How did we end up with so many odd and changing requirements for being Christian — all those things Jesus didn’t require of his first disciples?
With so many conflicting and confusing applications, the label gets slapped on all sorts of ideas to the point that identifying someone or something as “Christian” today doesn’t really say very much.
Sometimes the term is applied too broadly, like false claims — historically and practically — that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” Other times it is used to narrow the circle of faith by adding required beliefs that would have excluded Jesus’ first disciples — and millions since.
Would the first disciples be considered “Christians” at all — even though that designation came along later in Antioch? Did they believe or do enough to qualify?
All that Jesus required was enough belief to throw down their stuff and follow him. There is no Gospel account of Jesus creating a list of beliefs to be affirmed or be cast from his inner circle.
He taught his disciples to pray, love and give generously. But there were no requirements to affirm the inerrancy of scripture, condemn homosexuals, demean people based on their ethnicity, or throw aside basic morality in exchange for societal privileges.
It seems Jesus himself would be outside many definitions of Christianity today.
The first disciples’ faithful, though sometimes failing, response to Jesus’ call was to follow his lead by living in an upside-down, counter-cultural way in which the first becomes last and losing one’s life is the best way to gain it.
A Google search of “What is required of Christians?” first showed entries on Christianity that emphasized certain traditional beliefs. It was familiar Christian doctrine, yet lists of beliefs rather than anything about following Jesus.
Have the requirements changed? Is it possible that what Jesus called his early followers to be and do is an inadequate definition of Christianity now?
Certainly, the summons of Jesus is a very different concept than what is offered today by those who define Christianity primarily in terms of an instantaneous salvation experience, followed by a narrowly defined belief system that protects its own institutions and reflects a self-serving political ideology.
Such definitions of Christianity, however, are the ones most strongly defended as valid expressions. Just point out how a political ideology — popular today — is at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus and hear, “But I thought you were a Christian.”
Before Jesus came on the scene, the prophet Micah gave a summary of what God requires: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). That three-fold call speaks to how one is to live rather than simply affirming a list of beliefs.
Living in such a generous and self-giving way, however, reflects belief and trust in a God in whom those attributes abide.
While Jesus called for belief, it was an important starting point, not the finish line of faith. That seems to have changed over the millennia.
Many branches of Christianity — from deeply rooted denominations to modern faith-based organizations — require various doctrinal conformities in order to be deemed sufficiently “Christian.” These tests of orthodoxy range from long-held creedal affirmations to quick-changing, expedient political allegiances.
Unsurprisingly, many people today are choosing to self-identify as “followers of Christ” as a way to distance themselves from politically polluted, pejorative meanings so widely attributed to the term “Christian.” Just last week, a politician who revels in conspiracies and threats of violence said her motivation came from her strong embrace of “Christianity.”
Doctrinal frameworks can be helpful in reflecting shared beliefs and values of Christian believers in community with one another. The problem arises when latter-day definitions of what it means to be “Christian” surpass and often discard the primary call to faith and discipleship.
In issuing his call to “Follow me,” Jesus didn’t say, “…and look for the add-on requirements that will come much later.” He simply looked for abandoned fishing nets, dropped tax ledgers and footprints headed in his direction.
We must not fall for the distractions of humanly devised add-on requirements that tend to benefit those who added them. If Jesus didn’t require something of those whom he called first, it couldn’t possibly be essential for those who are summoned now.
This is not an attempt at finding an easier way to be Christian. Rather, it is a call to accept the harder way than merely affirming some prescribed list of beliefs or buying into an alternative ideology.
To truly follow Jesus means confessing and abandoning the selfishness we’d rather retain, forgiving repeatedly and loving even our enemies, sharing the stuff we’d rather keep to ourselves, embracing those we’d prefer to exclude, and going the extra distance when we feel we’ve gone far enough.
Only when we accomplish those ways of faithful living — to which Jesus calls all followers — do we have a right to ask, “What more should we add?”
Following Jesus is hard, as I often say, but it is not complicated.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct a biblical reference.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.