I’ve been in vocational Christian ministry for 20 years, and at some point along the way in those 20 years, I noticed that the language of what some Christians called themselves began to change.
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For many, “Christian” was a term that no longer felt quite right, even though it is a biblical term (Ac 11.26; 26.28). And to be clear, I do still use it all the time. But lots of people call themselves “Christian,” in the sense that they were raised that way, or that the majority of people around them identified that way, or that they believed in God in a general sense, or that they went to church sometimes, or that when it came time to check things off on a census or form or poll, they knew that they weren’t “Muslim” or “Jewish” or “Other.”
And many who called themselves “Christian” did not seem to actually believe much in Jesus, or pursue His teachings, or be trying in any real way to live their lives according to His ways.
It was also a fact that even in many churches, “Christian” was a word (in North America at least) which was often associated with a political agenda, a worldview that included a significant emphasis on secular political power, and even at times pushed a global agenda that pitted “Christian” countries standing against “Muslim” or other countries around the world.
So, some began to quietly drop the title of “Christian,” wanting to avoid the political associations with the term, as well as separate from those who called themselves by that name but had no intention of actually following Jesus.
These believers began to call themselves “Christ-followers” instead. It may seem like a small distinction, but it was a way of capturing an important truth, one that has always been crucial for Anabaptists:
People who call themselves “Christians” actually need to follow Christ.
Or, to put this in a biblical context:
“Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did.” (1Jn 2.6)
It should be the most obvious thing in the world! Buddhists obviously follow the ways of Buddha. Marxists follow the teachings of Karl Marx. Christians follow the teachings and ways of Christ, right?
And of course, most practicing Christians would say this is their goal.
What gets challenging is when other parts of Scripture, at times, seem to teach things contrary to what Jesus taught. As a few examples:
- Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (Mt 5.43-48), while Old Testament figures are called at times to kill their enemies (e.g. Josh 10.40).
- Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us (Lk 6.28), while cursing your enemies is found in Scripture as well (e.g. Ps 58).
- Jesus connected with non-Israelites and encourages crossing cultural barriers (e.g. Mt 8.5-13; 28.18-20; Mk 7.24-30; Jn 4; etc.), even though the Old Testament said that God’s people were to avoid other people groups around them (e.g. Josh 23.7; Ezra 9.11-12; etc).
- Jesus calls us to live our lives with such integrity that we need not ever swear an oath (Mt 5.33-47), even though the Law clearly commanded swearing oaths in the LORD’s name (e.g. Dt 6.13).
- Jesus warns us to be wary of earthly riches and even told one rich man to give all he had to the poor (Mt 6.19-24; Mk 10.17-31), while other people in Scripture amassed great wealth and called it God’s blessing (e.g. Gen 24.35; Dt 8.18; 1Ch 29.12; Job 42.12; etc.).
- Jesus teaches us to forgive freely (Mt 6.12-15; 18.21-35), while the Old Testament at times called for vengeance against those who have wronged us (e.g. Lev 20.10; Num 35.19; etc.).
- Jesus teaches us to humble ourselves before one another (Lk 22.24-27; Jn 13.1-17), while the Old Testament at times celebrates exalting oneself above others (e.g. Dt 28.13).
So how do we wrestle through these seeming contradictions, especially if we believe in the God-breathed inspiration of all Scripture (2Tim 3.16)? And how do we hold these things together if we believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, that is, the Word of God lived out perfectly, as God intended, in real life (Jn 1.14)?
Some choose to hold these seemingly conflicting truths in tension by suggesting that since all of these examples listed are indeed biblical, that all must be applicable for the Christ-follower, and therefore that there is a time and a place for everything (Ecc 3.1-8); at times, one should forgive, and at times, one should seek revenge. One situation may call for blessing, another may call for cursing. Jesus’ teaching on money is for some, not all, and if you have lots of money, the Old Testament passages are more likely for you.
Anabaptists have a much simpler way to deal with these seeming contradictions:
We go with Jesus, every time.
If there ever seems to be a conflict, we don’t even have to wrestle with it – if the Old Testament teaches one thing, and Jesus and His apostles seem to teach something different, we always choose the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. If we must make a choice, we choose Jesus.
We do this because we believe that Jesus is the Lived-out Word of God (Jn 1.14) – Jesus is God’s Word lived in human form perfectly, and so His words and way of life are the highest example for us to follow.
We do this because we believe that Jesus is God’s final Word to us – in the past, God spoke through prophets (and we revere them!), but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, who is the exact representation of who God is (Heb 1.1-3). Therefore, we listen intently to what the Son teaches.
We do this because we understand that Christ-followers are under a different contract with God than the Old Testament believers were (Lk 22.20; Heb 8.7-13), and that this contract may include differences between the Old and the New, but as participants in the New, following it should be our priority over the Old, if we ever have to choose.
And ultimately, we do this because, “Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did,” (1Jn 2.6). If we look more like David than like Jesus, then we’re probably doing this wrong. If we are ignoring and laying aside the teachings of Jesus in order to follow Old Testament passages instead, then we’re probably doing this wrong. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Christ, then we believe our highest priority is to follow the ways of Christ as the most important thing we can do.
So, we listen to and follow the Son, and we examine Scripture through the lens of the Son, and we orient our lives towards the teaching and example of the Son, who has come to show us the way.