Why I Quit Being a Christian (in order to better follow Jesus)

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The day I truly became “born again” was the day I quit being a Christian.

I can only imagine that some of those reading these first few words, are only doing so because you had an aneurysm when you read the title and your hand accidentally clicked through the link. If that’s you, please bear with me- it’s not what you think.

You see, during my seminary days I experienced a crisis of faith as isn’t uncommon for seminarians. Between homiletics, hermeneutics, theories on atonement, systematic theology, emergent theology, and the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I had lost sight of nearly everything I had believed coming into seminary– which was especially frightening since I went into seminary thinking that I already knew everything I needed to know. The process of letting go of old theology and old ways of viewing the world without having anything tangible to replace it, left me in a tailspin. My identity, and my faith, were slipping away before me. I didn’t know who I was, wasn’t entirely sure what I believed, and had no idea what label I was supposed to wear. I came to realize how unfortunate destructive it can be to live under a cultural expectation that everything be labeled, nicely sorted, and placed on the shelf where it belonged.

It’s as if we don’t know what to do with something, unless we know the precise terminology as to what to call it.

For me, I wasn’t sure what to call it, and wasn’t sure I belonged anywhere. I didn’t know what label to wear, and I certainly didn’t know how to neatly compartmentalize everything I was thinking and feeling in such a way that avoided the tension of a shifting worldview. There was no avoiding it, and no getting out of it. People had told me that if I went to seminary the Bible would become more black-and-white, and I did, only to find out it was far more grey than I had ever expected.

It was a true crisis of identity. Until then, I had always self-identified as a Christian, and along with that, all of the theology and doctrine which had been passed down to me. My identity was clear, and doctrine was so spelled out that one was left to wrestle with very few questions. Until then, I was a Christian and I knew exactly what that meant.

But now? Now I didn’t know anymore. I was more convinced than ever that I wanted to follow Jesus, but realized how unfulfilling it had been to blindly follow American Christianity.

In the midst of the tension I met my Pastor friend, Joel, and confided in him about my crisis of faith– which was really more of a crisis of identity, because my faith wasn’t diminished, I just didn’t know what to do with the faith I had. During our conversation, he told me: “It sounds like you are experiencing a reorientation of your faith around the person of Jesus. It sounds like you’re no longer oriented on a tradition, or specific doctrine, but simply oriented on Jesus.”

For the first time in months, I experienced clarity like never before.

I just wanted to follow Jesus, period. I wasn’t interested in the Americanized version, wasn’t interested in black and white fundamentalist thinking, and wasn’t interested in the never ending garbage unfairly gets associated with him.

I just wanted him- because his way seems the best way, the most exciting way, and certainly the most radical way to live.

So, I quit being a Christian so that I could better follow Jesus.

Today, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the label of Christian and I obviously wouldn’t refuse it, I prefer to self-identify simply as a follower of Jesus which has been tremendously helpful in transforming my life. Here are my reasons:

1. The term Christian means “Christ-like”, and that doesn’t describe me.

Sure, I want to be “Christ-like”, but no matter how hard I try, I’m not. I am broken, insecure, imperfect, flawed… to the core of my being. The only thing I ever found compelling about Calvinism was the concept of total depravity– I get that, because there’s not a single area of my life that’s pure. There’s not an area of my life that is actually “Christ-like”.

Jesus, is everything I am not but everything I wish that I could be. So, if I’m to be completely honest, for me to call myself a Christian would be the sin of dishonesty, because I’m not anything like him. He is totally different than me.

2. The term Christian implies that I have arrived at something, and I haven’t.

Probably a more accurate way to use the term would be to say that “I am trying to become Christian” (Christ-like). But to say I’m already there? I’m not. Anytime I can get just one small area of my life to actually be Christ-like, I celebrate as I look over my shoulder and see 19 other areas of my life that are totally not-like-Christ.

When I think of being a Christian, I get tempted to think I’ve arrived. When I get tempted to think that I’ve arrived, I start acting like I have- which breeds laziness, arrogance, and keeps me disconnected from the broken world around me which hasn’t arrived at anything yet either. I don’t want to separate myself from a broken and messy world- instead, I’d prefer to be right next to everyone else who’s like me (which is all of us) so that I can point towards the one who is gentle, loving, slow to anger, and who will one day clean up what’s messy and fix what’s been broken.

3. The term “Jesus Follower” seems entirely more accurate and appropriate, so that’s how I self-identify.

When you’re following someone, it’s because you can’t get there on your own. It’s because you don’t actually know where you are going, and you have no hope of arrival if you’re not closely following behind someone who actually knows where they’re going. THAT is a far more truthful description of where I am at… I don’t have a clue how to get where I am going, but I’m happy to simply be on the path in the direction of Jesus.

Second, the term follower implies that I am attempting to do something. I so desperately want to be like Jesus- and each day is simply an attempt, as I follow. But, I fail more than I succeed, which proves even more that the title of “Christian” would be completely inaccurate for me to own.

4. When I quit being a Christian so that I could better follow Jesus, the Bible made a lot more sense.

Before my reorientation of faith around Jesus and following his example, I missed a whole lot in scripture. Since my orientation was around doctrine, there seemed to be a reason, excuse, or a loophole for everything. There were justifications for war, violence, the death penalty, greed… but once I reorientated my life around Jesus, I started to pay attention to what he said and take it much more seriously.

Stuff like “turn the other cheek”, “put down your sword”, “love your enemies”, and “whatever you’ve done to the least of these…” started become statements that I never again wanted to avoid, dodge, or explain away as I used to when I was a Christian.

