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What is it to be a Christian?

Henry Ware

An abridgement of a 3-part essay entitled “Three Questions Answered,” which appeared in The Liberal Christian (1824).

To be a Christian is precisely the same thing as to be a Disciple of Jesus Christ.

A Disciple, to speak in general terms, is one who acknowledges any one as his teacher, and faithfully follows his instructions. Thus, for example, those, who chose Socrates or Plato for their teacher and lived according to their directions, imbibing, owning, and practising their system of philosophy, were called their disciples….And to the same purpose we read the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch [Acts 11:26].

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ two things are necessary: to receive him as an Instructor, and to obey him as a Master.

(1.) To receive Christ as a teacher, to regard him as the instructor of our souls, at whose feet we are ready to sit as humble docile pupils, and receive without question whatever he may communicate respecting God, and his character, and divine purposes. He that is thus eager and willing to learn of Jesus as God’s appointed Teacher, or which is the same thing, to take his religion from the New Testament, is so far a Christian. And he has perfect claim to the title, when (2.) he carries into practical effect those instructions, and faithfully conforms himself to them in heart, disposition, and conduct. This faith and confidence in him as a divine Teacher and obedience to him as a Saviour, constitute a Christian.

Some, however, will step in here, and tell us that this is not sufficient. They will name a certain list of doctrines, which it is necessary to believe that Jesus taught, and declare that no one is a Christian, who does not hold a certain specified form and number of religious articles.—To such I answer, who told you so? Who has given you a right to say, that there is only one sect in all Christendom which contains true disciples? For in fact the assertion amounts to this:—just as if it were not more pleasing to our Lord, that one should come to him and learn of him with right dispositions and faithful endeavors, than that he should simply attain a correct set of abstract opinions. There is not a passage in the New Testament, which requires a completely unerring faith, before one can be numbered with the disciples of Christ. I can point to a multitude of passages which require a life without error; but I do not remember one which requires a faith without error.—On the contrary, I recollect we are told “to receive the weak in faith,” and, what is more, to receive them without “doubtful disputations” [Rom. 14:1]. I recollect too, that while the twelve were always acknowledged by their living Master as his disciples, they had many great errors of faith, even in respect to the nature of his kingdom. But then they were humble, sincere, diligent, learners,—they listened to him and followed him, and placed all their confidence in him; and therefore, notwithstanding their errors, they were received by him.—It is plain, therefore, that no man is to be refused the Christian name solely on account of the supposed imperfection of his faith. They that have drawn up their articles, and declare that all who do not conform to them are not Christians, are trying men by a wrong standard,—a standard, which their Master himself, by his conduct to his disciples, has discountenanced.

This point may be made perfectly clear at once, by appealing to every man’s experience and plain common sense. You meet with a man, who, in all the relations of life in which he moves, is marked for his uprightness and integrity, his good dispositions, and general benevolence. He says very little, perhaps seldom says any thing, about his religion; but withal is humble and distrustful of himself, mild and meek in his intercourse with men, punctual in his attendance on the worship and ordinances of God, and apparently diligent in the perusal of the scriptures, which he seems to reverence and love and live by. What do you say of this man? Do you not consider him a Christian? You have never heard him converse for half an hour on religious subjects;—you do not know any thing of his opinions on any one of the great doctrines which have divided the church;—but you do not doubt that he is a Christian.—Perhaps, well as you know him, you do not even know in what temple he worships, or with what church he communes; you have not thought to ask whether he be a Methodist or Quaker or Episcopalian, or Baptist. But you do not doubt that he is a Christian. The evidence is stampt on every feature of his life; and you would as soon think of waiting for the anatomist to examine his body, before you would venture to call him a man, as you would wait to know his private opinions on controverted points, before you admit him to be a Christian. In such a case as this there is no dispute. All agree. All acknowledge, Fenelon, and Lardner, and Dodderidge, and Penn, and Wesley, to be Christians; and yet, on disputed topics, which some tell you is the standard, they all differed from each other as the four winds of heaven.

You meet with another man who presents a different aspect. He talks very often and very long about his religion; it is the favorite topic of his conversation, on which he dwells with earnestness and zeal, and condemns all who seem to be less zealous than himself.—He lays urgent stress upon the peculiar doctrines which he has adopted; he proclaims their excellence, he argues for their truth, he is almost ready to suffer martyrdom in their defence; and they are the very doctrines which are declared to be the essentials to the Christian. But then at the same time you discover that there is something in him of religious ostentation and spiritual pride; he does not govern his passions, he indulges his appetites, is selfish, and exerts himself but little for the benefit of others; and is quite censorious and uncharitable in his judgments. Now what do you say of such a man? Do you think that his merely holding that set of opinions, which is said to constitute a Christian, gives him a fair title to the christian name? Do you not at once judge, that his feelings, dispositions, and character are more than an offset to these opinions? Does not every one judge so?

I have stated these two cases strongly, because it is easiest thus to test the principle. Upon such cases, and they are by no means imaginary, there can be no difference of opinion; and they prove, that it is perfectly absurd to pretend that any certain set of opinions, beyond an acknowledgment of the divine authority of Jesus Christ and his gospel, is essential to a Christian, or constitutes a Christian.

They prove to us further,—that he is a genuine Disciple, who, having patiently and humbly learned of Jesus whatever he teaches, and cast himself on his gospel for salvation, faithfully cultivates his spirit, and forms his character according to that teaching and his example.

This is a definition which cannot be set aside. This will hold good amidst all the opposition of zeal and bigotry. This, in all practical decisions ever has been and ever must be appealed to, by the sober common sense and unanimous judgment of the whole christian world.

He may be more or less enlightened. He may be more or less an adept in subtleties of doctrine and mysteries of knowledge. He may see reason to hold the five points of one, or stronger reason to abide by the five hundred of another. But if he have, with a good and honest heart, gone to the word of Jesus himself, and imbibed his spirit, and brought forth the fruits of that spirit—“heretic” he may be, but he is still a Christian; and from the living grave of the Inquisition, or the flaming pile of Protestant persecution, his meek and lowly spirit shall ascend to a righteous Judge, and be acknowledged in the presence of angels. Many, many will appear on the right hand at the last day, whom human judgment would not suffer to live, because they were no Christians!

How important, then, is it for us to avoid the error of making our private opinions the standard by which to judge the claims of our fellow men. It is not the right standard by which to try ourselves; much less by which to try others. We cannot go beyond their general characters; and if their characters, under a charitable construction, are agreeable to the upright and devout spirit of the gospel, it is to the last degree arrogant and criminal in us to deny them the christian name. We may think their opinions erroneous, and say so, if we please; but to denounce them as not Christians, because it is our opinion that their opinions are erroneous—words cannot express the absurdity. 

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference