow love, but it isn’t as deep or rewarding and fulfilling as Christian love is.

Christian love, “genuine love”, as I see it, has to do with compassion and empathy. When the nonChristian love fails, Christian love prevails. It is one of the most deep, passionate feelings you could ever get.
Something supernatural comes from this type of love. I believe that to be the Holy Spirit. Sure, it mimics nonChristian love with its actions on the outside, but Spiritually something happens, and a connection is made when Christian love is shared and passed on.

I hope this makes sense,


I once saw an Elvis impersonator.  There were a couple of problems…he didn’t look at all like Elvis, he didn’t sound like Elvis, in fact, he didn’t even move much like Elvis – consequently, it didn’t take me long to figure out that he wasn’t Elvis.

If our understanding of the word “Christian” is correct and it is defined as “Christ-like”, then we know that we are “Christian” when Jesus can be seen in us (and we know that we are not “Christian” if we don’t look at all like Christ).

Being Christian…

…is not about saying a particular prayer, it starts with believing that Jesus was sent out of God’s love and His blood serves as the sacrifice that we need for our sins to be forgiven.  We are transformed as we repent from our selfish ways and learn to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

…has less to do with the method of water baptism and more to do with learning to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and learning to keep in step with the Spirit.

…has nothing to do with loyalty to this system of beliefs or that one; it has to do with loving Christ and keeping His commandments.  Too many believe that loving others requires us to embrace tolerance, but Scripture shows us that Jesus was not tolerant of sin and He expected people to change their lives and their lifestyle in order to follow Him.

…isn’t affiliation with a particular group of believers.  Clearly the fellowship of other Christians is essential to maturity and encouragement, but going to church doesn’t make one a Christian.

Being Christian means that I abandon my selfishness (and my self-righteousness) in order that the Holy Spirit can mold, shape, and change me into a reflection of Jesus.  I allow the Scriptures to reveal areas of my life that do not fall in line with God’s will and I seek the accountability of other believers to help me mature and grow in grace.

It might sound simplistic, but the essence of following Christ is walking as Jesus walked, forgiving as He forgave, loving as He loved, and teaching what He taught.  There is no point in overcomplicating it.

Vickie Morgan

We briefly touched on this subject in our women’s Bible study this morning.  It came down to the idea that Christians are in some way different from non-Christians. I believe being a Christian is a mysterious and miraculous inward process of becoming less “self-centered me” and more like God-centered Christ.  Both of the following Scripture excerpts by the Apostle Paul – “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18) and “when God…was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16) – speak to me of what a Christian is. [Even though I could possibly be accused of prooftexting (?) by picking out such short phrases.] When someone can truly see Jesus in me:  in my love, in my commitment to God, in my beliefs, in my community relationships and practices, in my constant surrender of my selfish nature, and in that mysterious element of being different as Christ was different – only then can I consider myself a Christian.  I cannot work this all out for myself; only Christ working in me makes it possible.  How do I know another person is a Christian?  God is the only and ultimate judge – my job is to allow Jesus to reveal Himself to others through me so that, if they are not on this Christian journey, they might make the choice to begin.

Lige Jeter

Dr. Oord.
The complex question: “Who is a Christian” should stimulate a variety or responses? This is an important topic, to get people thinking, especially when there are so many different world(ly)views on the subject?

The view I most prefer is the Biblical definition of a Christian that Luke wrote about in Acts [11:26] where the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. They were called Christians because they took Christ’s teachings as their doctrine of belief and were willing to follow His rules of life.

Christians are not made, by the life-style they choose, as if they could affect moral change on their own, but must be born again as Jesus told Nicodemus which can only occur in Christ.

I believe that once someone has made Christ Lord of his life all those attributes that you mentioned are evidence of our witness to the world. Yes the world can counterfeit much of the Christians behavior, but they can’t pass for the genuine because the blood has not been applied. One should read: John [3: 18,36] I John [5:10, 12] 2 John [1:9] Luke [4:41] Matthew [18:11]

Pastor Richard Lighthill

Of course, we must add what Jesus Himself said: “You are My disciple IF you do what I command.” Thus loving obedience to Christ must be a key part of the mix in labeling oneself a “Christian”.

Rich Mark

I agree that this is an important issue, but my initial reaction to the question, “What are the essentials to being a Christian” cause me to think of the turn toward fundamentalism back in the early 20th century, which I think many would argue has been a divisive turn for the church.  Of course, I suppose it could be said that what is lacking in much of today’s fundamentalism is the lack of charity, though I doubt any fundamentalist would agree with that assessment.
Basically, my view is that it is a tricky question, not because the question itself is inherently tricky, but because of the historical baggage.  For example, the question of participation in Christian community was historically not even a question, it was a given.  But not so since the modern Enlightenment.  Modern and even postmodern Christians assume they can be a Christian outside of Christian community, whereas that most likely was not the case in early Christian (or Jewish) history.  In my view, the recent trend within evangelicalism back toward a communal approach to Christianity is a move toward a more biblically faithful and God-intended direction. 

Even regarding the issue of right beliefs, it seems to me that Christians today, regardless of their respective tradition, have such a developed theology compared to what the early Christians in scripture appear to have had that it is hard to argue for much more of a litmus test than what early Christians confessed, that the beginning of the good news is found in Jesus Christ, the son of God (Mk. 1:1), that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17), that God has called us into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:9), that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised, and that he appeared to the twelve and others (1 Cor. 15:1-8).  According to Christian history, it appears that even this simple Christ-centered confession was enough to produce all kinds of early heresy and division.

Also, it is interesting to note that 2 Cor. 13:5 suggests that there IS a test that Christians must meet, which seems to be defined by the crucified life of Christ as the pattern for our own lives, outlined in v. 4. 

Finally, for myself, as one who is part of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition, any understanding of what makes a person a Christian must at least wrestle with the meaning of Rom. c. 8, particularly statements such as, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9b), or, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (v. 14).

A worthwhile discussion.  Thank you.

