Christians, or Christ-Followers?
Kudos to Jason Byassee for his recent Our of Ur article, "Not a Christian, But a Christ-Follower?" He confronts an issue that's bothered me ever since I first encountered the phenomenon: an increasing shame at being called "Christian," favoring instead the label, "Christ-follower." Close friends of mine have gone this route, despite my feeble attempts to persuade them otherwise. This post is another, more vigorous attempt at that objective.
A few questions are key to this discussion:
- What's in a name?
- What does the name "Christian" entail?
- What, if anything, is lost by going by the label "Christ-follower"?
Let's take these in turn. First, What's in a name? How much does it matter, really, what we call ourselves? A lot, as a matter of fact. Our language both reflects ("externalizes") and shapes ("internalizes") our self conception and the behaviors that follow from this. Famed sociologist of religion Peter Berger established this in his important book, The Sacred Canopy, and his thesis is corroborated throughout sociology and communication theory. As has been shown by Speech Act Theory, words are intended to "do something" and in fact do.
Second, What does the name "Christian" entail, and what does it do? There are two issues involved in this question: (1) the meaning(s) the name has acquired over the nearly 2,000 years of church history, and (2) the potential meaning(s) for the name. Those who have abandoned the name point to the many associations that it has obtained that are irrelevant or often antithetical to the essence of Christianity. Whether it be ethnocentric expressions of the faith or perversions of the faith, people have understandably sought to distance themselves from these negative associations.
However, Byassee makes an important corrective when he observes that this impulse is rooted in pride and results in disunity among the Body of Christ. He notes,
Christianity joins us to a body of other believers. . . . This is especially important to reassert when we are tempted to say we're with the head, but not the other parts of the body. We are tempted to pick and choose our fellows, buffet-style.
Dan Kimball chronicles this phenomenon in his book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church (Zondervan, 2007). The problem with discarding the name "Christian" is that this has been the self-designation of those who comprise the Church of Jesus Christ for virtually the entire duration of its existence, and to abandon the term is to sever ourselves (at least consciously) from them. Listen to his rebuke. The seemingly noble desire to bypass the as-yet-imperfect Bride of Christ in order to establish a direct link to Jesus and the first disciples is arrogant, naive, and counterproductive for the cause of Christ. (I welcome debate on this point, but I hope you consider it humbly and prayerfully.)
Another problem I have with discarding the name "Christian" is that along with the negative connotations it carries to some people, we discard the many theologically rich connotations it has maintained throughout church history. It's the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bath water.
This brings me to the third question: What, if anything, is lost by going by the label "Christ-follower"? Again I would argue, a lot. While the concept of following Christ is infinitely superior to the concept of Christianity as a merely nominal, cultural identity (akin to, say, family heritage, ethnicity, nationality, membership in a social club), it is only half of what it means to be a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ, a Christian. It is the "doing" half. But we are first "something" before we are "doers." We need a self-designation that entails both being and doing aspects of our calling, that is, our identity and our mandate. We are first called into union with Christ, and through Him into union with the universal Body of Christ, the people of God, a "spiritual house," a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5). Only after that and because of that are we followers of "the Way."
The impulse to disconnect identity from mandate is likely evidence of some other troubling trends, which I believe are related. One of these is an increasing tunnel vision among evangelicals (?) in which they emphasize the Gospels, and particularly the words of Jesus, above virtually all other Scripture. These so-called "Red Letter Christians," which have historically been called "Marcionites" and more recently, "liberal Christians," are embarrassed by certain parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition taught in Scripture, or at least the historic/orthodox understandings of them. The relation of this movement to the "Christ-follower" trend is their common desire to avoid criticism from the world at virtually all costs. This trend is also related to a phenomenon common to Revivalist Protestant Christianity (see Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge's forthcoming book), which emphasizes "experiential" knowledge over "cognitive" knowledge, and hence downplays (biblical) theology.
By now the connections should be coming clear. Our theological identity, and in the process the content of our faith, is being severed from our missional calling. If this trend continues it will have devastating effects on the cause of the Kingdom that all true followers of Jesus seek to devote their lives to. For if we lose the content of the Faith (Jude 3), or somehow imply that knowing it and rooting our identity in it are dispensable to our God-given mission, then we fail the mission.
This is obviously no small rebuke, so please do not take it lightly. It is amazing how laden with implication our words are. But Paul asserts as much in his bold but true statement, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (that is, the word about Christ and redemption through His blood) (Romans 10:17; cf. vv. 9-16). In short, our words are of utmost importance, and the words by which we identify ourselves are no less. Despite the numerous incidences of faithlessness among those who throughout history, and up to the present day, have called themselves "Christian," the term nonetheless is a historically meaningful and important designation for the sum total of whose we are, by whose blood we were purchased for God, and whose words and example we are to follow.