Should We Dump the Word Christian?

Should We Dump the Word Christian? October 13, 2016

This year’s election season has increased comments we’ve heard from progressive Christian friends for years: People who have been wounded by the church, or who have otherwise become disenchanted with the religious right’s increasingly bigoted and nationalist undertones, have come to see the label “Christian” as toxic. They follow Jesus but can’t stomach the idea of being associated with some of the Christians we see in the media. The term has become too loaded, too pernicious. The conversation has sparked an identity crisis in which many followers of Christ are asking themselves: If I can’t call myself a Christian, what am I?

“I have finally hit my breaking point,” said one friend to us earlier this week. This was after the most recent Donald Trump scandal, a secret recording in which he was caught boasting about “grabbing” women by the genitals without their consent. The fact that several Christian leaders have continued to support and even defend the candidate despite this unrepentful admission of sexual assault was the last straw for our friend. That large blocks of Christians would overlook the very attributes the New Testament calls us to avoid—sexual immorality, lust, greed—for the sake of gaining a political edge has been a tipping point for those already disillusioned with the conservative church.

Even non-Christians are confounded by the faithful who support this man. Take, for example, Business Insider Senior Editor and MSNBC contributor Josh Barro:

I’m not a Christian, and I usually try to refrain from telling Christians how to apply their faith. But I’m appalled by the pass Trump gets from so many self-professed Christians despite having a personality that, more or less, consists of sin.

Trump is greedy. He is cruel. Boastful. Dishonest. Intemperate. Vain. And, now we know, he believes he is entitled to grab women’s genitals without their permission.

Christian forgiveness is one thing — though my understanding is, forgiveness is supposed to be sought from God, which Trump says he has never done.

It is precisely Trump’s unrepentant attitude that most troubles those of us who follow the Gospel. And the excuses made for him by once-respected church leaders reek of hypocrisy. “I sure do wish Christian Trump supporters had been able to tap into all this grace and forgiveness when my LGBT friends and I came out,” tweeted Christian author Julie Rodgers.

“It makes me want to ditch the label ‘Christian,’” our friend said. “Is there something else we can call ourselves?” A brainstorm ensued among the group: “Believers.” “Followers of Christ.” Even annoyingly New-Age-sounding titles like “Seekers of the Light” would seem to be preferable. And the concern isn’t limited to small pockets of lay faithful. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post as early as February that he no longer wanted to call himself an Evangelical, and proposed the term “Gospel Christian” instead.

But is a retreat from the label “Christian” the solution? Should we start adding modifiers to the word by which we have been known since the days of the Apostles? We know from the Book of Acts, that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” Is America to be where they were last called so?

If every conscientious person of faith, embarrassed by the obdurate, offensive Christians we see in TV disavowed their affiliation with the name, who would be left? The witness of our faith would devolve into a slurry of televangelists, guns-and-God nativists, and hate-filled people picketing funerals. Even abandoning the Christian identity to the merely misguided Trump apologists would do our witness a disservice; it would relegate Christians to a homogeneous body that never sought to be challenged by outside ideas or diverse viewpoints. It would make the church a body of stagnation, rather than the living body of Christ. Extracting ourselves from the Christian label robs the conservatives who stay of the opportunity to grow and experience God more fully. It robs us of the same.

Disavowing the label “Christian” is just another form of denominationalism—a way to separate ourselves from others who follow Christ but have a subset of beliefs different from ours. This, of course, would not be the first time the church has done this. Rather, division is the church’s modus operandi. But that solution leads us further from the fullness of God. The church fails to recognize that the story of God does not have us moving toward disintegration, but rather toward an ultimate, holy integration.

The term “Christian” has survived the Crusades and the selling of indulgences. The Christian inquisitors of the Roman Catholic Church found Galileo Galilei’s science “vehemently suspect of heresy” and condemned him to a life of house arrest—we haven’t allowed that ugly scar on the faith to define it. If “Christian” can persevere through these atrocities, surely God can carry it safely through modern America’s embarrassing political climate. Time, perspective, and repentance have a way of salvaging the Christian label because our identity is not ultimately about us, but about the Risen Lord who saved us.

The question is, how do we live out our faith when we refuse to abandon the tainted affiliation with the word “Christian”? It feels strange to identify so much with Jesus but so little with others who follow Him. Rather than renounce the label, let us work to redeem it. Let us live like Christ and be the witnesses for God our consciences call us to be. Let us seek out those who are most ostracized by the American church—foreigners, women, transgender individuals—and make a concerted effort to shower them in God’s love. Rather than abandoning the narrative to those who would cross out names in the Book of Life, let us live out a different narrative—the one where Jesus calls to each of us by name. And let us do all this not hiding our beliefs, but righteously stating that we are Christians: that we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If we do this we’ll see that there is also no need to wrest control of the word “Christian” from the religious right. That’s where they have it wrong. Their obsession with defending the Gospel through politics and policies misses the crucial point that God doesn’t need holy soldiers. The Almighty needs neither them nor us to defend Him. He doesn’t need us to build a wall around the faith and staff the doors with bouncers. Instead, He wants us to be a peaceful procession of standard-bearers—devoid of weapons but each of us carrying His distinctive flag to announce to the world that we serve the one true King, the Christ who conquered death.


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Photo by Gage Skidmore, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.

Correction: A previous version of the post incorrectly stated that Catholic inquisitors killed Galileo; we regret the error.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    In the oldest Manuscripts, the Book of Acts does not say that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.,” Instead it says “Chrestians,” using the letter eta, not iota.

    It is not clear whether the older documents were in error, of if they were later subjected to hypercorrection.

    In antiquity people commonly mixed up “Christian” and “Chrestian,” as well as “Christ” and “Chrest.” This was very easy to do, as the vowels were pronounced identically in some dialects.

    “Chrest” was a much more commonly used word than “Christ,” and would be much more familiar in antiquity even if it is more obscure now. Most people know that “Christ” means “the anointed one,” but fewer today know that “Chrest” means “The Good.” It was a term used by Plato refer to the ultimate greatest good towards which one should aim, and was commonly used to describe anything or anyone useful, kind, pleasant, or benevolent.

    Personally, I’d prefer to be called a “Chrestian” than a “Christian.” It makes sense for a “Christian” to follows the leadership of an anointed ruler because he believes God has arbitrarily chosen to invest that figure with authority over all others. A Chrestian does not need to follow any leader, because he knows how to reason based on principles and guide his own actions towards what is right.

    • jekylldoc

      Oy. Arbitrarily chosen to take authority over others? Enduring crucifixion to reveal the true nature of “Messiah” has nothing to do with it?

      Follow reason, by all means, and reject following any person, but don’t distort the faith of others to make yourself look better.

      • Jon-Michael Ivey

        I did not mean to say that Jesus was arbitrarily chosen, but the concept of a messiah is broader than that. Long before the term was used for Jesus, it was used as a title for many Kings of Israel, including men like Saul who became quite corrupt and abusive. Jews also used it for at least one foreign ruler, the Cyrus the Great, who favored them by ordering the rebuilding of the temple but was mostly considered great for militarily conquering the largest empire the world had ever seen.

        The character of God revealed in Jesus is much better described as Chrestos than Christos. All of the fruit of the spirit would be called Chrestos too.

        Many of those who call themselves Christians have shown that they seem to view their own countries or faction’s political leaders as divinely appointed agents like Cyrus or the ancient kings of Israel or Judah, and consider it their religious duty to support said leaders. They of course find support for this based on verses like the first half of Romans 13, ignoring the context of Romans 12 or the second half of Romans 13 as well as many other verses like Hosea 8:4.

        • jekylldoc

          Reviewing your original answer, I can see the nuance I missed. Thanks for the explanation. I think you have an idea that is at least interesting and thought-provoking, and maybe an improvement. On the other hand, I think the re-fashioning of the meaning of “Messiah” is coming into its own as central to the early Christian movement and probably to Jesus’ Kingdom theology. So I am a little reluctant to set it aside on the grounds of leaving an opening for the abuse you identify.

          I have seen a number of interesting references recently to Cyrus as fulfillment and subject of Messiah prophecies. Any suggested reading, for an educated lay person (e.g. no ancient languages, but not a neophyte in theology and Biblical scholarship)?