David Ackerman


These are difficult issues, especially in a post-modern, relative age where truth is difficult to pinpoint. A good example for us is Paul the Apostle. For Paul the essence of being a Christian was being “in Christ.” All of life revolves around this idea. To be a Christian is all wrapped up in the name. It all depends on what we do with Jesus Christ. Morality, community, love, even somewhat soteriology, all take second place to relationship with Christ. The ancient creeds agree with this to a point, but we must go back to scripture itself at this point. As Paul reflects in Ephesians 3:14-21, it is the Trinity that binds us together with God, and at the hinge of all this is Christ. There can be no compromise or question at this point. A quasi Christian “movement” is not Christian unless it is Trinitarian and Christo-centric.

Tony Scialdone

Discussions about essentials often devolve because they’re usually about two different subjects. There’s a big difference between gaining entrance to Heaven and living as God intends.

If one asks “what should Christians do?”, then we have the entire New Testament as a starting point.

If one asks “what is the minimum requirement for getting into Heaven?”, that’s another matter entirely. I don’t, of course, have the answer.

One clue might come from Hebrews 11:6, where we read that “he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Regardless of whether one understands the nature of the trinity, or has discerned the proper theory of the atonement, or has rightly judged whether the gifts of the Spirit are operative today, it appears that simply believing that God exists and coming to Him for what He has to offer is a starting point. After that, I can only rely on this truth: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

A good topic for discussion, Tom!

Dave Troxler

Interesting that this was posted today.  Also today, I received the demographic report of a local “evangelical/fundamentalist” church in a neighboring community. About a year ago, they surveyed a number of churches on a variety of topics, to see where they would put their energy into church planting.  This was their report back to participants.

I was immediately frustrated by their conclusions as to Christian faith in our general area as no Roman Catholic or Orthodox congregations were included, as well as other so-called “liberal” denominations.  Their result was that our community has a 97% non-Christian affiliation.

After reading your post, I can say with you that there are some estimations of what constitutes genuine Christian faith that are lacking.

Bob Branson


You have written on a difficult subject. We are called to be followers of the Way—Jesus. That means there are certain things we are to believe—about Jesus, God, the Spirit, etc., certain responses we are to make to the claims of the Spirit, certain life-style and attitude changes that have to be made. Yet, what is the level of these beliefs, responses, and changes that qualifies one as Christian? Some persons by temperament, opportunities, and actions seem to be excellent models of what it means to be a Christian. Yet most of us have work, family, and community obligations that take our time and energy away from “spiritual” endeavors. We can’t all be monks or nuns.

I think it is important for the leaders in the Church to teach what we are to believe, even some of those items we might think are unessential. It is important for them to help us to be sensitive to the call of the Spirit and to inform us of actions that are not in keeping with a Christian life-style.  Yet I see the vast majority of laity striving to live a Christian life but who also must balance the demands of work and family. Who am I to say that this one is a Christian and another is not. Let us remember that Paul warned us about judging one another (Rom 14:4). 

I think that in final analysis we have to cast ourselves into the arms of a loving Father who knows our limitations, faults, and failings, and plead for mercy and not justice.

Dennis Carter

Christian = Follower of Jesus

Wm. Andrew Schwartz

The difficulty you are describing regarding the identification of essential and nonessential attributes of Christianity seems to me rooted in the question. That is, it seems your pursuit is for the essentials of “generic” or “general” Christianity. Yet, Christianity, like all religion, is always contextualized. Ultimately, there is no “single” Christianity, and therefore, we are incapable of identifying a “single” set of essentials. If, for example, the essentials of Christianity are proper belief, the question then becomes, what is orthodoxy? Who decides? It seems to me that orthodoxy (in today’s context) is always determined by localized communities. Therefore, we can only identify the essentials of Christianity “for us” (a particular community of believers). This is where denominations can be useful. As you mentioned, denominations are a sign that we do not all agree on the essentials. However, denominations are also a clear sign that “we” (meaning those consisting of a specific community) do agree on the essentials. So, perhaps a better question for those of us in the Church of the Nazarene would be – what are the essentials of Christianity from the perspective of the Church of the Nazarene? I expect that by localizing the question, we are more apt to discover a substantial answer – though I do not pretend that even in a localized context that the question is a simple one.

Thomas Jay Oord

John Sanders writes…


You laid out the problems well. I think that an underlying assumption is that there must be a necessary and sufficient condition in order to delimit the category. Tom Oden and conservative evangelicals have tried to develop such lists theologically but, in my opinion, it always fails because when you ask about the Coptic or Syrian Christians who do not affirm Chalcedon folks such as Oden say that they are close. But close is not allowed by necessary and sufficient conditions. Either belief in the “Two natures” doctrine is necessary or it is not. I prefer to utilize the idea of radial categories developed by cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff. In this approach there are conditions (usually culturally formed) used to formulate what is normal or central in a category. For example, there are conditions which label creatures mammal or bird. Most cultures in the world think of the center of the bird category by a bird the size and shape of a robin. No culture place raptors as the ideal or central bird. We have “idealized cognitive models” (ICM) of weddings, games, colleges, churches, etc. When we say, “Now that was a wedding” we mean that it fit our ICM. The further away from the ICM one goes (e.g. duckbilled platypus) we begin to question whether or not it belongs in that category. Usually, there are no hard and fast lines for what is in and what is out but we become more doubtful. So, someone who purports to be a Christian but then denies that Jesus ever existed is a long ways from our ICM of a Christian. This is too brief but I hope I’ve communicated a bit of the idea. 


Tiana Cutright

Thank you for this post. It, and all these thoughtful comments, got me thinking through some issues in one of my own writing projects. After a bit of pondering, I’ve a definition I’d like to contribute to the conversation. In my mind, this is what constitutes essentials worthy of unity:

A Christian is a person who pursues love through every means available, according to that person’s present capacity for devotion to the beautiful paradox who is Christ.

