The Pope vs. Donald Trump: What Exactly Is a “Christian”?

The pope inserted himself into America’s divided political atmosphere by declaring Donald Trump is not a Christian. What exactly is a Christian anyway?

The Pope vs. Donald Trump: What Exactly Is a “Christian”?

Pope Francis dominated news feeds this week by making a shocking statement about U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. While aboard his papal aircraft to Rome after a visit to Mexico, Francis was asked to comment about a statement Mr. Trump had recently made. In his answer Pope Francis made the following statement about Mr. Trump’s views on immigration and his proposal to build a wall across the U.S./Mexican border:

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”

When asked if American Catholics should cast their vote for Mr. Trump, he said:

“I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

Donald Trump, who is a Presbyterian, quickly retorted: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened.”

Protestants and Catholics

The Presbyterian denomination is a part of Protestantism, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. The Protestant Reformation was one of the nastiest religious divorces in history.

Even though the Catholic Church disagrees with many of the tenets of Protestantism (and vice versa), especially its rejection of the authority of the pope as the vicar of Christ and the successor of Peter, officially the Catholic Church recognizes Protestants as Christians. Catholics officially see Protestants as “separated brothers,” and recent popes have made ecumenical overtures toward better relations with other Christian denominations (including Protestants and the Orthodox).

The people behind Life, Hope & Truth are not engaged in the American political battle and are not Catholic, so we are not taking a side in the debate between Pope Francis and Mr. Trump. But we do encourage our readers to consider more deeply the question: What exactly is a Christian anyway?

What exactly is a Christian?

As we watch the verbal sparring between the leader of the world’s largest religious denomination and a controversial U.S. presidential candidate over who is and isn’t a Christian, we do not need to rely on the opinions of either man. Christianity isn’t defined or negated by anyone’s personal declaration about himself or someone else. It is defined by God’s Word, the Bible.

So what does the Bible tell us about the “Christian” label? Here are four biblical points to consider:

1. Calling yourself a “Christian” doesn’t necessarily make you one.

Jesus Christ, the man from whom Christianity derives its name, made this bold statement during His human ministry: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). In other words, Jesus was saying that it’s futile to declare His name but not actually obey Him. He went on to clarify that a Christian “hears My sayings and does them” (verse 47).

In another statement, made to very religious people, Christ said: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). The word vain means useless. So people can give themselves “Christian” labels and can even be fervent worshippers—but still not be a Christian if they are teaching false doctrines instead of Christ’s sayings (Luke 6:46).

Christ’s point is that real Christianity isn’t just a name tag. You don’t just pick it up, stick it on your shirt and poof—you’re a Christian. It’s so much more than that.

Genuine Christianity is not defined by a single political stance, family upbringing or denominational membership. Christianity is a way of life—a way of life based on following Jesus Christ.2. Christians keep all of God’s Commandments.

The apostle John made a very direct statement about Christianity in 1 John 2:3: “Now by this we know that we know Him [Jesus], if we keep His commandments” (emphasis added). John is saying that we are a Christian only if we obey His commandments. Notice what he wrote next: “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (verse 4).

Strong words!

Christianity is really about knowing the real Jesus Christ and obeying His law. In other words, striving to do what He said(Matthew 19:17-19; John 15:14).

Jesus also was clear that when “the commandments” are mentioned in the New Testament, it means all of them! Get out your Bible and read Matthew 5:17-19!

This will gain more meaning and importance in the next point.

3. A Christian must keep the Fourth Commandment.

Most professing Christians respect the 10 Commandments—they fight to put them on stone in front of courtrooms and memorize them in Sunday schools. But the problem is that 99.9 percent of them don’t believe or keep the 10 Commandments—meaning all 10! At best, the majority of Christendom keeps nine. (And when you learn more about those nine, it becomes obvious that many doctrines of mainstream Christianity compromise those too.)

But most claiming to be Christians ignore the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8-10).

Most churches observe Sunday—the first day of the week—as the “Lord’s day” and completely ignore the seventh-day Sabbath. Yet God considered the Sabbath so important that it is the only commandment He began with the word remember. Perhaps this was an ominous foreshadowing of mankind’s propensity to forget this law.

Not only does the Bible say this is a sign identifying God’s people (Exodus 31:13)—but Jesus even reinforced it by saying He made it specifically for our benefit and that one of His titles is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28)!

Anyone who leads a religious denomination—whether it is a small corner church of 50 people or a globe-spanning denomination of 1.2 billion—would do well to heed Christ’s warning in Matthew 5:19 about teaching people to break any of God’s Commandments, including the fourth.

We urge our readers to read our free booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God to learn more about this huge topic. This booklet contains information that can truly change your life.

4. A Christian must have genuine love for others.

Jesus made another statement defining Christianity: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Christ’s genuine followers will love one another. Sadly, some claim that love overrides obedience to God’s law as the only requirement of a Christian. But those arguments break down when we read further and discover that the biblical definition of love is keeping the commandments (1 John 5:2-3).

The 10 Commandments define love. They show us how to love God (the first four) and how to love other people (the last six). When we really internalize these commandments, we learn that love is all about having genuine outgoing concern for the well-being of others. It manifests itself through living a life that can be summed up in the word give.

In 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul sheds more light on how genuine love is demonstrated in a Christian’s life. One description we read is that “love … is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked” (verses 4-5). Sadly, these characteristics rarely describe the behavior of political candidates and prominent people in our society today.

From a label to a way of life

Genuine Christianity goes far deeper than any label we apply to ourselves. It is not defined by a single political stance, family upbringing or denominational membership. Christianity is a way of life—a way of life based on following Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6) and living by “every word of God” (Luke 4:4).

Verbal sparring between personalities over who is and isn’t a Christian is useless and, in all honesty, is quite sad. We encourage our readers to never get into these kinds of debates—but instead, to use this unfortunate episode that bombarded our news feeds this week to focus on what really matters: pursuing true and genuine Christianity based on the standard found in your Bible.

To learn more about true Christianity, read “Why Is Christianity Becoming Irrelevant?” and “Six Things You Need to Ask About Your Christianity.”

Photo by Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA 2.0 and Catholic Church England and Wales/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Erik Jones is a writer and editor for Life, Hope & Truth and Discern magazine. He holds degrees in education and history from the University of Akron (Ohio) and enjoys writing on current events, history, social issues and the Bible. He also serves as an adjunct instructor at Foundation Institute in Allen, Texas.