Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Discussion on "What is a Christian?"

The other label that I have had a problem with for a long time, however, is “Christian”. Mostly because the concept of Christian is so far from the Christ-follower the label was intended to be. Now, Christianity is Constantinianism and a Christian is a political label as well as a theological one.

I had a librarian last year treat me suspiciously because a friend of mine told her I was a pastor, and you know what, I understand why. Because the term “Christian” so often is equated with hypocrite that I don’t like using the term. In Bangladesh, the term Christian is a cultural term, not a religious one, so the Muslim converts there call themselves Isa followers (Isa being the Koranic name for Jesus). I’m with them. I am a Jesus follower. I am held accountable by the Mennonite church, but if I am anything less than a follower of Jesus– whether Mennonite or Liberal or whatever– then I don’t deserve to have his name applied to me.

Steve K

But can’t the term be redeemed? I notice a tendency of some to retreat from the terms because they aren’t comfortable with the way the term brands them, rather than being empowered to change the perception of the term itself.

Moreover, what are you implying by saying you are a “Christ-follower” instead of a Christian? That Christians don’t follow Christ?

I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I’ve done some inner city ministry, and we consistently identified ourselves as “followers of Jesus,” not as Christians. The cultural assumptions that are tied to the term “Christian” can immediately close some doors, but I don’t think the word is beyond redemption.

I strongly believe that our obedience and love for each other are capable of overwhelming any prejudice against “Christians” in the minds of those we encounter. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples…” I tend to focus on interpersonal relationships much more than impersonal “societies” and “cultures,” though.

In our inner city work, once people got to know us and they got over the fact that we were “church people,” we were able to build some genuinely constructive relationships. I think ultimately the terms don’t matter, so long as we are indeed following Christ and letting people know that we are following him. This is what should unify us, not necessarily the label that we use.


Most Christians don’t follow Christ. They talk about Christ without being Christlike, wear crosses without carrying them, attack their enemies instead of loving them, build up kingdoms instead of seeking God’s.

Of course, not all Christians are like this. But do we really want to label ourselves with something that most people connect in a word association test with “hypocrite”?
Steve K

I disagree with the statement that most Christians don’t follow Christ. I don’t think any of us do. The standard we’re supposed to measure ourselves against is much higher than just not killing our enemies; we’re supposed to love them as well. Jesus says that even insulting someone is as bad as killing them.

Our biggest enemy lies not outside of ourselves, but in our own hearts. We are all murderers. If we aren’t willing to recognize that every one of us is a hypocrite in one way or another, we’re not being honest with ourselves.

Much as I’d like to dissociate myself with people like Dobson and Robertson, they’re my brothers in Christ, and I’m supposed to love them and work towards unity with them. If we can’t love our brothers who we can see, how can we say that we love God, who we can’t see? Instead of trying so hard to associate ourselves with the right group (whoever they are), we should be focusing on doing our best to obey Christ and love others. The rest of it will take care of itself.

I think you’re on to something here. I often feel like we’re good at loving our enemies far away, but when it comes to loving folks like Dobson and Robertson, we’re not so good. Like it or not, those are exactly the folks Jesus was telling us we’ve got to love. That doesn’t mean not challenging them or disagreeing with them, but it does mean that those actions should be grounded in the same compassion we have for our Iraqi brothers and sisters.

As far as hypocrisy goes, I think we’re all guilty of it in different ways. There are a whole lot worse things to be associated with then hypocrisy (which isn’t to say Christianity hasn’t managed to be associated with those too). Hypocrisy at least implies that we have a goal and are falling short. If we’re going to see transformation in the church its going to be when we consistently, lovingly call ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ to a higher standard. But to do that, we also need to identify the common ground we share. Which is what excited me about Zack’s post in the first place. For the first time in a long time, it helped me identify some common ground with Christians with whom I usually only see our difference.

The difference between Dobson and terrorists or the guy who calls me an idiot for speaking the gospel is that Dobson supposedly “knows” the truth. He is a Christian leader who is denying the gospel.

The difference (I hope!) between us who screw up and we know we screw up and that is that we repent. We screw up and then we realize our fault and we try to make it right. What Jesus is opposed is the hypocrisy of those who take their clear sin and make it a part of their theology.

There are a couple ways this could be done– in Dobson’s way, by saying that Jesus WANTS us to bomb terrorists (after all, GWB prays, right?). Or, we could say, “God forgives everything, so we can’t judge anyone, not even ourselves.”

The New Testament strongly disagrees. It says numberous times that we will be judged for everything we do and say, except for that which we repent of. Jesus condemned the Pharisees in very harsh (even insulting!) terms in Matt 23. Paul said that we do not have the right to judge those outside the church, but inside the church, we’ve got to straighten it out. (I Corinthians 5)

Nevertheless, we DO need to love our enemies. And if our enemies are in the church, and they need to repent, then the most loving thing to do is to gently, kindly, tell them to repent and to get right with Jesus.

We can’t just pick and choose which morality we are going to correct in others. We need to let Jesus do that. He commanded us to love our enemies, so we need to pray for the church leaders who are leading their followers gleefully into evil practice. And we cannot compromise.

Anyway, I call Christians really not followers of Jesus, not because they fail. Like you said, we all fail. They aren’t followers of Christ because they deny what Jesus said, because they’d rather listen to their theology than Jesus. “If anyone denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father in heaven.” matthew 10:33

Steve K

I’d be interested to know how exactly you think Dobson and crew are denying the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t a list of social goals that we should be trying to achieve; it’s Christ and him crucified. We can disagree about what implications that has on our social actions, but I don’t think those are necessities of the Christian faith. I think Dobson is very misguided, but God is the one who judges his heart, not me.

I agree that we need to lovingly call the Church to repentance when it strays, and I think that we are certainly capable of judging those within the Church. This is exactly my point, though. By drawing lines with our labels that exclude these people, we remove any possibility of doing just that. If they’re no longer within the Body, we have no jurisdiction and they have no reason to listen to us.

This is so important to me because I grew up on military bases and have bucketloads of respect for the faith of Christians who are just-war theorists, even as I strongly affirm that I believe that they are wrong. As a “convert” to pacifism, I want to make sure that we don’t burn any bridges between Anabaptists and the rest of the Church. If we say that they are misguided, we allow for conversation and possibly conversion, but if we call into question their commitment to Christ, we immediately kill the possibility of dialogue.

Two responses:
First, I think we have a difference of opinion about what a “Christian” is. There could be two definitions– a cultural one in which anyone who gives intellectual assent to Jesus is “Christian”. And there is the biblical definition which is that anyone who ACTS like Jesus is their Lord is a “Christian”. To have Jesus as one’s Lord is not just to believe, but to obey and act like Jesus. Thus, those who talk about Jesus but don’t do what he says (like “Love your enemy” and “sell your possessions and give to the poor”) are only Christians in name, no matter how much they proclaim Christ crucified. This is in accord with what Jesus says in Matthew 7 (as well as other places)– “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father will enter.”

Secondly, I think you do have a point there as far as communicating with those who are “Christian” but do not obey or act like Jesus. If we completely alienate ourselves from them, then we can no longer communicate the full gospel. This is what evangelism is. Finding a way to acceptably communicate the full gospel to people who don’t know it or who refuse to listen to it. So I do not want to show animosity against “Christians”, but I do want to have a lifestyle and a speech in which I am displaying Jesus, but in a way I can be heard.

I hope I am doing that, though I stumble often.

Steve K

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