Who counts as a Christian? When I was a hard-core evangelical at Moody Bible Institute, we had a pretty clear and straightforward answer: if you have not been born again and accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you were not a Christian. No matter what you believed or where you worshiped or how you lived.
This meant, among other things, that most people who called themselves Christian were not really Christian. Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians – most of them were not really Christians. Roman Catholics were certainly not Christians. Greek Orthodox? Not even close. Mormons? You gotta be kidding.
At the time I knew people who had an even more rigorous definition: if you did not know the exact day and hour in which you had accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you hadn’t done so, and were not saved. Some were even more strict: you not only had to have accepted Christ, you had to have been baptized by immersion – dunked in the water, as an adult. Anyone who had not been, was not Christian.
My father had a business associate who claimed that if you had not been baptized in his church (not in his denomination, but in his actual church) then you were not a Christian and were not saved. In other words of the 4 billion people in the world (at the time), only a few hundred would go to heaven. All the rest were going to spend eternity roasting in hell. God loves the world that much!
Looking back on my own life, I have to admit that it seems a rather odd thing, now, in my own mind, to think that I thought that I “became” a Christian when, as a high school student, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. What exactly was I before that?
Before that happened, I was a faithful church goer at the local Episcopal church. In fact, I was highly active in the church. I was an acolyte (altar boy) every week. Every Sunday morning I fervently prayed, confessed my sins, said the creed, took communion, did everything one does in a traditional Episcopal church, and with real commitment and emotion. But I came to think that I wasn’t “really” a Christian. I hadn’t yet been born again. Being born the first time in a Christian home and being raised as a Christian, and praying, confessing sins, worshiping every Sunday wasn’t the sign of being a Christian. Being born again (by making a conscious decision for Christ at one point in time) was what made a person a Christian. And if you didn’t do that, you were lost for all eternity.
As you might suspect, I no longer think that. I don’t think Christians are the ones who happen to pass a particular theological litmus test. Let alone a litmus test designed to exclude everyone except that very (very!) small and well defined group of people who happen to agree with *me*! I myself left that narrow evangelical fold and became a liberal Christian, and then a very liberal Christian for many years, before I became what I am now, an agnostic.
I should say that sometimes I consider myself a Christian agnostic, since I still do try to emulate the teachings of Jesus as they can be translated into the modern idiom. I do try to practice the Golden Rule and to follow the Love commandment. But I do not believe Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead, so most people (not all) would not consider me Christian. So am I a Christian? I suppose it depends on whom you ask. I certainly don’t believe traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus and I don’t worship in a Christian church (or anywhere else), so by my definitions, I’m not a Christian. I’m an agnostic who follows (many) Christian ethical principles (while I disagree with others).
And now to my research question: When we ask about how many Christians there were in the ancient world, say, in the year 30, a month after Jesus’ death, or in the year 100, or in the year 312, when Constantine converted, or in the year 390 after Christianity had been made the official religion of the Roman empire – how do we answer the question? How do we count? Whom do we count?
My very strong sense is that we should not count by applying a theological litmus test, that someone is only a Christian if they really, truly believed x, y, and z. To make that claim is to assume that you have some kind of insider theological knowledge about “truth,” and someone has to subscribe to that truth in order to fit in the category you’re trying to define. To put it in the modern idiom, my view today is that anyone who really considers themselves as a Christian should be counted as a Christian. And so, rather than defining Christians as those who agree with a certain theological set of views, I accept as Christian literally anyone who thinks they are Christian: Bible-thumping independent fundamentalists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, you name it.
As a historian, I think that’s what we have to do with the ancient world. It’s true, there were Christian writers in antiquity who did not see it this way. The fourth-century heresiologist (one who describes and exposes “heresies” or “false teachings” – that is, a heresy-hunter) Epiphanius wrote a scathing account of 80, count them, 80 heresies in a book called the Panarion (a word that means “Medicine Chest” – in it he claimed to provide the theological antidote for the stings of the heretics). He did not consider anyone who subscribed to any of these heresies to be Christian. In this respect, he was an ancient equivalent of a modern fundamentalist. But as a historian, I choose not to follow his lead. The people he was attacking were for the most part people who considered themselves faithful followers of Jesus. For me that’s enough. They weren’t pagans. They were Christians.
And so I think as historians we simply count those who counted themselves as Christian. What if they didn’t really believe? Well, how would we be able to establish that? We don’t even know their names, let alone their specific beliefs or internal psychological states. What if they just went through the motions? Well, if they went through the Christian motions rather than the pagan motions, then I think they have to count (since we have no way of knowing whether they were sincere or not).
What if they were Christian because the head of their household (the paterfamilias) was and they had to be what he was? Well, if they considered themselves Christian for any reason, then we do too. What if they practiced pagan rites in *addition* to Christian rites and believed pagan deities along with believing in the Christian God? I’m sure there were people like that, but there’s really no way to know. (There are certainly lots of people like that in the modern world!) At the end of the day, if someone considered herself or himself Christian and engaged in Christian worship, then I think we count them as Christian.
And so when I’m giving numbers – such as “there were something like 5 or 6 million Christians at the beginning of the fourth century – I’m using this broad definition. Anything more narrow would involve doing theology, which as a historian, I have no business doing; and it would involve, just as seriously, asking questions (such as: did those people really believe? Or were they engaged in Christian worship for other reasons?) that we simply have no way of answering.
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