Why Christians Should Call Themselves Christians

This week's post is something I wrote a couple of years ago but never got around to putting out there.  It is also a bit of a palette cleanser before I move on to a longer series surrounding worship and worship music.  In what follows I risk "preaching to the choir" a bit, still, I think it is worth saying.

A little while ago I overheard a conversation between a student and a parent at the Christian school I work at which articulated a reoccurring sentiment I have heard expressed by many different people over that past few years, most of them from various outlets of Christian media.  I have heard it from the mouth of Canadian radio talk show host Drew Marshall and from musicians Bruce Cockburn and even DerekWebb.  Most recently this sentiment has gotten more widespread attention because of an interview Marcas Mumford of Mumford & Sons gave to Rollins Stone.  You can sift through all their interviews over numerous years if you want to find what I am talking about, but I think the sentiment has permeated our lives to such an extent that you will probably have heard this line numerous times already. It goes something like this:

The word “Christian” has been so misused and abused I’m not sure if we should just stop using it anymore. I’d consider myself more of a follower of Jesus. I don’t have a problem with Jesus; it’s those who claim to be Christians that I have a problem with. Since all anyone ever thinks of when they hear that word is bigoted hate-mongers, maybe we should just get rid of that word. So, let's not call ourselves "Christians" anymore...

Well, I would heartily disagree with this sentiment and frankly I am getting overly sick of hearing it, especially since those who are saying are usually espoused as wise and discerning rather than lazy juvenile cynics.

Here are my reasons why

1. Not wanting to call yourself a Christian because of the misconceptions of the term or the negative connotations our society puts on the term shows an immature understanding of language and meaning. I.e., every word/term we use to describe ourselves is open to misconception and very often has some kind of negative connotation to someone. Still, we have to use these words because they are the only way to begin describing ourselves. These general descriptors such as "Christian", "married", "engineer", etc. merely cause those we are communicating with to ask us more questions about ourselves, and that is as it should be. No single word can fully describe anything. “Christian” is the best word we have to help us begin describing exactly what kind of Christian we are. There are multiple layers of meaning to every word we use, especially the words which are most important to us and in which we wrap up our identity. These words often carry the most potential for becoming convoluted (i.e., multiple conflicting definitions) and corrupted (E.g., in the context of recent tragedies in the Roman Catholic church people's tendency to now conflate for all time the word “priest” with “child molester.” There are legitimate present day reasons to do this, but it is not just to apply it outright to anyone who carries the title “priest”), but we need to look at these words as gateways to more refined ideas. Our most important words carry with them big picture ideas that are often hijacked by the ignorant or ill-intentioned, but this only means we have to be about continually and intentionally redefining our words and asking progressive questions to those who use them, each inquiry burrowing down into a successive layer of meaning. We should stop wasting time trying to come up with new terms for very well-established ideas and principles, but instead spend all our energy refining and clarifying those terms.

Here’s a mock conversation for the sake of practical example:
Person 1: Hello, I am a Christian.
Person 2: That is nice. What kind of Christian are you?
Person 1: I am a Bible believing Christian.
Person 2: Oh, I meant “what kind of church do you go to”?
Person 1: Oh OK, I go to a non-denominational church.
Person 2: I’ve never heard of that.
Person 1: It just means they’re not part of any denomination—you know, like any kind of church organization, such as Lutheran or Catholic. But we have roots in the Mennonite tradition
Person 2: So, you believe like Mennonites but you’re not really Mennonite?
Person 1:Yeah pretty much.
Person 2: Oh alright....Well, what kind of music do you sing?


2. If the word “Christian” truly does have a negative connotation, then as Jesus-people/followers of Christ/whathaveyou, we need to be about redeeming the word instead of denying or avoiding it. We serve a God of transformation, redemption, and resurrection. Let’s transform the word into what it really should mean. Let’s redeem it from the bad name Christians have and currently are giving it. Let’s resurrect the meaning of it in the hearts of those who only think foul things upon hearing it.

By way of comparison, here is another universal kind of word that often gets looked upon poorly: father. In our culture fathers are often viewed in a negative light. So, for us males who have kids, we could avoid the title by saying “Well, since so many people see fathers as either oppressive, abusive, or entirely absent, I’d like to instead consider myself a ‘male who has human offspring who happens to spend much of my life taking care of those offspring’, or for short ‘male caregiver of children.’” This of course would be silly and tedious, if not pretentious. Thus people still end up calling themselves "father", despite the negative connotations.  Essentially we conclude that all the bad fathers of the world are not representative of what a father should be. Even if 99% of all fathers are bad men, we know none of them are truly embodying the meaning of that title. We acknowledge here’s nothing wrong with the word itself, just the men who aren't worthy of that honorable title. As men and fathers, we should be spending our lives reclaiming the meaning of that word, showing our kids, our communities, and our cultures what fathers can be. The word “Christian” should be no different. We do not shy away from this word just like we do not shy away from sinners but we go to them and share Christ with them hoping that he will redeem them.