As a Jesus follower, the “red words” become the lifeblood of faith and the compass for daily life. I see all the rest of scripture through the filter of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus.

So, while there’s no running away from a term that’s been here since Antioch, I’m personally not a fan of it for the simple fact that it’s not the best way to describe me.

I’m just a Jesus follower.

A messed up, broken, follower.

And, I’ve grown to be very okay with that.

__________________________

The first in a 7 part series on the core-convictions of being an Anabaptist.

Anabaptist Core-Conviction #1

“Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of the church, and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshiping him.”

[1. Muray, Stuart. The Naked Anabaptist. Herald Press. 2010]

Image (C) Evgeni Dinev, freedigitalphotos.net

About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a 3rd year Doctor of Missiology student (a subset of practical theology) at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore. He is also a contributor for Time, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. Ben is also co-host of That God Show with Matthew Paul Turner. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Sara

    My goodness, I am so glad I found your blog. This article in particular is so encouraging. I too had a crisis of faith, came to despise myself as a Pharisee, and came humbly back to the Master in hopes of just following Him. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series and hear what you have to say. Thank you for sharing your heart and mind.

  • Believingsoul

    I love this, and feel the same. I call it– if it must be labeled– “Christist”, or Christism. Much

    Like Buddist, or Buddhism. We are practicing The Way, as Christ tried to teach.

  • http://emerginganabaptist.com Ryan Robinson

    I remember about 6-8 years ago it became really in vogue for the younger generation (like me, about 18-20 at the time) to grab the label Christ-Follower or Jesus-Follower instead of Christian. The reasons were largely the same as you’ve said here. A lot of it also goes back to the cultural baggage tied to “Christianity” which is not usually tied to Jesus. I’ve personally got back to accepting the label Christian but I still get frustrated when I get associated with only wanting to control other people, hating gay people or being judgemental in general, and the like.

  • Kevin

    I definitely resonate with what you’re saying here. There’s a lot of baggage when it comes to the label “Christian/Christianity”. If disassociating with a label (be it “Christian”, “American”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, etc.) helps you to better follow Christ and His teachings, I say go for it. I do have a question (or maybe it’s more of a comment…I don’t know).

    How can I word this…in recent years, during the “emergent church” movement, there has been a rediscovering of Jesus (and his teachings). I know that sounds weird…but to put it into context, I grew up in the church (quite literally. I grew up at Heritage USA…home of Jim and Tammy Baker’s PTL. My dad was on the show.)…went to bible collage, did the traveling domestic missionary thing at youth camps, etc. And in all those years, I never once heard a sermon about the Kingdom of God – even though that seemed to be the central proclamation of Jesus. It was a lot of Old Testament, Pauline Epistles, and the Book of Revelation (not that those aren’t valuable…but there was very little teaching/preaching about the things Jesus said…Sermon on the Mount kind of stuff. Almost as if what Jesus taught wasn’t that important. I guess we can thank dispensationalism?). And NOW, there appears to be a rediscovery of Jesus and his message. However, what I tend to see happening a lot – at least in my city – is this sort of resentment towards the local church. “Post-Christian” as some people call themselves (which again, fine by me if it helps them follow Jesus and love others). But getting back to this sort resentment/hostility (not physical) thing. I emailed you earlier and mentioned I’m a bit of a “former fundie” myself…But not that long ago, I was as fundamentalist as they come. But through relationships with certain people (books recommended to me and such) I started slowly coming to see the world in a different way.

    The point of me saying all this is this: Recently, a very politically polarizing event happened in my city. The “Religious Right” responded how one would expect. Personally, I felt and acted acted a different way (how I believe Jesus would have me respond/act)…and there was a lot of heated talk among the “post-Christian” community about all those “religious a**holes”. And all I could think was, if it weren’t for some patient and loving friends willing to put up with me while I work out my pride and fundamentalism…I’d be one of those a**holes they’d be writing off. So, I guess my question is – how do we go about having a prophetic witness (not in the “christian fortune teller” way) to the church and not grow despondent towards Her?

  • Effie

    It was not the ones who were following Jesus that called themselves “Christian” – it was those who observed their following of Jesus that called them that. They are the ones who thought the followers of Jesus were being “Christ like”

  • http://heartsoulstrengthmind.com Michelle

    Although I grew up in a Christian family, I had never read the Bible. After a long period of searching for the truth, I decided to read the Bible with an open mind. Oh my. Not at all like Christianity. I, too, am a Jesus-follower.

  • http://narrowgatepub.blogspot.com A. Brother

    I agree with you, brother, and that’s why I know we’re brothers. The truth is simple. Not easy, but simple. Christ is calling, but none are listening because they’re trying to live up to the label “Christian” with all its religious implications. We must decide today. Are we going to “become Christians” (whatever religious nonsense is tied up in that phrase) or are we simply going to follow Christ. The word of prophecy given today must contain the absolute simplicity of Christ’s call–to be “in Christ” is all that’s required. Thank you for this word.

    Feel free to share the harsh, bare-light-bulb truth with me at The Narrow Gate, where when God speaks to me, I write. Like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the other Biblical prophets, I have no choice.

    Standing in the courtyard of the temple, we must cry out, whatever the cost.

    Take the message and shout it from the roofs, brothers and sisters.

  • http://faebook Brian Engler

    This is so refreshing. I’ve come back to God, but have never found a church I like. None ever “felt” right, because of this or that. Quakers come the closest, but there are none around me.

    I simply try to do the best I can. I know that there are times I will fall. God and Jesus will help me when it happens. It’s so simple.


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