What is it that makes an individual a Christian? This simple question has been asked and answered alternatively for nearly two millennia. How one answers this question will have profound implications in his life, his ministry and his future estate. It is imperative that every individual come to a realization of the minimal beliefs with which he must agree in order to obtain salvation.
To truly understand the faith by which an individual becomes a Christian, it is necessary to consider Christianity not as a movement within Western culture but rather as a specific religion in history. In an article for the Harvard Theological Journal, B. B. Warfield once wrote that: “Clearly, Christianity being a historical religion, its content can be determined only on historical grounds.” Warfield then cited H. H. Went as coming to the same conclusion when he wrote that the Christian religion “is a historically given religion” and that we must determine its essence “by such an objective historical examination as we should give it were we dealing with the determination of the essence of some other historical religion.”
To obtain an accurate definition of Christianity, therefore, it is necessary to consider the original usage of that term as recorded in the Book of Acts. In that portion of Scripture, we read that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch,” and from this we can see that the name of Christian was given to those who were in another place called “the disciples of the Lord.” This, however, is not to be understood as a reference to the original twelve disciples only, for none of the original twelve were in Antioch at this time, and further, it is stated earlier in the Scriptures that the number of disciples on the morning of Pentecost was “about an hundred and twenty.” The proper understanding of which individuals were called Christians in Antioch can be seen in the phrase which precedes that statement. Just before we are told that the disciples were called Christians, we are informed that Paul and Barnabas traveled to that city and “assembled themselves with the church.” It was thus the members of the church that are here said to have been previously known as disciples and which were, from then on, known among the heathen as Christians.
Consideration must now be given to the means by which these disciples became members of the church. This is also explained in the Book of Acts where we read that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” The means of this salvation by which individuals are made Christians and added to the church is stated in another place to be “the gospel of Christ” which is clearly defined in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.
This gospel, or good news, is the means by which an individual is able to become a Christian, but he must first believe it to be true as is stated in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
It is for this reason that we read in the Epistle to the Romans that this gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” and not simply to everyone regardless of his belief. Of those who refuse to believe this gospel, the Scriptures tell us that the Lord will come “in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But all of those who believe are promised salvation by which they are made members of the church, disciples of Christ and Christians in the purest meaning of the word.
This brief survey of the New Testament teaching on salvation settles the historical foundation of Christianity upon the belief in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that is not how the religion of Christ has always been viewed. In the early part of the fourth century, Emperor Constantine assembled at Nicea the first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church in order to address the heresy of Arianism. Athanasius wrote of this council that:
heretics have assembled together with the Emperor Constantius, so that he, by alleging the authority of the bishops, may exercise his power against whomsoever he will, and while he persecutes may yet avoid the name of persecutor.
Of course, the council decided against the Arians, but Athanasius’ fear of sanctioning persecution was fully realized, for in the decision of the Council of Nicea is found the first departure from the historical definition of Christianity and, consequently, the first official denial of the title of “Christian” on grounds other than the gospel.
The decisions of the Council of Nicea were set forth to the public in the form of a creed, which has come to be known as the Nicene Creed, a list of twenty canons and a synodal letter which was published throughout the churches. Both the Nicene Creed and the synodal letter pronounce a condemnation of anathema against individuals who reject a particular belief in regards to the Trinity. Here is the text of the creed in which this anathema was first pronounced:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (ἤν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
According to this creed, anyone who suggests that Colossians 1:15 and Revelation 3:14 could be viewed as saying that Christ was created by God; and then, as God and with God, He created everything else – anyone who makes this suggestion is anathematized. Or if anyone were to claim that Christ could have chosen to sin when He “was in all points tempted like as we are,” that person would likewise be anathematized.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that to anathematize someone is to “separate him from the society of all Christians” and to “judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate.” In other words, to anathematize someone is to declare that individual to not be a Christian. This judgment is not to be taken lightly, and the Bible provides only two justifications for its pronouncement. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul said that anyone who preaches a gospel other than the gospel which he and the other apostles preached, then that preacher is to be anathematized; and in his first letter to the church at Corinth, he proclaimed the same judgment against anyone who does not love the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other justification given in Scripture for declaring that someone is not a Christian. This judgment is to be reserved for those who do not love the Lord and those who preach a means of salvation other than faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
The Council of Nicea abandoned the example of Scripture. They chose to reject certain individuals from being Christians simply because those individuals did not hold to the exact same view of the Trinity as the majority of the bishops of the Catholic church. This act of straying from the authority of the Scriptures placed the Catholic church on a slippery slope producing anathema upon anathema until anyone who dared to disagree with the Catholics on practically any point of doctrine was condemned by them to an eternity in hell.