Every spiritual tradition, and every tradition within the Christian sphere, has its own perspective on love (as well as its own disagreements about love): what it means, what it looks like, in what ways it is of value to our lives. But a Christian looks at the example of Jesus, and feels a desire to participate in the ongoing way of life Jesus offers, and accepts that the suffusing presence of this Jesus the Christ is real and relevant to the present moment. This is discipleship: to want to love like Christ loves.

So by all means, let’s honor and respect love wherever we find it. Let’s support love as other religions experience it. And if we name ourselves Christians, let’s learn how to love from Christ.

Belief and community and commitment, then, are ways to involve ourselves in such learning. The ways and means change over time. Funny how Christ, as a present-tense reality, keeps wriggling free of any and all past expectations for a living faith. Tradition lets us love without requiring us to reinvent the wheel every time someone finds new life in Jesus. However, when thoughtless rigidity hinders belief, or hypocrisy damages community, or unloving representations of God wound commitment, I think we must loosen our hold on such means in order to cling to the possibility of our chosen end.

I place love at the center of Christian faith. Everything else is essential in that it imparts a recognizable flavor to that love—if we want to call it specifically Christian. If, as the Apostle Paul puts it, I have all the trappings of transcendent faith, “but have not love, I gain nothing.”




As a church that uses the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed as our statements of core beliefs this post resonates. We do run into multiple possible interpretations of these creeds. For example in the Apostles’ Creed. Did Jesus descend to Hell, and if so what did he do there? Or did he descend to the dead, meaning that he was just plain dead and buried.  Each answer has implications for theology and thus a core belief creed is not so cut and dry after all. However I think there is a place for core beliefs as a way to define what is meant by Christian, and for me this centers on the cross and the resurrection.


Hi Tom,

I think we can safely say that if it were possible to track down every bit of love or goodness in the world (regardless of its source), we’ll find it originates from God’s immeasurable and impartial love. (Matt. 5:45)

As to your question, both John and Paul give us the short answer. John said, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (I John 4:13)Paul said, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Rom. 8:9)

Their criterion points to the personal presence of God’s Holy Spirit as the indisputable proof of sonship. And the Spirit makes His presence known in different ways. (Gal. 5:22-23) But the NT also emphasises my need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in God’s endeavour to transform my self-centred character to a Christ-centred character. (Gal.4:19; Eph. 4:13)

As a Wesleyan I understand that this process can be stunted or even thwarted because we are all responsible moral beings who have a measure of freedom in exercising our will, therefore it is possible for me to “grieve” (smother or block) the Spirit’s efforts at morally transforming me in the image of Christ. The Corinthian church is not a very good example of Christianity, yet Paul still called them “brothers” and he urged and cajolled them to get back on track and re-focus on Christ.

The real measuring stick is internal (the Spirit) (Rom. 8:16), which ought to be corroborated by supporting external evidence. (Gal. 5:22-23)

Another way to approach this question is to ask, “Who or what is a Christian disciple?”

It seems to me that Jesus taught His disciples at least six things which He instructed them to pass on to us. Periodically, I measure my personal discipleship against them, which can be a scary thing at times! Here they are as I understand them.

1.) God’s love must be the supreme motive for all my thoughts and actions.

2.) I can always rely on God’s Word to guide and sustain me.

3.) Faith is entrusting myself completely into God’s loving care regardless of my circumstances.

4.) Prayer is the means by which I am to nurture my relationship with God, as well as the means by which I discern and accomplish God’s will.

5.) Sacrificing my life for God’s will is the only way I can experience fullnes of life and fulfill God’s purposes.

6.) God transforms my selfish human nature through the cross of Jesus Christ and in no other way.

Thanks for reminding us of the essentials.

Roy (SA)

Scott Carver


Thanks for your thoughts on this.  Growing up in the Nazarene denomination I was saddened that most of the time we were known by others not for “our love” but for what we stood against.  Love and grace is such an essential piece that I believe many of our churches are still neglecting.  We sometimes are so quick to judge people that we miss the darkness and faults that lie within ourselves.

You are right that the essentials of Christian faith are hard to define, but your emphasis on love seems spot on.  “For God so LOVED the world” is something I am clinging to each day.  My prayer is that all of us as the church become known for our love for one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies.  May our acts of service to the poor and voice for the downtrodden be so apparent to all those around us.  May we be known for our love, our hope, and our peace in this world.

Every time I walk into worship it is not about the things that are dividing us, but the One who brings us together each week.

God’s Blessings,


Jordan Iwami

I was struck by your comment on love. I think that as Christians we like to believe we have some sort of magical penetrating love that far outweighs love shown by those outside our faith. However, your point is very true. I certainly don’t think I can say that I am more compassionate than the Dalai Lama. Of course the bigger issue is that many Christians are not conveying genuine Christ-like love. While it may not set us apart it would certainly restore our credibility in the eyes of the world.
I am reminded of the quote from Mohanda Gandhi, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
It is something to think about.

Donald Minterr

I confess to being drawn to John Sanders expression of Lakoff’s ICM, but like Wittgenstein before him, Lakoff struggles with who gets to determine the ICM?  Is it communal or individual?  And of course, just how far can you drift before the duckbilled platypus is no longer within the norm of the ICM.  I would suggest that communal expressions serve best (e.g. the local church) and that the question is moot until you insist that those communities link up and function as one.  Or try to critique each others ICM.  The beauty of language is that as Lakoff suggests, the ICM ‘self loads’ to each individual.  Hence, the less definition the better, in that it allows each community to use the ICM when it embraces the generics like ‘love.  Hence, I can use Oords words, even quote him, knowing that my hearers will load the ICM of our community, and hence not find offense at his definition of ‘love’ for example, even though I know his ICM is very different than mine.  So in the end, the question is dangerous is you mandate we all use the same ICM, and moot, if we allow each cultural community to self load its own ICM…  Aghhhh, the beauty of flexible language…  ANd I would argue is the ‘power of the Word’, it allows each culture to self load its own ICM.

Mark W. Wilson

Part of the difficulty of the subject comes from a lack clarity regarding the question. Are we asking, “Who is saved?” or “What are essentials of a Christian life?” Although we should be able to give a biblical description of how one can be saved,as many have pointed out, who is saved must be left up to God.

