This is a question we have avoided over the years by asking alternative questions. Instead of asking, “Is he a Christian?” we ask either “Is he a member of the church?” or “Has he been baptized?” When the American Restoration Movement was begun they equated a believer and a Christian and did not tie it to baptism or a correct understanding or a facet of its purposes or to a correct mode of administration of baptism. This is indicated by their purpose “to unite the Christians in all the sects.”
The word “Christian” is used three times in the scriptures. (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). Whether you think the name is God-given and prophetic, or merely an application given in derision or scorn, its use in scriptures is not tied to immersion. In other words when those at Antioch called the disciples Christians they did not do so because they pictured them as being immersed. They saw them merely as adherents or disciples of Jesus. So also in the use by King Agrippa. Then Peter uses the term to indicate that it is honorable to suffer as a follower of Christ. Near the end of the first century Tacitus wrote of believers, “The vulgar call them Christians.” The bottom line is that the usage of the appellation did not come about because of equating it to the baptism. That is an interpretation of later doing and our doing.
To me a Christian is a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and consistently follows him to the best of his ability guided by the light he has been privileged to enjoy. Alexander Campbell once defined the term thusly:
“But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son on God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”
Alexander Campbell was challenged on this definition relative to baptism. In short he said the following:
1.) It would mean there were no Christians in the world at times down through the centuries and the gates of hell would have prevailed against the church of Christ contrary to the word of the Messiah.
2.) Not all Christians are alike in their spiritual development “and hence it is possible for Christians to be imperfect in some respects without an absolute forfeiture of the Christian state and character.”
3.) Consistent devotion takes priority over a singe command. He said, “I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state of character, nor even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven.”
4.) One commandment is not more important than all together. He said, “But mark, I do not substitute obedience to one commandment, for universal or even general obedience . . . It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves and this does not consist of being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.”
5.) Errors of the mind are not as serious as errors of the heart. Elaborating on this thought he said, “Now, unless I could prove that all who neglect the positive institutions of Christ and have substituted for them something else of human authority, do it knowingly, or, if not knowingly, are voluntary ignorant of what is written, I could not, I dare not say that their mistakes are such as unchristianize all their professions.”
6.) Some people may be ignorant beyond their control. He suggested that some people are often ignorant because of circumstances beyond their control or by their early experiences. With regard to this he said, “But how many are there who cannot read: and of those who can read, how many are so deficient in education and of those educated, how many are ruled by the authority of those whom they regard as superiors in knowledge and piety, that they never can escape out of the dust and smoke of their own chimney, where they happened to be born and educated!”
7.) Those willfully ignorant or negligent are culpable.
Bro. Campbell emphasized that it is important to obey the will of God and those who are willfully ignorant and negligent will be held responsible, yet he said:
“There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the faith, absolutely essential to a Christian – though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort . . . But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision.”
In more recent times Gene Shelburne tells in his book The Quest For Unity of a conversation with his father about their being Christians outside the Churches of Christ. His father said that they “believe in Jesus, confess his Name, and trust in the cross, just as we do.” Further he said, “All of them surely are obeying the Lord’s instructions as they understand them.” Then the son says:
“To my father’s list I added the fact that so many of our Christian neighbors clearly exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And all of the people I work with have been baptized, I told my father, every single one of them. Maybe not the way we would do it, but in their minds they have submitted to Christian baptism.
“As my father pondered that suggestion, I pushed it one knot further. ‘We trust in God’s grace to save us in spite of our mistakes and misunderstandings,’ I reasoned. ‘Is that grace not sufficient to cover the doctrinal errors and the ritual mistakes of our neighbors who trust Jesus with all their hearts? If it works for us, why not for them?’” (p. 70)
The name “Christian” simply indicated a follower of Christ. If those professers of being Christians of other denominations then the Churches of Christ are not Christians what are they? Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, pagans! Are they servants of the devil? If they love God and dedicate their lives to Jesus, can we with clear consciences deny them the appellation of Christian? According to us they may be ignorant in understanding of some things (who isn’t) but they have the right to be called Christians just as much as grudge-holding, incompassionate, selfish, unspiritual brethren among us whom we call Christians merely because they were immersed in water.
Should we try to teach them? Certainly! But on the other hand there is nothing positive to be gained by refusing to recognize them as Christians. There is much to lose. By our lack of love we alienate them and destroy relationships that could have been beneficial and productive. Let’s get out of the judging business and leave that to God who looks on the heart. Calling a person who believes in Jesus Christ and habitually follows him is not a declaration of his destiny, but a comment on his commitment. Would that we were as committed as many of those we have deemed not Christians.