  • Etranger

    I am not Christian, but I agree there is little need to stop calling yourself Christian. I think it is important to know that, like with many monikers/titles, saying one is Christian reveals very little actually about oneself. When I hear it, as a former Catholic gay man, my first reaction is to consider the person close-minded and most definitely anti-gay. That is an unfair assumption, I know. Fortunately, I do not keep my first impressions very long once I get to know people! (Although, unfortunately, the majority of the time I am correct on this one – but people get a fair shake from me, nevertheless).

    One misstatement: Galileo was not murdered by the Catholic Church. His intellectual pursuits were condemned (so one could say they murdered his spirit) but he died while under house arrest if I am not mistaken.

    • Thank you for the correction. We’ll fix that.

    • BoomerGal

      Dumb dild0

      • Etranger

        Seriously? Lol

  • Matt Woodling

    “But is a retreat from the label “Christian” the solution? Should we start adding modifiers to the word by which we have been known since the days of the Apostles?”

    You’ve ALWAYS needed modifiers because each denomination has such different dogma that each them calling themselves “Christian” is almost meaningless. But you all don’t use modifiers do you? Unless you are called to defend your faith against another one, in which case you have to use lots of modifiers. You like to sit comfortably under your “Christian” umbrella as long as it suits you because THAT gives you size and heft that can be used to defend yourself against non-believers.

    • jekylldoc

      Or maybe just because that is what we believe we are called to do: put love and caring ahead of right doctrine, or general rightness. Jesus called for including traitors (tax collectors) and home-wreckers (prostitutes). I think we can manage a bigot or two.

      The modifiers come in when someone wants to know what I believe. I don’t personally believe that my beliefs will save anyone, though I like them and think they are good for people. But it is difficult to have a conversation about meaning in life without some sense of where the other person is coming from. And I think never having a conversation about meaning in life is an impoverished state.

  • Bobby Gilbert

    we should call the adopted benjamin . . .

    For one, the youngest has to finish the second half of curse from Joshua 6:26.
    Two, on two occasions Benjamin is murdered. One time in the book of judges. The other time at the birth of Jesus.

    The youngest has to complete the seven year week. The adopted is the youngest. Jesus is the eldest. He set the foundation. The youngest has to set the gates.

    We, the adopted, are adopted twice. Once in Christ in the story of the wild branch. Twice if one can understand the 5th week that Israel completes and goes into the diaspora. Briefly, an hour is a year. The week begins at 28 AD with Jesus and the “newly not named Christians”. They are first called “followers of the way”: you can do the homework and look when the name Christians come along. Now, the middle of the week is the fall of 70 AD. Now, the metaphor of the sacrifice or the workers who work the week is the 12 tribes, metaphorically understood by the million or so who died in Jerusalem at the fall of 70 AD according to josephus. Not the metaphor, the death of the jews.

    The week ends with Phily asking a question, what about the Christians in 112 AD.

    The time line begins at 28 AD . . . . 42 years later. The Christians start following Christ.

    70 AD . . . actually the day begins in Rome 6 years prior, 64 AD with the death of Christians. The fall of the Jerusalem is the middle of the week.

    112 AD . . . The weeks ends.

    Now, the brothers all disappear and the adopted brother takes stage. What about the Christians? The adopted brother can also be seen as the youngest in the Jewish tradition as well.

    Call the Christians . . . . Benjamites. The adopted have to work, sacrifice and complete the middle of the week for the 1st resurrection week, the seven year week plus one.

    There is an 8th day. This is also the 8th week when looking at Israel’s seven weeks. This is also the 8th week when looking at God’s seven weeks.

    Benjamin will set the gates.

    And . . . we are most likely in the 2nd day or in this case, the second year. An hour is equal to a month. It is not about numbers. It is about time.

  • See Noevo

    ““It makes me want to ditch the label ‘Christian,’” our friend said. “Is there something else we can call ourselves?” A brainstorm ensued among the group: “Believers.” “Followers of Christ.” Even annoyingly New-Age-sounding titles like “Seekers of the Light” would seem to be preferable.”

    You might also try “evangelical”, “Protestant”, “Bible believer”.

    Among the many reprehensible statements in this article, perhaps this one takes first prize:
    “Rather, division is the church’s modus operandi.”

    No, Mr. & Mrs. Khalaf. It is not.