It seems that most of what is on your list addresses what we must do to be genuine Christians: believe right doctrines, act right ways, hang out with the right people. But much of who is a Christian depends on what God has done in the heart of the person in question. I am not a five-point Calvinist who would say it all depends on God—it is dance, but God leads with prevenient and saving grace. It seems more things on the list need to begin with “Those in and for whom God has . . .”
  I agree that it is important to identify the essentials of following Jesus, but this is different from identifying who is a Christian. The essentials of our response to God’s work in us will include much of what those above have mentioned. But essential for what? For the fullest expression of God’s purpose for the redeemed? Or essential for the name Christian to be meaningfully applied? Some of the above answers address the first question and some the second. And many of the fears regarding the question’s fundamentalist tone assume we are asking about the bare minimum of what it is to be genuinely Christian. Although this question may arise occassionally when considering organizational and denominational questions regarding associations, the question is of little pastoral value. Identifying the essentials to following Jesus fully and faithfully is a much relevant and fruitful question.
And of course with all this we have the chicken and egg problem. What comes first, God’s grace, our faith, God’s Spirit, our good works? I have been helped by watching how trapeze artists catch each. Each hand grabs other’s wrist at the same moment. It impossible to tell who grabbed whom. Grace grabs faith; the inner life of Spirit becomes the outer life of kindness and mercy.

John W. Dally

In the book, “The Shack” the Jesus figure is asked what he thinks about denominations. Jesus said he does not like them because they are used to divide and as a measurement to judge someone. The main character then says, “Do you mean there are many ways to God?”  Jesus said, “No but there are many ways for God to reach men.” (I would site the passage, but my dog ate my copy.)  Our Wesleyan view of prevenient grace is that God has made godself known to all humanity. This explains why in my work I see so many patients who live as Christians but do not affiliate with any Christian denomination or tradition.

This gives me a clue. God is experienced in many cultures and traditions. Thus we find Christian virtues in them. (ie. Buddhism, Native American Spirituality, and others)
Therefore what identifies Christians is the place of Christ a faith system. If Christ is not central in identity they may not be “Christian” but it does not mean they are not spiritual.  In my view, a Christian is one who follows the historical line of faith and belief that finds its origin in Jesus Christ and keeps Christ the central figure in that system.

Even though a tradition may accept the teaching of Jesus (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu and the like) They would not fall under the classification of Christian because Christ is not central and foundational.

Tony Johnson

For me, one of the foundational essentials is does one believe that Jesus Christ is the crucified, resurrected Son of God. These two aspects of our Christian faith are essential for if one does not believe this about Jesus, then He is just another good teacher and model of a good moral life lived. In Paul’s many descriptors of what it means/takes to be saved, he say’s one must “Confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead” in order to be saved.  In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul emphasizes the essential nature of believing in Jesus’s resurrection by stating, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith . . .your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” Thus it seems, before we can even talk about the other essentials of Christianity, there must be a life-transforming belief that Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins, and was resurrected from the dead.

Daniel Fruh

I also think this is always a tricky issue and I am glad that I don’t have to decide who is a Christian. There are numerous scriptures which tell us that we can know them by their fruits. Furthermore, we are told in Galatians that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” So I think that we can have a generally good idea of “who really is a Christian” by their confession of faith and repentance in Christ, and their long-term growth in the fruit of the Spirit. Some may grow quickly, others may grow very slowly, but there should be positive growth over time. And with time comes wisdom and discernment in knowing or recognizing true and false conversion.

Nichole Henselman

Dr. Oord,

I totally agree with the first bolder statement that you made through this particular blog. You were saying that love is not a definitive characteristic of being a Christian. Or, at least that’s the way I read it. I also think that that everyone can love and that not only Christians love. You continued on to ask if the “sinners” prayer is the essence of Christianity. I feel like I can answer that question with a big fat no. I know many people from my high school years that were my Church friends and they prayed that prayer. They definitely don’t live out that Christian walk, or not that I can see.

I think that having the “right” beliefs, or traditional Christian beliefs/doctrines are extremely important in being a Christian. Does it make us Christians? Probably not. But, having beliefs helps us grow as Christians and understand our own faith better. Along with this, I think that community also brings us closer to God and helps us grow. Community is important to spiritual growth. But, again, does this mean that we are Christians because we are in a community of believers?

I don’t think it’s any one of these essences that make us Christian. I think there are many essences that make us Christian. I don’t even know if we could “label” them all. I think there are many variables of ways we can be considered as Christians. I think we have to know in our heart that we are followers of Christ, that Christ will judge whether or not we are Christians, and the Church helps us in understanding if we are Christians. There are many variables to understanding if people are Christians. I am in agreement with you in that I don’t know the right answer here. But, it’s important to think about it and understand better.

its a lot of fun to look back on the things we used to believe…When I first got serious about my faith i thought the Sinner’s prayer was so important… I still use it particularly with children becuase i find it to be a helpful tool but essential? Im not so sure.

When i was in college i thought getting the doctrine right was a must because bad doctrine can confuse even point us away from God. Now seeking correct doctrine is important. but is it essential?

living the life of Love? now there is an interesting one. IT’s interesting to me because i belive i can easily make a case that there are many true Christians who have never said the “sinners prayer” i can make a decent case that they are people who have incorect doctrine or people with diminished capacity who don’t understand questions of Christ’s divinity Vs. his humanity who are true Christians. I cannot think of a single defence for a Christian who does not “Love” ( live the life of love)

You are right though when you say that there are those who Life loving lives often more loving than most who Claim to be Christ Followers. however they don’t claim to be Christ followers. and while love maybe essential for tue Christianity True Christianity is certianly not essentil to Love. one must choose to follow Christ. 

Matthew 7 says 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

I find it interesting that there many that believe they are Christians and are not.

