What is a Christian Part II: Born a Christian?

Christian equation

The first idea that I want to look at is the idea of being “born a Christian.” Is it possible?

Let me set a quick precedent. Jesus has the final word on the issue. If we are to get to the heart of Christianity, we have to know what the founder of Christianity says about stuff. More broadly, he IS the first Word and the final Word (John 1:1), and the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). When in doubt, everything is weighed against the Bible.

“Can you be born a Christian?” No. Christianity is not just an ethnic box that you check on your census form from the local government. Christianity definitely does not mean “being white.” Don’t laugh. I’ve heard people say that.

Jesus repeatedly turned would-be followers away because he demanded a certain lifestyle. Contextually this usually referred to giving up jobs or riches and devoting oneself to Jesus’ teaching.

Ironically, the only person Jesus ever spoke to about the birthing process was in a difficult theological discussion with a religious leader. Jesus told the Jewish elder that he must be born again. It wasn’t enough that the man was already a Jew, or a Pharisee. He needed a spiritual rebirth (John 3:1-21).

The idea that hereditary lines were not enough to give anyone special standing with God was one that Jesus revisited. Again Jewish religious leaders were arguing with Jesus about his teachings and commands. Jesus directly accused them of being sons of the devil for their hypocrisy and unbelief. They replied they were sons of Abraham, harkening back to both their Jewish ancestry and the covenants God made with the Jewish people. Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children than you would do what Abraham did.” (John 8:31-42) Jesus basically said the children of Abraham are people who believe and follow him. Not a genealogical connection, but a spiritual one.

So where does the idea come from that you can be born a Christian? I’ve got an educated guess. But for the purpose of brevity, I will have to super summarize:

Christians were a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. They were viewed as a sect of Judaism. You remember Nero, the infamous fiddler Emperor (37AD-68AD)? When he wasn’t serenading the cinders of Rome, he also had a penchant for tossing Christians to the lions (figuratively and possible literally), and other less savory forms of torture. Needless to say, you had to be a serious devotee to check the “Christian” box on your census form back then. (My guess is no one did it unless they really, really wanted to be associated with Jesus Christ because of deep spiritual convictions…)

Fast forward to Constantine. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire to declare himself a Christian. In 313AD he issued the Edict of Milan decreeing that Christianity and other religions be tolerated. He also called for an end of the gladiatorial games though that didn’t happen for another 100 years or so. Things were looking brighter for folk who called themselves Christians.

In 380AD Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the state. It was here that I believe the idea that you could be “born a Christian” really began to infect Europe and the Middle East. After all, if you were a part of the Roman Empire didn’t that mean you were a Christian? The state was sponsoring big churches and bishops were popping up all over the place. If you weren’t actually practicing Zeusanity, or Apolloanity, didn’t that make you a member of Christianity? Sure. Yeah, whatever…

This gave rise to probably the worst tragedy of all Christ-followers. Now there were hundreds of thousands of people who were “Christians” who had absolutely no idea what Jesus actually ever said and did. But forever more anything that people from the “Christian Empire” did was chalked up as a “Christian behavior.” Knowing all the messed up stuff the allegedly Holy Roman Empire got up to, this did not bode well for the reputation of Christianity.

But Jesus defined his followers are people who knew his commands, and kept them. These people He would recognize before God (John14:21). What were his commands? To this question Jesus replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matt. 22:37

I bet the Roman Empire would have looked different if everybody in it had started doing that…

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About doctornogrod

Daniel Cossette is a writer, actor, dancer, and mime originally from CT, USA. He's been writing, producing, and acting in scripts since jr. high. At Mimeistry International, Pasadena, CA he double-majored in Mime and Theology. Afterwards he founded Ambassador Arts and produced the shows Say It Louder! and Christmivest, including all original stories; he danced with Ad Deum Dance Company, Houston, TX, and eventually moved to England where works with Springs Dance Company, and directs Infusion Physical Theatre. He is married to a long time friend from the mime school, and currently resides in Cambridge, England.
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2 Responses to What is a Christian Part II: Born a Christian?

  1. Dan, I love that you’ve started this series! It’s much needed!

    I was thinking about the Roman Empire stuff, and I wonder if you’d still have the “born a Christian” mentality around even without the state-mandated religion. I feel like there have been so many people in my experience who, because they come from a Christian family or park themselves in a Christian church sometimes, call themselves Christians but don’t really understand what that means. And I feel like every other religion has some version of that as well. Is it just natural to our fallen nature that this happens?

    No doubt, though, that this was a problem in the Roman Empire.

    • doctornogrod says:

      I agree that in most cultures where there is a major religion there are those who are only “nominal” practitioners. I think nominal Christianity sprang to life in the 4th century, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other motivations and instances of nominal Christianity, both then and now.

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