In fact, less than sixty years after the Council of Nicea, the Catholic church formed another council at Constantinople where it was declared that “Every heresy is to be anathematized.” The title of heretic was defined by this council as:
those who have been previously banned from the church and also those later anathematised by ourselves: and in addition those who claim to confess a faith that is sound, but who have seceded and hold assemblies in rivalry with the bishops who are in communion with us.
One of the sects anathematized by the Council of Constantinople as heretics was identified in the eighth canon of the Council of Nicea as the Cathari. John T. Christian identified the Cathari as being the followers of Novatian. He wrote of them that:
On account of the purity of their lives they were called the Cathari, that is, the pure. “What is still more,” says Mosheim, “they rebaptized such as came over to them from the Catholics” (Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History I. p. 203. New York, 1871). Since they baptized those who came to them from other communions they were called Anabaptists. The fourth Lateran Council decreed that these rebaptizers should be punished by death. Accordingly, Albanus, a zealous minister, and others, were punished with death. They were, says Robinson, “trinitarian Baptists.” They held to the independence of the churches; and recognized the equality of all pastors in respect to dignity and authority.
These “trinitarian Baptists” were condemned to hell by the Council of Constantinople for no other crime than that of seceding from the Catholic church. This is a far departure from the biblical example of anathematizing only those who do not love the Lord and those who preach another gospel, and one would think that it would be difficult to stray any further from the clear teaching of the Scriptures. The Council of Ephesus, however, caused the Catholic church to slip even further away from the truth.
A mere fifty years after the Council of Constantinople, the Catholic church assembled another council at Ephesus to discuss the hypostatic union of Christ. In the sixth session of this council, it was declared that the Nicene Creed was to be the only creed of the church. It was also said that:
Any who dare to compose or bring forth or produce another creed for the benefit of those who wish to turn from Hellenism or Judaism or some other heresy to the knowledge of the truth, if they are bishops or clerics they should be deprived of their respective charges and if they are laymen they are to be anathematised.
The interesting aspect of this particular anathema is that it is a direct reversal of the proclamation found in Scripture. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was very direct in saying that those who were preaching a false gospel were to be anathematized, but the believers who had accepted this false gospel were still referred to by Paul as brethren. The Council of Ephesus reversed this process. They proclaimed the laymen who believed heresies to be anathema, but the bishops who taught those heresies to the people were merely removed from office, and the Catholic church moved even farther from historical and biblical definition of Christianity.
The Council of Ephesus was very quickly followed by the Council of Chalcedon which adopted the same formula of anathematizing laymen while only disrobing clergy for an identical offense. In the canons of the Council of Chalcedon, the punishment of anathema was applied to four different offenses. The first of these was mentioned in the second canon:
IF any Bishop should ordain for money, and put to sale a grace which cannot be sold, and for money ordain a bishop, or chorepiscopus, or presbyters, or deacons, or any other of those who are counted among the clergy; or if through lust of gain he should nominate for money a steward, or advocate, or prosmonarius, or any one whatever who is on the roll of the Church, let him who is convicted of this forfeit his own rank; and let him who is ordained be nothing profited by the purchased ordination or promotion; but let him be removed from the dignity or charge he has obtained for money. And if any one should be found negotiating such shameful and unlawful transactions, let him also, if he is a clergyman, be deposed from his rank, and if he is a layman or monk, let him be anathematized.
In this canon, a layman or a monk was to be anathematized if he even appeared to assist a bishop in procuring money in exchange for appointments within the church. There was to be no trial, no provision for determining whether the accused was actually guilty or not. The mere presence of suspicion was enough for him to be condemned to eternity in hell.
The seventh canon applied to members of the clergy who chose to leave the service of the church and take up service in the military or in some other capacity under a secular ruler.
WE have decreed that those who have once been enrolled among the clergy, or have been made monks, shall accept neither a military charge nor any secular dignity; and if they shall presume to do so and not repent in such wise as to turn again to that which they had first chosen for the love of God, they shall be anathematized.