Josh Farmer

Like any identified group of people, there are several aspects that define what it means to be a Christian. I think that the four aspects that you discussed in your blog that are part of those essentials aspects, such as love, community and the sinners prayer.  However, I think that there is more than just these. I also think that having the right beliefs are not necessarily essential. There are core beliefs such as salvation through Jesus Christ and the Triune God that are necessary in our beliefs, but there are several other beliefs that are continually debated and reformed. Just because two Christians disagree with each other and a theological topic does not mean that one of them is not a Christian. You made a point in your blog when you said “there’s little or no agreement about which set of beliefs are essential and which aren’t.” personally I think that this is a problem. I think that there needs to be fundamental core beliefs that all Christians agree.
There are five essentials that I would use to define what it means to be a Christian. First, being a Christian requires faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and the Salvation of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secondly, being a Christian requires a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thirdly, it requires the action of loving God and loving others as you explain in your blog, but it also requires the action of going into the world and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Christians we are commissioned to spread the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Fourthly, it requires spiritual growth and the transformation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We cannot simply conform to our faith, but we must be transformed by our faith. Finally, being a Christian involves being a part of the body of Christ or the Christian community. This is essential because we have to be held accountable for our actions and our theology.

David Hawley

Dr Oord

This question of what is a Christian resonates with a conversation in another class where we discussed the nature and definition of art.

Similarly to art there are many things humanity can participate in that mirror and replicate the image of Christianity, may it be in loving or in ceremony, but still not be considered Christianity. As we toyed with many a hypothesis I started to build my own and I believe it may apply to a definition of Christianity as well.

In my limited understanding I can agree that the four categories you mentioned are very important but for me the definition comes in three intertwined conditions: Context, intention, and experience.

Love, the sinner’s prayer, right belief, and community can only be considered truly Christian, in my current hypothesis, if they fall into a context of an intentional, and experiential relationship with the Living God.

This is no definition but at the moment it helps me to understand what a Christian may be.

Mark Maddix


Thanks for this thought provoking topic. I know you and I have had this discussion on several occasions and I have an article on this being published with Holiness Today. I think the bigger question in this discussion is “what are the essential beliefs/dispositions/behaviors to being a Christian?”  For example, how does belief relate to practice and behavior. Are we measured by the essentials of belief or on behavior? Most Christians affirm that belief is essential for right behavior.  Being a Christian is more about following the “way” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus than giving accent to certain beliefs.  As you indicate a person can believe the wrong things but still practice a life of love—which as you indicate is central to Christian faith.  Certainly people of other religions can love in this same way, the question is what makes Christianity distinct from these other religious traditions?

Since all religion is social (John Wesley) it seems that the Christian community or church community that gathers around word and table is very formative in shaping a persons faith story. I believe this to be essential to faith because faith cannot exist without being in relationship to self, God, and others.

Enough of my musings…I guess I am saying that the essentials is relational with self, God, and others—and through this process of living and practicing faith we become people who express more clearly the “way” of Jesus, or as you indicate a life of love.

Catlyn Armstrong

It can be hard to determine who actually is a Christian considering that as humans we cannot see the motivation and heart behind all actions and words. In fact all the right actions can show but the motivations and heart may not be right with God. I would be concerned, however, if one placed too much emphasis on the sinner’s prayer, which is not an essential. I think it is important to be fully committed to a personal relationship with Jesus.

Jacey Wooldridge

Dr. Oord,
I would have to agree with Nichole in saying that I completely agree with your first statement. One of the first characteristics people label about the Christian faith is love, but what makes the Christian love different from the non-Christian love? Is there really a difference? 
Moving on to if the “sinners” prayer is the essence of Christian and I would have to say no. like Nichole I have known a number of people who have said the “sinners” prayer and they do not live out their lives as a Christians.  Also going back to love, I know many people who say they are Christians but they can’t seem to love and accept people within their own families.
I don’t know if I would consider any of these essences that make us Christians. Do they really set us apart to label us as Christians? And if they are to set us apart than why don’t we follow them more closely? I seem to be finding that I am asking more questions than finding answers, but it’s okay not to have all the answers.  That’s why I live by faith not by proof and answers.


I don’t believe Jesus asked us to become christians !
I believe He came to ask us to become “Christs” ourselves. He did not come as an exception, but as an example.

Therefore, ìf we need to define who is a Christian and who isn’t, than it should depend on their true willingness to accept and live their personal Christhood.
(Not how much they already are like Christ, because we cannot tell where they are on the road that leads to christlikeness, and whether that really is the best they can do at a certain time, or not.)

Ernie McNaught

It seems to me that repentance is central. 

No matter what factors color our personal slants (upbringing, denominational loyalties, political leanings, theological positions, etc.) if Biblical repentance is recognized, believed, and practiced one becomes a Christian because the “about face” acknowledges Christ is in control of and guides the actions of my personal slants.

jamie zumwalt

It seems to me that in asking the question, “Who is Christian and who is not?” we are still trying to figure out who is “in” and who is “out.”  It seems to me that this is not to be our preoccupation.  Rather than asking who is “in” and who is “out,” perhaps we should be considering which direction we are headed.  A “bounded set” vs. “centered set” paradigm seems to still dominate our thinking.  It may seem a cop out, but perhaps we are simply to focus on living the Way of Jesus and teaching others to do so as well.

Faith Stewart

I agree with your rationality about saying a sinners prayer and then thinking that is enough. It can’t be enough to mentally claim alliance through and single thing. This too leaves out an understanding of prievient grace. Does not God move in ways that which we do not know? How then can we say to those who have been convicted in their hearts without words to describe their experience. Is our view of God so small that we think God does not desire to include all of creation in loving and redeeming?

Connie Freeman

Interesting question; enlightening responses. I don’t know any way to enter into an authentic relationship with God/Jesus, except through my repentance (“sinner’s prayer”). From that initial essential step, my beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and relationships with others all matter, if I am to be known by His name—Christian. I must be in the Word and in communication with Him (prayer) to know how to follow Him. I expect there will be many raised eyebrows in heaven—some will rise when seeing who is present; some by realizing who is missing. Thank God that He has appointed Christ to be the only Judge.

