As we took pains to establish in our last session together, we do not like the word Christian. Our summary went like this:
“Many who consider themselves *true* Christians [as distinguished from *sham* Christians, I suppose] do not like the word Christian because it has been abused by insincere, nominal ‘Christians’ and has therefore become inadequate to express *actual* Christianity.”
As a result of this distaste for the traditional term, a great number of believers prefer using alternative designations in order to avoid being identified with folks who claim Christianity but, by our estimation, do not represent it adequately.
Before launching into a full-blown explanation of why I think this is a rather bad idea, I decided to turn the proverbial microphone over to my readers and asked for your thoughts. These you delivered, and I was blessed by your thoughtfulness and articulation in affirming the nature of the problem and offering your evaluations of our increasingly prevalent response. I believe I’ve gotten enough ducks in a row at this point to present a solid argument for an altogether different solution, but if any of you finds it to be less than compelling, then I encourage you to continue the conversation.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am firmly convinced that we should consider ourselves immensely honored to bear the name Christian. It may take a little time to build up to that point, so let’s start here:
Shirking the name Christian is a selfish, fruitless, and naïve endeavor.
If I ask you a question, do you promise to answer it truthfully? Not out loud, or to me, or to anybody else. Just answer this question to yourself, and be honest: “Are my efforts to distinguish myself from false Christians more about God, or are they more about me? Whose reputation am I really concerned about–His or mine?”
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
My great fear is that our purpose in adding or substituting our own personalized expressions for Christian is to make ourselves look special. And in whose eyes are we seeking this special status? I don’t think it’s God–though that would at least be understandable for someone who doesn’t realize that he could never look any more lovely to God than he already does clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Some of us are probably concerned about our reputation among unbelievers, afraid that we’ll be unfairly judged and condemned because of what some lousy “Christians” have said or done (not realizing, I suppose, that embodying true Christianity and proclaiming the grand offense of the gospel will only lead to more severe judgment and condemnation). However, I think that probably even more of us are working to engineer our reputations among believers, trying to use cool and novel expressions of our faith to score points with our friends and gain/maintain our social status as veritable super-Christians, the great and wise leaders of our Christian social circles.
I’m not trying to insult anyone. But if you feel like I just insulted you, then maybe you’re the person who needed to hear it.
“When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Perhaps even more fundamentally, I think many of us use these alternative expressions in order to make ourselves look special in our own eyes–that is, to help ourselves feel like we’re special Christians. And when you think about it, who wouldn’t want to feel that way? Isn’t it exciting and self-validating to think that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ is something truly extraordinary and unique–not just compared to unbelievers, but to other believers as well? So when an opportunity arises to express to others and to myself how especially understanding or especially passionate about God I am, why shouldn’t I take it?
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I think a lot of us see these people we’ve identified as fake Christians and set about trying to prove that we’re not like them–that we’re better than them. And this proving isn’t just something we do to the people around us; it’s something we do within ourselves, because we need to feel better than them. We must prove to ourselves–by some good word or deed–that we are not fake Christians. If we must implicitly discredit others’ Christianity in order to do this, then so be it.
But let me ask you another question: Do you deserve to be counted in the special group of true and faithful Christians? Are you really so loving and obedient that you never dishonor the God who has entrusted you to represent His holy name? And when did we start thinking that anyone could do anything to merit extra favor from God? That is the polar opposite of the gospel message.
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
“By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.”
I’m going to leave the issue of motives aside now, for there is a good deal more to be said, but if the Holy Spirit is working you over at all right now, I suggest you take a break from reading Jordan’s Fallible Uninspired Blog and go stew over these things some more. Seriously, don’t just keep reading until it “wears off.” Step away from the computer.
