The Definition of Christian
At some point along the journey from traditional to progressive faith the question of whether beliefs or values matter most, must be faced. No matter what political or cultural biases Christians may have, they have traditionally agreed that it is their belief and trust in Jesus, the unique Son of God, as their Saviour and Lord that defines them as Christian. For almost two thousand years this belief system has been the bedrock of Christian faith. For progressives, this is no longer so.
Confusion reigns both within the Christian community and society in general about the core definition of being a Christian. Consider the statements so often heard, “That’s not very Christian”, or “She lived a good Christian life.” Over and over again such assessments are made with no regard to belief in Jesus as saving us from eternal divine punishment.
Instead, these statements reflect a view about a person’s values, behaviour, lifestyle choices and relationships. When loved ones are eulogised at their funeral, with the words, “They lived a good Christian life”, it is backed up with evidence of their kindness, generosity, honesty and trustworthiness. In other words, both inside and outside of the church, to be a “good Christian” is assumed to mean living by “good” values.
What Makes a ‘Good’ Christian?
So which is it? Beliefs or values? Faith in Jesus as a Saviour from divine punishment for sin, or a character shaped by generosity, honesty, and kindness?
Many Christians I know assume that these two naturally go together. While it is true that our beliefs influence our values (a topic for another time perhaps), it is quite possible to hold passionately to orthodox beliefs about Jesus without being committed to values of goodness, love, truth or justice.
We might assume that belief in the forgiveness of God should lead us to forgive one another. Yet forgiveness has not been a guiding conviction in the judgemental stance of the church for most of its history.
The historical evidence proves that there is no automatic connection between believing in Jesus to save you from the consequences of your sin and the development of such values as compassion, generosity, honesty or humility. The behaviour of the church as an institution and of church leaders as individuals throughout the centuries, right into our own time, speak more often of control, greed, and the love and abuse of power. (Thankfully there have been a few outstanding exceptions that prove the rule!) So how can this be so?
The Evolution from Values to Beliefs
The values-based faith OF Jesus has so often been lost in the creed-based faith ABOUT Jesus…
The confusion is best explained through good historical/Biblical scholarship.  We now know that during the first century, two streams of conviction emerged surrounding the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Most of his original friends had been shaped by the movement that Jesus initiated: to revitalise genuine spirituality founded upon basic Jewish concepts of social justice and the mercy of God. This was a values-based view of what it meant to honour God.
However, by the second half of the first century another very different stream of religious faith was emerging, centred on statements of belief about Jesus himself.
By making Jesus divine and placing him at the centre of what it means to be a truly religious person, the gospel writers and leaders of the Christian Church invented what we know as traditional Christianity. Both streams of thought can be found alongside one another in the New Testament. But in the history of the church, one became dominant and the other subsumed into it.
The values-based faith OF Jesus has so often been lost in the creed-based faith ABOUT Jesus that has ruled the church for two thousand years. Today progressive Christians critique the creeds and seek again to understand the imperatives of Jesus’ own values. The faith OF Jesus is not about him at all. The faith OF Jesus calls us to seek justice for all, compassion, inclusion of outcasts, respect for neighbours who are different, and love of life.
Seeking to live by these values may not make us “Christian” in the traditional definition of that word, but does qualify us to be called followers of Jesus.
 For further reading: Made on Earth: How gospel writers created the Christ by Lorraine Parkinson, (Spectrum, 2015).