Brandon Wickstrom

I would say that the essentials of Christianity revolve around the belief of Jesus. I would assert that the core to the belief in Jesus is that he was a man/god that fully loved the world. He loved everyone and everything. We are to follow him by loving God with our full being and love humanity. I do not think that anything else is essential to the Christian. There are important aspects of the Christian faith but none as important or essential as believing in Jesus, loving God, and loving others.

Brianna Chapman

Dr. Oord-

This post brings to mind the story, told by Soren Kierkegaard in his work “Concluding Postscripts”, of the two worshipers. To summarize the tale, there are two men coming to a temple to praise the divine; the one worships in away of objective knowledge the “right” divine figure, the other, a pagan, praises with subjective passion. Kierkegaard then argues that the pagan is the true worshiper. Albeit falsely directed, the pagan’s worship shows the authentic and subjective encounter with divine, rather than making an idol of knowledge about the divine in worship to ideas and so-called “truths”.
The problem of the essence of Christianity is an objective question with subjective answers. There is reason to believe it is nearly impossible to solve this issue. If looking through the perspective of contextual frameworks, it is difficult to see a solution even being a possibility, as each person brings there own experience to the table that develops their thought patterns and actions in every realm, certainly including the spiritual and religious.
Context certainly plays a large role here. What I may believe is a Christian in my own context may not be the same within the framework of another. If we were to ask this question of the early church, the societal factors alone would cause a stumbling block to a cooperation of ideals. The question can not be taken out of context, however, as the mind itself can not be. How then shall we arrive upon an answer?
While this debate could go on for all time and an answer to what truly makes a “Christian” could develop a myriad of answers we have yet to even imagine, I would argue that Kierkegaard, in his own way, points towards correctness. I believe that the issue of “what makes a Christian” is in itself a non-essential, but that the at the heart of Christianity, that authentic encounter with God is the essential that can work as a jumping-off point in defining what it means to be a Christian. As long as a person has that authentic encounter, characterized by genuine interaction, I would argue they are a Christian. What comes after that encounter may be subjective, but the objective in this case is at the heart of Christianity itself: a true experience with God, making a deep connection built upon authenticity.

Thomas Jay Oord

Tom Belt writes…

Like you said, these are all-important questions, and the answers we give in turn determine our whole approach to other faiths.

After spending 25 or so years in the Muslim world, I’ve come now to ‘presume’ the presence of God at work in other worldview on some level. So I definitely don’t agree with those who assume that Christians have 100% of the truth and everybody else has 0%. In the end, the divine image is indelible, and I understand that image in terms of an insatiable desire/disposition toward personhood. We’re hardwired for it. So I rather expect that ‘image’ to function on some level essentially on autopilot in all of us regardless of faith (or atheism even). We still are free to choose to relate lovingly, etc., but we’re not free to escape an existence which a) is essentially a ‘desire’ or longing to belong, for fulfillment/meaning, etc., which b) confronts us with the choice to love, and which c) is only ultimately fulfilled in the most supremely personal being, the ground of all being, the triune God.

So… what ‘unique’ claims and contributions can Christianity make? Let me offer an analogy.

Let’s suppose there’s a body of beautiful music (scores to symphonies, sonatas, etc.) which is anonymous. Everybody recognizes it as sublime and beautiful, the work of a master. But nobody knows who the author/composer is. Let’s suppose too that these works fill homes and offices throughout the world and are enjoyed by everybody. They’re beautiful and we all know it. Musicians all interpret these works as best they can. No two musicians play the music exactly the same way. But all try.

Now let’s suppose that evidence was produced identifying the composer. There’s some dispute over his credentials though. For example, he’s not a well-known composer; he didn’t attend the best schools or train up under established authorities. His origins are obscure and his circumstances humble. But it’s his work. What happens now? How do we relate the anonymous music we all enjoy to these new claims of authorship?

My question is this: Why would somebody who loves the music in its anonymous form object to identifying it (viz., the music, its beauty, its origin and authorship, its creative source…) with the author? Who would not transfer to the composer their affections for music when adequate reasons are given identifying him as the author and source?

Perhaps you can see where I’m going. It all depends upon the nature of the evidence identifying Jesus as the incarnation of the “love” (i.e., the music) that we all agree is the greatest thing around, the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. Yes, atheists, Hindus, and even Wiccans experience giving and receiving love to greater and lesser degrees.

But when it comes to defining the essentials of “Christianity,” it seems a bit minimalistic to just define the essentials in the same “anonymous” terms: i.e., just love. No doubt, it’s true on one level. But Christianity does claim to identity the composer in historically particular terms. “Christ” should have more than anything else to do with defining the essentials of “Christianity.” He’s got to be mentioned, for Christianity is the claim that this anonymous work of music that enriches us all without our knowing who is responsible IS the creative work of a particular man, Jesus.

Many will say Jesus is just a man who succeeded in appropriating the music on a level more transforming and freeing than any other. In this sense, Jesus reveals God. But even if one takes this view, it still constitutes the ‘essence’ of Christianity in ‘historical’ terms. You still have to name the essentials by identifying Jesus, i.e., “HERE is where humanity best approximates love,” or “THIS particular man BEST interprets the music,” and then go on to offer whatever understanding of human transformation one thinks can be grounded in that sort of Christology. My point is just that that it’s still ‘essentially’ a historical claim.

What Christianity claims to mediate is that through Christ, God acts to secure means by which we can live the life God wants, and THAT life is, as you say, to love and be loved. That’s essentially the kind of life Christianity claims it is able to mediate. But it would be mistake to think that the essence of Christianity’s contribution to humanity’s search for “loving and being loved” is just to name the search as such and fail to relate what we’ve named to historical events where we believe the composer of “loving and being love” loved us in concrete form—this man, this story, this event, etc. Essentially, you don’t need Christianity to just say the purpose of human existence is fulfilled in loving and being loved. Christianity essentially says something about ‘loving and being love.’