Now in addition to carrying the very real danger of self-promotion, our practice of moving away from the Christian name is also self-defeating. It simply will not do what we say we want it to do–at least not for very long. See, if all the “cool Christians” start calling themselves something other than Christian, then eventually most of the “lame Christians” are going to catch on and start doing it too. And then we just have the same problem all over again, either with whatever becomes the most popular new title or, perhaps even worse, with a sea of personal expressions that lack any real cohesion. I suspect it would go in cycles:
SHARED TITLE → cool xns unhappy → cool xns diversify → lame xns follow → CRAZY PLURALITY → cool xns unhappy → cool xns find solidarity in new term → lame xns follow → SHARED TITLE → repeat ad inifinitum
Now the reason this might sound so implausible to some of you is because it has never happened before. But why is that? We’ve had the same title since about ten years after the birth of the Church at Pentecost (see Acts 11:26), and in the two millennia since then, no generation of Christians has made a stink about their name. Do not miss this point here. I know that history is something we modern churches don’t really consider much anymore, but let me repeat: The name Christian has been with us from the beginning, and until now nobody has suggested that we switch to something else. (Well, unless you count a couple heretics here and there, but even among the heterodox you’d be surprised at how few.) Now let’s take off our Present Goggles for a second and clarify something: the problems we face as a Church today are not new, and in most cases, their intensity is nothing compared to the struggles our predecessors endured. So when we look around and see our problem of insincere, nominal Christians, do not make the mistake of assuming that we are the first generation to deal with this problem, or that it’s never been this bad before. In fact, when you take a look at the history books, you’ll find that it has ALWAYS been this way. But neither the apostles nor the church fathers nor the bishops nor the ecumenical councils nor Augustine nor the Reformers nor the Puritans responded to this problem by saying, “You know what we should do is DITCH THE FAKERS by CHANGING OUR NAME! Yeah! Instead of patiently discipling them or exercising church discipline, let’s just passive-aggressively demonstrate that we don’t care for them!” You see my point.
“I do not ask for these [the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Jesus clearly has a strong desire that the Church be unified. Furthermore, He connects the Church’s unity to the strength of its testimony; we must be one “so that the world may believe.” When was the last time we thought about our unity as an integral part of our witness to the world? It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Imagine that you are a non-Christian. When you look at the Church, what do you see? You see a bunch of people who seem way more interested in their “personal relationships” with Jesus than they are in building one another up or reaching out to others with the Good News they have received. You see people who want to separate themselves from one another rather than stand together. You see people who would rather avoid the folks they don’t think are “good enough” instead of coming alongside them or even confronting them directly.
As it turns out, intentional disunity among Christians is just damaging to our witness as the missteps of struggling or even insincere Christians.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
We have covered much ground today, yet one key issue remains. We see that we have logical, historical, and theological reasons to keep the title handed down to us. But are there any reasons that have to do with the name itself rather than the “historical accident” of its being the one we received? Is there anything significant about the word Christian in and of itself?
In short, yes. Very much yes.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
Do you see what Peter does here linguistically? He connects suffering for “the name of Christ” with suffering “as a Christian.” Of course, we all see that the word Christ is the root of the word Christian; it therefore stands that the significance of the name Christ for understanding and identifying the Son of God parallels the significance of the name Christian for understanding and identifying the people of God. So just how important is the name Christ? Many blogs could be filled in answering this question, but for the present, consider the following. First, Christ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah, which, if you care much about God’s covenants and promises all throughout the Old Testament (and you should!), is hugely significant: the Christ is the great fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption. Furthermore, the title Christ encapsulates both aspects of Jesus as Savior and Lord, which we see clearly in the prophets. Additionally, the first generation of the Church gave the title such prominence that by the time of the Apostles’ letters, we already see it used very frequently as a name for Jesus. The name Christ became so identified with Jesus that, as mentioned before, Jesus’ followers earned the nickname Christians within scarcely a decade of their ministry.
Christian is, simply, the very best title a follower of Christ can hope for, because it implies that our identity, our very being, is in Him. We do not just follow Him; we do not just worship Him; we are in Him. We are His.
So what do we do about the name Christian? We embrace it. We defend it. We take the time to define it for people. We do not ignore or excuse the misdeeds done under its banner, but we point always to the grace that is greater than all our sin. We never forget that the Church is a hospital for recovering sinners rather than a country club for the purportedly perfect.
And what do we do about phony Christians? We get involved. Think of someone you know who claims Christianity but whose sincerity you doubt. (If you don’t know anyone like this, then you yourself may be doing Christianity wrong.) Go to that person and tell him that you are concerned for him, that you do not see the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his daily walk, that you don’t think he understands the totality of Christ’s claim on his life. Exhort him to consider anew his total depravity, Christ’s offer of full redemption, and His command to put off the old self. Who knows what might happen?
Just please, don’t try to have these conversations on facebook.