Friday, May 27, 2016

A Christian by any other name is probably trying to avoid something

Over the past few years there has been a spreading move toward abandoning the title of “Christian” by, well, Christians.

Instead of “Christian”, many Christians are asking to be labeled as believers, followers of Jesus, disciples, Christ followers, His chosen people, and so on.

Why? Because, for these other-labeled-persons-who-believe-in-God, the title of Christian has been reduced, in their minds, to an empty tag.

In other words, if someone like, say, Donald Trump, who eschews the most basic orthodox biblical beliefs -- such as the need for forgiveness -- and who speaks and behaves like anything but a true believer, can be labeled “Christian,” then what’s the point?

Francis Schaeffer might agree. In The God Who Is There, he wrote this:
“I suggest that if the word (or phrase) we are in the habit of using is no more than an orthodox evangelical cliché which has become a technical term among Christians, then we should be willing to give it up when we step outside our own narrow circle and talk to the people around us.”

But does this really doom the title “Christian” as a suitable identifier for those of us who do truly follow Jesus?

Where did the title Christian come from?

The Bible tells us when and where the title Christian was first applied:
“So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:25-26, ESV).
According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty (Walvoord & Zuck editors, Victor Books),
“The ending ‘-ian means ‘belonging to the party of; thus ‘Christians’ were those of Jesus’ party. The word ‘Christians’ is used only two other times in the New Testament: in Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. The significance of the name, emphasized by the word order in the Greek text, is that people recognized Christians as a distinct group. The church was more and more being separated from Judaism.”
The culture observed the behavior of the disciples and those who claimed association with them, the first century church.

The culture was aware of who Jesus was and what he taught.

The culture recognized that those who were part of this church movement were different from the bulk of culture, and that the difference was how they emulated and embodied what Christ had advocated and taught.

And so, the culture gave the fledgling church participants the title of Christian based on their visible behavior.

In other words, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

There but for the grace of God

Let’s go back to Schaeffer. Above is only the first part of his quote. Here’s the rest:
“If, on the other hand, the word is indispensable, such as the word God, then we should talk at sufficient length to make ourselves clear. Technical words, if they are used without sufficient explanation, may mean that outsiders really do not hear the Christian message at all and that we ourselves, in our churches and missions, have become an introverted and isolated language group.”
“Christian” was accepted as a title of honor by those first century churchers. If you’ve read the New Testament, particularly Acts, you know that they didn’t all behave well. There were those who were literally an embarrassment to their fellow Christians. There were even those who wanted to take on the title as a label to look good in certain circles.

Of course, just as happens today, a transitory label is no more meaningful spiritually or ideologically than the designer label on the shirt you bought at the thrift store. In fact, groups try to “re-brand” to appear as something other than what they are.

True Christians understand that we are saved by grace and will struggle with sin for the rest of our earthly lives. There will be duds in the church.

So then is the correct response to ditch the honorable title of Christian for something else? Especially when the people taking on the new label are still the same people believing in the same things? Just because there’s sin, do we also need spin?

This doesn’t seem like a good strategy for Christians.

Any other name for a rose does not make it smell different

Again, turning to Schaeffer, in his brief book The Mark of the Christian, he points to the last commandment of Jesus where the essence of being Christian is declared:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).
Who we are in Christ is not determined by the label we slap on ourselves. As Schaeffer reminds us, Jesus gave the world the right to decide the genuineness of our faith by our observable love:
“[First, w]e as Christians are called upon to love all men as neighbors, loving them as ourselves. Second, that we are to love all true Christian brothers in a way that the world may observe. This means showing love to our brothers in the midst of our differences – great or small – loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving in a way the world can see…. Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”
I’m sticking with the title of Christian

A label is disposable. Nothing more than a faddish descriptor-of-the-moment. A title, on the other hand, is more substantive and meaningful, a mark of respect. And in this instance, the title Christian attaches those who truly are directly to Christ and the lives of all those through history who have borne it.

Yes, there are those who have and do dishonor the title, wearing it more as a slapped-on label for political or other advantage. By their rotten fruit, as it were, they will be exposed.

For those of us who take the title seriously, it’s our job to live up to it, infuse it with true and accurate meaning, and preserve it as something that is, as it should be, honorable and fetching.

This means bending our lives to God’s Word and away from the culture around us. Only then will the culture be able to see how different we are, and how attractive the Gospel truly is.

Additional resources:

Are you a Christian? Or are you a believer who goes by a different label? Why or why not? Schaeffer also said, “The true scandal is that however faithfully and clearly one preaches the gospel, at a certain point the world, because it is in rebellion, will turn away from it. Men turn away in order not to bow before the God who is there. This is the ‘scandal’ of the cross.” So if the culture around us accuses us of not living up to the title Christian, could it be they are merely rejecting the gospel? Or are they actually seeing a deficiency in our lives we need to correct? How do we determine the difference? Please share your thoughts in the comments!there been times in your life when forgiveness felt impossible?

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