Tom Belt

Jeff King

The core foundation of your blog is “love”.
I have read all of these comments and have been inspired by their contents. However I think it all starts with us kneeling humbly in repentance at the foot of the cross and wholeheartedly accepting the ultimate expression of love, the sacrifice that brought reconciliation and a way back to God, the unconditional love of God in the form of Jesus on the cross. I put my trust in that work which brought reconciliation and constantly communicate with my Mediator. Thanks for the dialogue here.

Dan Masshardt

This is a solid overview of an issue / conversation that is going to become increasingly central in the near future, in my opinion.

The question of what it means to be a Christian comes back to the nature and content of the ‘good news’ that we proclaim as believers.

If we get the gospel wrong, we will almost inevitably get the Christian life wrong.  I believe that the starting point for Christian faith is still important (and the things that happen theologically) but we must not put all of our focus at ‘the decision’ when, as you point out, it is not a reliable indicator of true and abiding Christian faith.  By our fruit they will know us and much of that fruit is love.

I recently read Darrell Bock’s ‘Recovering the Real Lost Gospel’  He does a good job, I think, of reframing the aim of the gospel.

I’m also looking forward to Scot Mcknight’s new book, which I think will help move this centrally important issue forward.

Jay McDaniel


What if we said that a Christian is someone who seeks to walk with God by sharing in the journey of Jesus? 

And what if we simply leave open whether or not the person succeeds in doing so. And what if we also leave open questions of how Jesus is understood, or how God is understood. At the every least, this way of speaking would help us recognize differences between Christians and people of other religions and no religion.  We could then further reflect upon what an authentic walk might look like—which we’ve been doing for some time now.


Tom Belt

Sorry about the length there, TomO!

I think I’d boil down my being a Christian to my being about Christ, i.e., my investing all my identity (and the meaning and purpose of my existence) in his identity and the events of his life/death/resurrection. So “being in Christ” would summarize it perfectly for me. That’s going to result in my loving, but it happens because I’ve identified in a particular way with Christ personally.

Denise G. Ness

IN Christ, Paul has it figured out, it is when we are IN Christ that we are Christians.  All of your elements are part of the Cruciform life.  To love and live to the point of sacrifice.

Doug Gordon

It is interesting how much interest is generated around the question of how to know if others are Christians.  God calls each of us to Love Him with all we are.  Beyond that, I feel more comfortable pointing a seeker to the Bible and letting the Holy Spirit teach him the essentials as he tries to love God with all that he is. smile

Allan W. Miller, Sr.

Dr. Oord,
    You made some excellent observations about “What Is A Christian?”  In my years of service as a pastor, a chaplain the Oregon Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, and other associations with those of other faiths I have learned much about views of being a Christian.
    I also realize that too often people of different denominations often spent too much time arguing about why there view of being a Christian was better essentially arguing from their creeds.  To me, being a Christian means that after I become one that I need to let Christ live totally in me which results in His love shining out from my life as I let Him control my life.
    People of other religions can express love in various ways but it comes from a human standpoint and not from God’s love being expressed in their lives as Jesus summarized all the two com-mandments as has been expressed by you and others.  It is only when the love that shows up in our Christian living as God’s love that our love becomes effective as God wants it to be.
    I have a prison ministry and also a volunteer chaplain’s ministry at a long-term-care facility in city east of Portland.  I go to visit with the residents of the latter group not as a representative of our denomination, although I do love it, but as a representative of Christ and His love for them.  This has opened up doors to help people where they need help.
    I just wish that I had learned this way of ministering in the early years when I was a pastor as it would have opened up more opportunities to help others to Christ and learn what God had for them.

Rachael Yacovone

The question of who is, and who is not a Christian seems to be, not only a significant question for those who consider themselves a part of the Christian community, but also those who would consider themselves non-Christians. I think the difficulty sometimes is not in trying to define what a Christian is, but realizing too that even if we were, or we are able to do so, there is an image that has been created of what the word “Christian” essentially stands for. Sometimes perception is reality to such an extreme that, even if we had a definition of what it is to be “Christian,” if we did not follow the values or model others have created for themselves to define Christianity, we are still considered failures. What I mean is that if by saying the sinners prayer I do not become a Christian, if that is what the world sees as “Christian” sometimes it seems people are still turning away from a relationship with God because they have seen what they consider a poor example of his follower. Even if that is not what truly defines a Christian. Also I think it is still possible that God’s grace can work within everyone’s life, and so can the Holy Spirit. If so, can it maybe be possible that the love an atheist or Muslim has also shown is still reflecting the God they were created in the image of, even if they are not aware?

Mark Wade

I believe there to be three essential pieces to being a Christian: love God, love others, and believe in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is where we can differentiate between those who are good, loving people, and those who are Christian. Of course there are people who are Muslim, or Buddhist, or even atheist who sometimes exemplify a more Christ-like life than some self labeled Christians. What is missing here is the “love God” part and the intimate relationship with God that comes along with it. I am happy to see that (at least in my opinion) Christians are moving towards these things as defining Christianity, as opposed to a set of rules that are not supposed to be broken. I’ll take a kind, loving person who smokes, drinks, and swears over a self proclaimed Christian that does not love others any day.

lige jeter

Being a Christian is not a hope-so feeling without proof, but a know-so confirmation by the Holy Spirit. If you do not know if you are a Christian (meaning having confessed your sins and received forgiveness in Christ) or not, then you are not.

Nicole Marshaleck

The essence of Christianity is accepting Christ as our Lord and savior, and asking Christ to forgive the person’s sins. This is just the essence of Christianity. Once a person accepts Christ, they need to strive to give the rest of their life to God. This is not easy, but having a community of other believers to help you succeed in giving your life to Christ. When it comes down to it, God is the only one who can determine who is a Christian and who is not.

John Meunier

Why does something be honored by other faiths exclude it from being a Christian essential?

Melinda Griffith

One mentor of mine has said, “Everything is important, but not too important.” An analogy would be the myriad of details that go into a symphony by Anonin Dvorak, an Oratorio by Handel or a painting by Rembrandt. The specifics are most definitely important, but if we take a magnifying glass to examine one aspect, we might miss the amazing beauty of the whole work of art.

