Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What's in a Name?

               Among believers with "progressive" views on theology and social issues, there seems to be a growing trend involving the eschewing of the label "Christian" in favor of "Christ-follower" or another similar title.  This, of course, is old news, but it continues to be relevant as the zeitgeist gallops along at a rapid pace, carrying many Christian youth along with it who have become drawn to modernized forms of the faith that they perceive as more tolerant or reasonable.  The fact of the matter is that some believers - and they are a minority, but a vocal one - do not want to call themselves Christians anymore.  The term "Christian," they claim, carries far too much baggage for them to apply it to themselves, for nonbelievers associate the word "Christian" not with following Christ but with the negative qualities of evangelicalism: homophobia, science-denial, judgment, fear, and the like.  These people simply do not think that the word "Christian," as it is understood by the world today, applies to them anymore.
               This seems reasonable at first; while some of us probably do not agree with this assessment of the faults of evangelicalism, it's hard to deny that many have come to view Christianity as synonymous with American evangelicalism, and it makes complete sense that non-evangelical believers would not want that to be perceived as their identity.  After all, there is no command in Scripture detailing what believers must call themselves, whether "Christian," "Jesus Follower," "Jesus Freak," or any other name; what matters is faith, through which we grasp the promise of salvation and become a part of God's family.
               But I would push back against this notion somewhat.  Of course Scripture gives no command that "all believers in Christ must term themselves 'Christians,'" but words and names matter, both because of their literal meaning and because of their meaning in a cultural context.
               I would argue that the label "Jesus follower" is by nature individualistic, and demeans the value of the church. Think about it.  If someone calls himself a Jesus-follower, the literal meaning of that name is that he - the individual - is following Jesus.  Certainly, most who claim this title would insist that one cannot follow Jesus in a vacuum.  However, the problem persists all the same.  You can speak of "Jesus-followers" in the plural, or of "a community of Jesus-followers," but the term cannot convey the wholeness of the church in the same way that "Christian" can.  A Christian is not merely one of many Christians but a part of Christianity, of Christendom, of the whole Church, which, despite its various denominational indicators, has gone by the name of "Christian" for centuries.
               The real problem is not that calling oneself a Jesus-follower instead of a Christian (I of course have no problem with using both terms) divorces one from other believers - for one can have fellowship with other Jesus-followers - but that it divorces one from the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church; from the body of Christ with all its diseases and pains, from Christendom in all its glory and all its agony.  Certainly, all Christians are Jesus-followers, but it means little to be a Jesus-follower if one is not also a Christian, a member for better or for worse of the everlasting Bride of Christ.  Is the Church full of hypocrisy, of heterodoxy, of harm?  Yes indeed, but she is Christ's, and Christ has redeemed her and will perfect her.  Is the Church a whore?  Yes indeed, but she has been wed by the Lord, who loves her not because she is pure but loves her and purifies her because she is His.  And if the Church is His, then we must be of the Church to also be His, as Cyprian writes, "he cannot have God for His Father who does not have the Church for his mother," and Augustine, "the Church is a whore, but she is my mother."
               Many people, unfortunately, do not realize that American evangelicalism is but one part of the Church.  But the solution to that problem is not to eschew the label "Christian" and thus separate ourselves from the Church, but to educate the public about Christianity and thus open their eyes to its fullness.  Certainly, the Church has done much worthy of shame.  But Christ has taken her shame away.
               If we are honest with ourselves, we all will realize that we should be ashamed to call ourselves Christians, but not because of what the Church has done; rather, because of what we have done.  When we truly look inside of ourselves, we see that we do not deserve to be called Christians; we are "sick with self-love" and full of pride, covetousness, and self-righteousness.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds are far from the example Christ has set for us.  But Jesus has died to redeem us from our sins.  He has washed away our guilt in the blood of His cross, and takes away our shame, that we might be His, and live with Him eternally.  Therefore, let us boldly call ourselves by His name and the name of the Church, knowing that, both individually and communally, we are redeemed, justified, and washed clean of all our sin by Christ, and let us proclaim this truth to the world, that all may know that Christians and Christendom are not defined by how righteous they are but by the righteousness of Christ that covers them.

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