The fifteenth canon concerned women who were given in marriage after being ordained as deacons.
A WOMAN shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized and the man united to her.
And the twenty-seventh canon pronounced anathema against any layman who chose to elope instead of receiving a proper marriage:
THE holy Synod has decreed that those who forcibly carry off women under pretence of marriage, and the alders or abettors of such ravishers, shall be degraded if clergymen, and if laymen be anathematized.
The Second Council of Constantinople extended the list of anathemas by twenty-nine anathemas from the council and nine anathemas from the Emperor. These included anathemas against anyone who did not anathematize heretics, who did not anathematize those who defended Theodore, who did not anathematize those who wrote against the writings of Cyril, or who claimed that any part of the letter from Ibas to Maris was correct.
These pronunciations were made in the last four capitulas of this council. The eleventh capitula states:
If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema. 
This is followed by the twelfth capitula:
If anyone defends the impious Theodore of Mopsuestia ... if anyone does not anathematize him or his impious writings, as well as all those who protect or defend him, or who assert that his exegesis is orthodox, or who write in favour of him and of his impious works, or those who share the same opinions, or those who have shared them and still continue unto the end in this heresy: let him be anathema.
Then the thirteenth capitula concludes:
...if anyone does not anathematize these impious writings and those who have held or who hold these sentiments, and all those who have written contrary to the true faith or against St. Cyril and his XII. Chapters, and who die in their impiety: let him be anathema.
And the final capitula states:
If anyone shall defend that letter which Ibas is said to have written to Maris the Persian ... If anyone therefore shall defend the aforementioned epistle and shall not anathematize it and those who defend it and say that it is right or that a part of it is right, or if anyone shall defend those who have written or shall write in its favour, or in defence of the impieties which are contained in it, as well as those who shall presume to defend it or the impieties which it contains in the name of the Holy Fathers or of the Holy Synod of Chalcedon, and shall remain in these offenses unto the end: let him be anathema.
In these four capitulas, the Catholic church progressed so far from the teaching of Scripture that they condemned to hell not only those who dared to disagree with Catholic doctrine but also anyone who did not agree with the decision to condemn “heretics” to hell or even those who did not agree with condemning to hell those who did not condemn “heretics” to hell. According to the standard put forth by this council, the Apostle Paul himself should be anathematized for his failure to anathematize the Galatian believers who had been deceived by a false gospel.
The Third Council of Constantinople was mostly just a direct application of the decisions of the previous council to a particular list of men culminating in the exclamation, “To all heretics, anathema! To all who side with heretics, anathema!”
Then, the seventh of the great ecumenical councils of the Catholic church, the Second Council of Nicea, embraced the ultimate departure from the biblical view of anathemas by anathematizing all those who did not accept the false gospel of Mariology. This council pronounced that:
If anyone shall not confess the holy ever-virgin Mary, truly and properly the Mother of God, to be higher than every creature whether visible or invisible, and does not with sincere faith seek her intercessions as of one having confidence in her access to our God, since she bare him ... let him be anathema from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!
Thus, over a period of less than four hundred years, the simple gospel of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was perverted by the Catholic church to a gospel of strict adherence to Catholic dogma and to the veneration of Mary, but the true message of the gospel was not lost. It was preserved throughout this time in the patient teachings of the churches of those called the Anabaptists. These churches included the Cathari, the Donatists, the Albigenses, the Waldensians and many others. According to John T. Christian:
The footsteps of the Baptists of the ages can more easily be traced by blood than by baptism. It is a lineage of suffering rather than a succession of bishops; a martyrdom of principle, rather than a dogmatic decree of councils; a golden chord of love, rather than an iron chain of succession, which, while attempting to rattle its links back to the apostles, has been of more service in chaining some protesting Baptist to the stake than in proclaiming the truth of the New Testament. It is, nevertheless, a right royal succession, that in every age the Baptists have been advocates of liberty for all, and have held that the gospel of the Son of God makes every man a free man in Christ Jesus.
The true doctrine of salvation by faith in the finished work of Christ was preserved by these Baptists in the face of great persecution until it was made the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. B. B. Warfield noted that “In the mind of Jesus as truly in the mind of His followers, the religion which He founded was by way of eminence the religion of redemption,” and it was a return to the true gospel of redemption which marked the success of the Reformation.