The other pitfall of focusing on one essential aspect of Christianity is that we begin imposing our opinion on those around us with more criticism than love. In my short 2 years at NNU online, the concept of my walk with Christ as a cycle rather than a line continues to help me in my work with others and with God’s continual work in me.

The balance as these essentials commentate on each other is more helpful than a bottom line. Life is dynamic, as is life in Christ, full of change, growth, correction and re-framing.

Todd Holden


Just wondering if you have seen Scot McKnight’s new book, “The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited” His themes seem to coalesce ones you are working through here in this post.

Ben Duarte

I enjoyed the article. I thought that the commentary and questions were thought provoking. It seems to me that the Essence of Christianity is always the person, nature and work of Jesus Christ. If, what we mean by “Essence” is a distinguishing characteristic. Church History and an objective research project in Theology will submit that Christians disagree on several issues, teachings, and doctrines, just not Jesus. Jesus has been the central theme of historic Christianity and the protocol in which to determine Christianity or another/competing worldview. Thus, if we remove Jesus Christ from our investigation, we are no longer inquiring of the Essence of Christianity.

Savannah Johnson

Do we truly follow Christ if we do not allow God to transform us from the inside out? What does transformation like that look like in a Christian community? Is it possible to follow Christ and not be transformed? I believe that love is an integral aspect of Christianity, but if you don’t allow God to radically heal you, transform you, and create in you a new heart through the love and grace of God then you can love just as well without believing in God or being a Christian. That is one of the differences.

Bailey Janda

This posting addrseses something that has been on my heart continuously for the past few years.  I believe that all four (Belief, community, love, and commitment) are integral in the Christian faith, but as I think through my own relationships with members of the church, I realize that the people who brought me closest to the Lord were the ones who have best demonstrated love.  I have also met many in the church who were committed to the church, the community, and their beliefs but didn’t love on those who didn’t fit in.  It is sad, but this happens often.  Does my belief in God mean anything if I do not love others? Does any of it?

Terry Mattson

Dr. Oord,

Thank you for once again raising a question that cuts to the heart of what it is to be ‘human’.  Increasingly, as I have watched Jesus in and out of the communion of Christ, I have wondered, so what is this evangelical need all about?

I walked in the Church sanctuary tonight and instinctively touched the water of baptism and made the sign of the cross.  I’ve only been doing that in the context of our Nazarene fellowship for a few months, fearing the perceptions and question that it evokes.  But it is a powerful and living sign that speaks to the communion of which I am a part from birth and re-birth and ultimately resurrection renewal.

As I have aged, the significance, surprises and privilege of being ‘in Christ’ have grown.  But so has the mystery and doubts about what sets us apart.  For I see many of my neighbors, those who live without benefit of rented or owned homes and those living in comfort and see ‘Christ’ in heart, soul and mission even though many do yet enjoy the fellowship of Christ, in the Spirit or by the grace of Story (rituals, history, life giving formation).  And I see many of my sisters and brothers, who understand intellectually their ‘knowing’ of the Trinity of God by means of worship, especially in the Eucharist, but who do not yet demonstrate the love of Christ that is surely the center of our joy and meaning. Further I have among my own parishioner’s men and women living together without benefit of marriage, but who exhibit the earnest, open search for Christ and evidence of the birth of their spirit, Christ alive in them.  What gives here?  I also painfully see in and out of the Church the horrific spirit of division and pride and the resulting wounds and evil which attend, even defining, for some, the center of their being.  These stand in need of the grace of Christ, no less than those who evidence a gentle and open love of heart.

Are some gifted with love by nature; the gift of good parentage or extended family or the result of personality orientation that is alert and healthy and alive?  Are others so wounded, that no matter how mature their journey into Christ and His Communion, no matter how deep goes the work of the new birth and the sanctity that attends, it is the wounded judgment and fear that is most evident in their spirit?  So what sets us apart?  …or should we be set apart?  Yet, to suggest there is no real distinction, as far as nature is concerned between those who are in Christ and those who do not yet know of Christ leaves us wondering; at best are we simply a little further down the human road (provisionally, at least).  Is that the only difference?

Some tentative thoughts. 

The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have come to “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb. 12: 23a).  In other words, if we are the first to see into the mysteries of God and what God is doing and going to do in the resurrection and renewal of all things, then there must be others who are not yet ‘inside’ this story, but who along with us will eventually be ‘born’ anew.  You can’t be ‘first’ born without a ‘second born’ or third born and so on, right? 

And, that indeed, may be the center of the mystery.  Entering into the waters of baptism (whether initially by nature or Spirit or both) allow us a privileged relation to ‘what God is about’ in the universe, especially our little corner of it!  Truth is, we can drink a small cup of grape juice and the tiniest of bread all day long, but until the mystery is born in us (by Spirit and within our own spirit) the consecrated host is ‘real’ apart from us, instead of alive in us!  And it is this relationship with the Church (Jewish and Christian) that indeed sets us apart. 

We can either be arrogant or humble and grateful. The latter (humility) is the result of grace (love) and leads deeper into this Love in which we stand.  The former (arrogance) is a wall that in the end, if allowed to stand leads us to de-evolve, away from our intended humanity.

When I shut this computer down and leave the sanctuary, I will once again touch the waters of baptism. In my heart I will pray, “Lord, make me aware of this special place I enjoy, but keep me from the arrogance which refuses to see you in others.” 

Terry Mattson

Chuck Queen


I can only speak in regard to my own journey. If I were asked, “What makes you a Christian?” I would say that it’s my commitment to discipleship. Of course, I realize, that many of the qualities (compassion, love, grace, forgiveness, etc.) and practices (solitude, prayer, social justice, peacemaking, etc) I believe are important and pursue are not unique to Christians. These are qualities and practices true to any healthy and tranformative spirituality. However, I seek to embody these qualities and live out these practices, not simply because it is a good way to live or I intuitively know I should, but because I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, whom I confess as Lord. That is what makes me a Christian.

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