3. Christians should especially call themselves Christians to other Christians because we know the word points to a deeper transcendent meaning, namely that we are part of Christ’s body, we have been grafted onto the vine, we are heirs of God’s eternal salvation, we are part of the new heavens and the new earth, we are the foreshadowing of God’s new creation. We do not call ourselves Christian because we have become members of some club. No, God has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light and we have been made something entirely new, and the term Christian is simply the best term we have to begin talking about this radical concept.

4. We need to stop being cowards and own who we are, even in all its ugliness. Changing people’s understanding of “Christians” is not something that will change overnight. It will take years of service and love and fulfilling God’s mission. We need to be mature enough to endure the criticism until those changes are made--actually, we need to endure it even if the public perception of Christianity never changes. To call oneself “Christian” is to include oneself as a member of a cosmic and eternal family, and being part of a family means we have to associate ourselves with those other members with whom we might be ashamed of. It means committing ourselves to them despite their flaws and offenses and it means holding them accountable for their actions. It does not, however, mean abandoning them or our shared title because of the shame associated with them. If we are all truly part of God’s body, we have to endure all of its parts-even the ugly and unseemly ones. Doing so is also a sign of maturity.

So let us get on with the greater and much more difficult work of being Christ's Body in our world, of bringing about his Kingdom, and letting his light shine.  Let us just decide on the word we are going to call ourselves so we can actually set our head to the work God is calling us to do. I am a Christian and I intend to spend the rest of my life by God's grace living out all that that word means.


blues_harp_medic said...

I wonder if most people who make these comments know that the term "Christian" was initially used as a derogatory term for the followers of Jesus; those followers chose to adopt it as a badge of honor. I also wonder if they realize that the term means "little Christ" in the original language. Lastly...it seems to me that a lot of the people who make statements such as "I like Jesus, but..." do not like The Jesus of The Bible; instead they like the jesus of their own understanding. The one who loves everyone, but does not expect everyone to strive for holiness. If they truly read what Jesus said to the disciples, Pharisees, and others I believe that not a few of them would like Him either.

Michael J. Salerno said...

I am replying by cell so this won't be particularly literate, so I'll just say this: the Christianity espoused by most Christian's is so different from what I believe about ethics, the environment, gender roles, health care, social justice, family, and economics, that agreement about the identity of Jesus seems a mostly minor point. Indeed, I often wonder if we really worship the the same God. I have a hard time believing homophobic, xenophobic, gun toting, war-mongering, anti-science, anti-education, climate change denying types are following the same Jesus I am. And since they've cornered the market on the name "Christian" I really prefer to call myself something else. Freelance monotheist that tries to follow Jesus is a mouthful and Disciple of Christ is taken, so at the moment I'm stuck... Though Pope Francis is making a good case for calling myself Catholic.

Unknown said...

I have a question that may deserve some pondering. Does it really matter what people call themselves to other people? I mean really matter. It may seem as though it matters in our current "social" culture, but does it really matter?

Personally, I am one of those people who not only doesn't want to be called a Christian anymore but I no longer associate myself with this particular religion. I call it a religion because that's what it is. I know many Christians claim that it "isn't a religion but a relationship" but if we are going to talk about defining our terms then the practice of Christianity is in fact a religion. Why do people hold so tightly to terms? Is being a spiritual being in a physical body about holding ourselves to terms and words? Or does the Spirit transcend these things? If we need to describe ourselves in terms then I am Christbudhkrishnahindumoslem. God is spirit the Spirit transcends religion and what we call ourselves. It seems as tho we spend much time trying to preserve and defend things that don't nessacarily need preserving because if they are Truth they will remain when the fire passes through.

Anonymous said...

If I may make a suggestion...?
How about, instead of calling OURSELVES anything - including "Christian" - what if we simply waited until OTHER people either referred to us as such, or asked us about it?
Being referred to as a Christian should be an honour. It's basically being referred to as someone that reminds others of Christ Himself!
But when we call ourselves that, it becomes watered down, almost like declaring ourselves members of a club, instead of "little Christ's" as the term originally meant.
For myself, I usually wait to be asked. And my response is often "what do you think?" If they say they think I am a Christian, I usually say "thank you - I am trying to be."
It's utterly different than "being saved." And it would do us good to remember that, and maybe a way to start is to disassociate the terms and not let them be so interchangeable. :)