What does it mean to be a Christian?

You may have an instant answer to this question: to be a follower of Christ. Recently, however, it’s become fashionable to make a distinction between a Christian – a follower of the Christian religion – and someone who is devoted to Jesus. Take, for example, the popular “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” spoken word by Jefferson Bethke – which paints being a Christian as being phony, out-of-touch, and legalistic.

While the sentiment behind videos like this are noble in their call for a genuine relationship with Jesus that seeks not to judge or control others, they fall short for both ideological and practical reasons. First of all, to distance ourselves from the label of Christian is to disavow the witness and sacrifice of the centuries of Christians who lived and died for their faith, from the martyrs of the early church dying to practice their religion to giants of faith like John Calvin and Martin Luther who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation.

Or, as Peter put it when the word "Christian" began to be used to describe the church: "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." 1 Peter 4:16 NIV

Secondly, since Jesus called the church to function as a body, working together as a community of faith instead of just as individual on personal journeys, we have to have some way of talking about who we are as a group. It’s useful to be on the same page, for example, when we read a Pew Research Study informing us that 70.6% of Americans are Christians. The survey further breaks down that number into sub-categories of Christians: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Historically Black Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Other Christian. Of course, people within these groups may disagree with the official roster - who's in and who's out. These debates can go on and on – and they have, in fact, for longer than Christianity has been a formally organized religion.

While complete consensus about the nature and beliefs of Christianity may be impossible to achieve, many people will point to the Nicene Creed as the most basic expression of Christian beliefs. The creed takes its name and content from the Council of Nicaea, which was held in 325 and was the first effort to attain consensus through the entire Christian church. The Council was organized by Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.

The empire around Constantine was beginning to fall apart. Economic and military struggles were wearing Rome's resources thin, and in order to focus his efforts on maintaining the empire Constantine would need local leaders at the grass-roots level. Though they had recently come through intense persecution, Constantine noticed the influence of the Christian pastors at the time. They were literate and intelligent people with respectable morals, and they were generally admired in the communities they served in because of their generosity and kindness. These, he figured, could help him hold communities together while he focused on the needs of Rome at large. Because Christianity was now an official, state-sanctioned religion, Constantine wanted it to be consistent, unified, and easily defined. As such, he called the leaders of Christian churches together to settle their major dividing question.

A popular misconception about the Council of Nicaea is that the Biblical canon was decided there; actually, the development happened gradually over years, and as we’ll discuss next week, it would be several years before the Bible as we know it was established. The biggest debate at the Council actually revolved around the Arian heresy: the idea that Jesus was not God, but the highest being created by God. This was an incredibly contentious issue for the early church.

Ultimately, the council voted overwhelmingly against the Arians, and they settled on what would become the first part of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,
Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge and the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say: “There was a time when he was not:” and “He was made out of nothing,” or “He is another substance” or “essence,” or “The Son of God is created,” or “changeable,” or “alterable” – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Over the years, the Creed was modified and expanded – made less defensive, and expanded to include more Christian doctrines. The council of Constantinople in 381, for example, added more detail to the understanding of the Holy Spirit. Today, some denominations, such as the Anglican Church, recite the Nicene Creed as part of their regular service. You can read their current version here.

For many people, Nicaea remains the definitive point on which one must be defined as a Christian. The expressions of the Trinity doctrine have not always been uniform, but there is enough common ground for it to be the defining central idea for the vast majority of Christian denominations.

Understanding all of this history, what would you say it means to be a Christian? More importantly, what does it mean for you to be a Christian?

Related texts or passages to consider: John 1:1-14; John 10:30-33; Mark 14:61-62; Acts 15:1-4

Talk Back:

1- Many people try to use various analogies to explain the Trinity concept - a three-leafed clover, the expressions of water as gas, liquid, or solid, or a family. All of these analogies tend to fall short of being accurate. Watch this video by The Lutheran Satire as the character of St. Patrick tries to give analogies for the Trinity. Do you see problems with these analogies? What do you think of his final conclusion?

2- Many people believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is not biblical, but rather a creation entirely made up from Greek philosophy. What follows is a list of Bible verses relevant to the topic of the Trinity. What do these verses reveal about this topic to you?

  • Trinity: Genesis 1:26; Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 6:8; Matthew 28:19; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2
  • The Father: Genesis 1:1; Deuteronomy 4:35; Psalm 110:1, 4; John 3:16; 14:9; 1 Corinthians 15:28; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 John 4:8; Revelation 4:11.
  • The Son: Isaiah 53:4-6; Daniel 9:25-27; Luke 1:35; John 1:1-3, 14; 5:22; 10:30; 14:1–3, 9, 13; Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17-19; Philippians 2:5–11; Colossians 1:15-19; Hebrews 2:9-18; 8:1, 2.
  • The Holy Spirit: Genesis 1:1, 2; 2 Samuel 23:2; Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 61:1; Luke 1:35; 4:18; John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26; 16:7-13; Acts 1:8; 5:3; 10:38; Romans 5:5; 1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:21.

2- How does the emperor’s organization of the Council affect your understanding of what took place there? Do you think it’s coincidental that the church’s first attempt to reach consensus occurred after the church become organized by the state?

  • Do you find Constantine's actions to be suspicious? Do his involvement and imperialistic intentions taint the doctrine of the Trinity for you? Why or why not?

3- Some Christians recite the Nicene Creed together every service. Why do you think they do this? Does it connect them to the early church? Do you think this is a beneficial, unifying practice, or does it sound like conformity?

4- One of the most controversial doctrines in the Nicene Creed was the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, groups that don’t believe in the Trinity are often excluded from the definition of Christianity. Do some research and learn about the other doctrines besides Trinitarianism. What do these groups believe instead?

  • Modalism/Sabellianism
  • Arianism (or semi-Arianism)
  • Partialism
  • Pneumatomachianism (or Macedonianism)

5- Do you believe everything in the Nicene Creed? Do you think a person needs to affirm every part of the Nicene Creed in order to call themselves a Christian? Why or why not?

6- One of the most controversial passages of scripture during the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century was Proverbs 8:22. Theologians believed that the "Wisdom of God" in this passage was the same as the role of "Logos" (John 1:1) that Jesus has in the New Testament. Read Proverbs 8:22-31 (read verse 12 as well, where the speaker identifies herself as wisdom). What do you think of this passage?

  • Does Proverbs 8:22 mean that God created Jesus and that Jesus is not God?
  • Does Proverbs 8:22 only mean that Jesus was with God in the beginning as in John 1:1?
  • Is making Proverbs 8:22 about the pre-incarnate Jesus simply taking the passage out of context?

7- How might the doctrine of the Trinity affect your own spiritual journey? How does the idea of God as a Father, or of Jesus as a Saviour, or the Holy Spirit as a comforter and guide, help you? Also, how does the idea of God being a community of sorts shape your picture of what God is like?

8- Adventists have an interesting relationship with the Trinity doctrine. While most Adventists today believe in it, earlier pioneers were uncomfortable with the idea. The influence of Ellen G. White was key in bringing the Trinity doctrine into focus. Many Adventists like the idea of God being three persons in one God, but reject many of the Greek philosophical ideas that the Nicene Trinity doctrine is based on. Here are some books to consider:

  • For a historical Catholic perspective on the Council of Nicaea, see Nicaea and Its Legacy by Lewis Ayres.
  • For an Adventist perspective on the Trinity, check out The Trinity by Jerry Allen Moon, John W. Reeve, Woodrow W. Whidden II.


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