Paul Prather

What should you believe, or do, before calling yourself a Christian?

Illustration depicting Jesus Christ.
Illustration depicting Jesus Christ. Los Angeles Times/MCT

In late December, the New York Times and the Washington Post both published articles exploring what beliefs people should hold before they call themselves Christians.

The Times’ Nicholas Kristof posed questions such as, “Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the resurrection?”

He conducted a question-and-answer interview with the Rev. Timothy Keller, whom he described as “among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today.”

Keller’s responses, in a nutshell: Yes, to consider yourself a Christian, you must believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection.

The Post touched on the same issue in a news story about the Rev. Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, a megachurch in suburban Atlanta.

Stanley had stirred up controversy when he implied that belief in the virgin birth might not be necessary, but belief in the resurrection was an absolute.

“Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus,” the Post quoted Stanley as saying in a Dec. 4 sermon. “It hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

Since the dawn of Christianity, adherents have tried to define for themselves, their friends and their opponents alike what it takes to be a “real” Christian — that is, which beliefs or actions are optional and which are definitive and non-negotiable.

Before I get to my thoughts on the subject, let me state for the record that I believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection, for reasons too complex to go into here. (I’d need to write a book, not a newspaper column.)

Briefly, here are my thoughts about what defines “real” Christians:

There might not be a definitive answer. Both newspaper articles focused on an evangelical understanding of the Christian faith. But there are two billion Christians worldwide, divided into hundreds of sects. They differ widely, and wildly.

Some church leaders say that, no matter what you profess, you’re not really a Christian until you’ve been baptized. Some say you’re not legit until you’ve been baptized within their four walls. Some say you have to have experienced a “born again” conversion. Still others maintain that it’s more about receiving sacraments, such as communion.

And so on. Ad infinitum.

Saying you believe any doctrine is much different from saying you never doubt it. Keller, the evangelical thinker, made this point, too.

Doubt is part and parcel of any worthwhile faith. If you never doubt God’s existence, or the virgin birth, or whether Jesus walked across a lake, or life after death, you’re probably not thinking. You’re more likely brainwashed than faithful.

A healthy faith meets all facts — pro and con — head-on, and struggles with them, and sometimes suffers from them. Legitimate faith is resilient, not ignorant.

Ultimately it says, “Well, I know the arguments against what I believe. I’ve grappled with them and I respect them. But for me, the arguments for outweigh the arguments against. I choose faith.”

Our actions speak louder to others, and perhaps to the Lord, than our dogmas do. In my own reading of the New Testament, Jesus seemed not to dwell so much on specific doctrines as he did on faith in general and on good deeds.

For instance, he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

He didn’t say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection.” (The latter hadn’t even happened yet.)

In the New Testament passage above, the Greek word the writer used for love was agape, an unusual, and intentional, choice. It meant a love that was all about what you did — and specifically not about how you felt about your actions or what you confessed or even, I’d argue, what you truly believed about God at a given moment.

As Jesus, St. Paul and others said in other passages, agape entailed feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the jailed and tending the sick. It meant pardoning sinners, no matter how vile.

If you did these things, Jesus said, it would be clear to all you were his. Whatever the fine points of your theology, your friendship with Jesus would be evident.

My own non-negotiable: To call yourself a Christian, you ought to believe Jesus is the son of God and try to obey him. Again, this is not to say you never entertain doubts, including very serious ones.

But you believe more than you doubt that Jesus was, and is, who he said he was. That being so, you attempt to obey him as best you can, relying for help on the Holy Spirit. You try to walk, however haltingly, according to agape.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at