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Labels & the quest to avoid stigma:Is it OK to use the word "Christian"?

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says, “For though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. Now I do this for the gospel`s sake, that I may be a joint partaker of it.”

Some missionaries in certain settings, wanting to testify about Christ in the Buddhist world and Muslim world, feel that the word “Christian” is simply too much of a liability. Some, instead, refer to themselves as followers of Jesus. The way this examiner used to look at it, failing to call yourself a “Christian” was almost a form of denying Jesus. Clearly, this was an overreaction. Growing up in Mississippi, the word "Christian" was always acceptable, so it was hard to see how some viewed it offensively. Scripture calls us to be faithful to Jesus. But it never compels us to adopt a particular designation for ourselves. In fact, the word “Christian” is found only three times in the New Testament—twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter.

The overwhelming majority of early believers would’ve referred to themselves either as “followers of the Way” or simply as Jews—Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Had the church not begun to incorporate so many Gentiles into its midst, believers probably would’ve gone on thinking of themselves simply as Jews. So apparently Scripture would let us off the hook from having to call ourselves Christians. If this is so, what is our reason for using the term? Are we putting up an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of the unconverted by using the word?

Every word that we speak carries with it a certain degree of baggage. Every word is prone to be misunderstood, and it’s the inevitable misunderstanding that takes place that cause words to change their meaning and sometimes be replaced with different ones altogether. If postmodernism has done anything, it has shown us that everything we say and everything that we hear is channeled through certain cultural and experiential criteria.

1. Religious labels and their connotations

Today, we hear labels like “conservative” and “liberal” thrown around a lot, just to name a couple. What is a conservative anyway? In high school history class, this examiner's teacher succinctly defined it to mean “in favor of the status quo.” In other words, conservatism is more about keeping society as it is than it is about change or innovation. Liberalism, the teacher explained, had more to do with change, progressiveness. Perhaps these are oversimplifications, but in many respects they are accurate. It is the staunchest conservatives, in the political realm today, who are always talking about taking America back to her roots, back to the constitution. The conservative, concerned with tradition, is looking back. It is the liberal who, instead of talking so much about America’s great past, finds himself talking about his vision for a “new” America, talking of America’s future.

But, of course, if we define these terms this way, what makes a person a “liberal” or “conservative” will greatly vary from generation to generation. In the 1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed appreciation to the “southern white liberals” who supported his vision of civil rights for black Americans.

Today, even the most conservative candidates in any given state or national political contest practically take for granted the rightness of civil rights for black Americans and take for granted the wrongness of segregation. Of course, there are wicked exceptions, but we call such people today outsiders, supremacists, not conservatives. Sixty years ago, if one wanted integrated public schools, one was a “liberal.” Of course, this is not the case today. Integration and equal rights under the law for all Americans, regardless of ethnicity, has become more of the status quo itself. The liberals of one generation often become the conservatives of the following generation. Peter Kreeft pointed out that though the early American explorers were risk-takers, innovators, what they charted eventually became the established highways and interstates. So, by the very nature of these words, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have no fixed meaning—they vary depending upon the time and the place.

If this is true in the political spectrum, it is even truer in the religious realm. Practically every word of any religious significance is prone to be misunderstood and carry with it unnecessary baggage. Some people hear the word “religion” and they immediately think of war. They think of jihad, of families killing members of their own family because they’d converted to a different belief system. Some people hear the word “Calvinist” and may even think “fatalism.”

Some people hear the word “Catholic” and immediately think of the inquisition and “Bloody Mary.” They picture people bowing down and worshipping icons and works of art, kissing the feet of the pope, reciting the “Hail Mary.” Some think of purgatory, while others think of pedophile priests who’ve wrecked children’s lives. Others think of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and how most of the Nazi leaders were lapsed Catholics.

Though the word “Muslim” literally means “surrendered to God” some hear the word and immediately think of terrorism, the Taliban, hard-to-pronounce Arabic names, and the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. Some people hear the word “atheist” and they think of communism, Joseph Stalin, and the suicidal nihilism of Nietzsche.

Of course, if one has recently been stabbed in the back or cheated by a professing Christian or Hindu or Buddhist, such experiences will play a factor in how you perceive these religions. The point is that no matter what you describe yourself as, someone’s likely to misconstrue what you mean by your profession. What can be done about this? One solution would be to never label yourself as anything that carries with it any theoretical stigma. Of course, one would have to work incredibly hard to make this happen. If a person describes himself as “unreligious” or “unaffiliated”, even this conjures up in the minds of some people the image of a wild heathen, a carouser, who’s too busy satisfying the lusts of the flesh to get and go to church on Sunday morning.

Though the word “Christian” literally means “Christ-follower” some people hear the word and they immediately think of the culturally imperialistic settlers in the New World who systematically annihilated the culture of the Native Americans in the name of Christianity. Some people hear the word “Christian” and they think of the demented people who bomb abortion clinics and lynch homosexuals. Some people hear the word “Christian” and they think of the Salem witchcraft trials where scores of innocent women were executed. Some hear the word and think of Galileo, who was persecuted by the Church for trying to teach a heliocentric view of the universe. Some hear the word of think of patriarchal societies and the oppression of women’s rights. Some people hear the word and simply think of a polite, friendly person and attach nothing doctrinal to it at all—this was the case in mid 20th century England, and it was a concern C.S. Lewis elaborates on in Mere Christianity.

Others hear the word and think, mockingly, about the Scopes “Monkey” trial. Ask ten people to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Some will refer to teetotalism, prudish prohibitions against dancing, legalistic rules about men having short hair and women not being permitted to wear pants. Some will refer to rules about not using profanity, not using tobacco, not viewing rated R movies. Perhaps someone will even refer to a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, and a belief in Christ’s deity, physical death and resurrection and second coming—which is what the word originally meant.

2. The meaning of “Christian”

It’s helpful to understand the origin of the word “Christian” when making a judgment call as to whether to continue using the word. The term “Christian” is not a label that early believers gave to themselves—it’s a label that was given to them by the community. The disciples “were called Christians” first at Antioch (Acts 11:26)—we’ve no reason to assume they began calling themselves this at Antioch. Why? Because the early disciples’ lives revolved around Christ. Christ was so important to them that the community didn’t know what to make of them, so they called them “Christians”, which means “Christ-followers” or “Christ-people.” Are we living in such a way that the people we know would be naturally inclined to nickname us “Christ-followers”? One gets the impression that the early church spent more time showing people that they were Christians than they did telling other people.

Are we living in such a way that people are seeing our good works and glorifying God (i.e. thanking God for the lives that we’re living or learning to appreciate the character and heart of God just by becoming better acquainted with us)? Regardless of what baggage the word “Christian” carries with it, if we are living authentic, humble, sincere lives of discipleship to Jesus, people will see that and be able to discern that when we call ourselves “Christians” we are talking about something besides self-serving corruption. Defy the world’s stereotype that “All Christians are hypocrites.” Lest the world should think “Christian” means someone who’s racist or sexist, go out of your way to love your neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds and avoid sexism and bigotry in all its forms. We should be doing this anyway, not merely to prove a point to the world. If you live like Jesus, the world itself will see that (as in the first century) and have to admit that you’re a Christ-follower. There is much to be said for believers to do the living, and to let onlookers do the labeling.

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