In college I took Modern Jewish Thought, a course covering the last few hundred years of Jewish theology in one semester. It required a hectic pace and a lot of reading, much of which I failed to do. At one point, Prof. Benjamin assigned an essay “Who is Jewish?” Like any good liberal arts student, I avoided giving a direct answer. But as I worked though my texts and resources I realized that, for once, my vague answer was completely correct! It turned out that there was a very active discussion among Jewish theologians with answers including maternal lineage, observance of practices and law, physical traits, degree of importance placed on Zionism, and many others. I concluded that this was an open question, because none of these answers seemed quite right. They all cut out some people who didn’t fit the offered definition, yet clearly were Jewish by any intuitive understanding.
So why don’t we see this question in Christianity as often? Are Christians too free spirited to settle on a definition? Is defining who is Christian a pedantic and pointless exercise? Are we so individualist that we let anyone who finds it convenient to join or leave our group to do so as often as they choose to self-define? Does God’s new covenant with the Gentiles through Jesus and the Spirit preclude humans attempting an earthy definition? Some other reason?
Intuitively, we know Christians when we see them do Christian things, and voice Christian beliefs. This matches up nicely with the Catholic doctrine of being saved through works, and the Protestant doctrine of being saved through faith and grace. Christianity doesn’t have the complex cultural, geographic, and hereditary elements, that Judaism does. So maybe we got lucky, and the definition is easier, like my biology professor’s tongue-in-cheek definition for a species: If it acts like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck!
I still think there needs to be a proper definition for what makes us Christians, but until then, we can make do with the tongue-in-cheek definition even though it doesn’t cover every Christian:
If it acts like a Christian and believes like a Christian, then it’s probably a Christian!
“Quack!”… Excuse me, I meant, “Hallelujah!”
Charles Nye, (MS Geology, BA Religion, BA CompSci) is a research scientist with the Carbon Management Institute. He is currently evaluating alternative Rare Earth Element resources around Wyoming.