In the formation of the ideology which produced the freedoms of America, there is a marked progression from the declaration of Robert Persons that a man can be a Christian only if “he believe unfainedly the total sum of documents and mysteries, left by Jesus and his disciples in the Catholic Church” to the recognition of the true gospel by the great puritan preachers such as Thomas Watson who taught that:
If you would enter into the bond of the covenant, get faith in the blood of the covenant. Christ’s blood is the blood of atonement; believe in this blood, and you are safely arked in God’s mercy.
This theme was picked up by the patriot preachers of the revolution who echoed the words of John Witherspoon that:
through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins. There is a fulness of merit in his obedience and death to procure your pardon. There is no sin of so deep a dye, or so infectious a stain, but his blood is sufficient to wash it out. This is no new doctrine, or modern discovery, to gratify a curious mind. Perhaps you have heard such things so often, that you nauseate and disdain the repetition. But they are the words of eternal life, on which your soul's salvation depends; and therefore, though this call should come but once more to be rejected, it is yet again within your offer.
The pure gospel message was carried throughout the nineteenth century by theologians such as Albert Barnes who proclaimed, "To all, I say, if you believe the gospel, heaven is yours." And in the twentieth century, this message was defended in the writings of men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, J. Dwight Pentecost, Josh McDowell and numerous others. Chafer wrote of the gospel that “The believer, in contrast to the unsaved, has consented to the atonement as the basis of his salvation, and has thus appropriated by faith the propitiation made for him.” Pentecost claimed that “The Word of God tells us that a man who does no more than believe that Jesus Christ is his personal Saviour passes from death into life.” And McDowell emphatically stated that “Christian conversion is based upon something objective, the resurrection of Christ.”
The history of America, more than that of any other nation, has exemplified the conclusion of Paul Feine that:
The Christian Church is an inevitable product of the declaration of the expiatory effect of His death for many. For those who have experienced redemption and reconciliation through the death of Jesus must by virtue of this gift of grace draw together and distinguish themselves over against other communities.
What is it that makes an individual a Christian? What belief must one hold to in order to be delivered from the curse of sin? The answer is not to be found in the adherence to a set of accepted doctrines, nor is it discovered in the creeds of the ancient church. The key which admits the believer into the community of Christ is his acceptance of the true gospel of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1950), 482.
 Acts 11:26.
 Acts 9:1.
 Acts 1:15.
 Acts 2:47.
 Rom. 1:16.
 I Cor. 15:1-4.
 Heb. 4:2.
 Rom. 1:16.
 II Thess. 1:8.
 William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers: Pre-Nicene and Nicene Eras (Collegeville, MN: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1970), 326.
 Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Albany, OR: SAGE Software, 1996), 55.
 Heb. 4:15.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Anathema," by Joseph N. Cignac.
 Gal. 1:8-9.
 I Cor. 16:22.
 “The First Council of Constantinople,” Papal Encyclicals Online, accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum02.htm.
 John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, vol 1, [book on-line] (accessed August 18, 2013) available from http://www.pbministries.org/History/John%20T.%20Christian/vol1/history_03.htm.
 “The Council of Ephesus,” The Eternal Word Television Network, accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/EPHESUS.HTM.
 “Medieval Sourcebook: The Council of Chalcedon, 451,” Fordham University, accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/chalcedon.asp.
 Percival, 755.
 Ibid, 757.
 Ibid, 758.
 Ibid, 758-759.
 “Medieval Sourcebook: Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople III, 680-681,” Fordham University, accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/const3.asp.
 “Medieval Sourcebook: The Second Council of Nicea, 787,” Fordham University, accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/nicea2.asp.
 Christian, www.pbministries.org/History/John T. Christian/vol1/history_01.htm.
 Warfield, 524.
 Robert Persons, A Christian Directorie Guiding Men to Their Salvation (1585), 299.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 110.
 John Witherspoon, The Absolute Necessity of Salvation Through Christ (Edinburgh: W. Miller, 1758), 45.
 Alfred Barnes, The Way of Salvation (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1836), 37.
 Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Evangelism (Wheaton: Von Kampen Press, 1919), 34.
 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), 35.
 Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask about the Christian Faith (San Bernadino: Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., 1980), 120.
 Warfield, 530.
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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