There are virtually no “Christians” left in North America. Where have they all gone? How did it become so complicated to be called a “Christian?” Does it matter?
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the name “Christian” come from? In fact, the name “Christian” comes from the New Testament, just barely. The word occurs a scant three times. The first recorded use of the term “Christian” is in the New Testament, in Acts 11:26, after Barnabas brought Saul (Paul) to Antioch where they taught the disciples for about a year. The text says: "[...] the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch."
There are two other instances. In Acts 26:28: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” The other reference is in 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.”
The term, when originated, was not used by Christians to identify themselves. Instead, the description comes from those outside their circle. The name “Christian” was likely given by the Greeks or Romans, probably as a pejorative characterization of the adherents of the Way of Jesus.
What did they call themselves? Not followers of a Jewish carpenter (as per a quaint bumper sticker I once saw). The early believers generally called themselves “brethren,” “disciples”, “believers” and “saints.” As one of my instructors at Bible School was fond of saying, the only saints referred to in the Bible are living ones.
Let’s fast-forward to the last 100 years or so and look at how Christians have been described and have described themselves. One descriptor is to call someone a “fundamentalist” Christian. This a favourite whipping boy term. It is often not how someone is self-identified but what some is called in a derogatory way. The term fundamentalist gained public prominence in the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925.
A fundamentalist, according to much mainstream media, is a backwoods hick, down from the Ozarks, graduated in Grade 4 and then went to work in the family’s moonshine operation, with a hayseed jammed in their gap teeth, who believes in the literal truth of the Bible. Fundamentalists probably don’t read what others are saying about them; but non-fundamentalists who are labeled as fundamentalists do and don’t like it.
In the 1970s, Christians would sometimes be described as being “born again.” This phrase is from the story of Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) and popularized by Charles Colson’s 1976 book of the same name. I remember being asked at university, “are you one of those born-agains?!” That was not a prelude to a compliment.
Many Christians probably didn’t mind that description, at least for a while. However, the term gradually became polluted—particularly in the US—as a byword for rabid, in-your-face, obnoxious, strident, Christians who were shoving religion down your throat. This was abetted in the 1970s by Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and the “Religious Right.”
While being born again could be viewed as being a bit extreme by non-born agains, a Christian could appear to be more reasonable if they were characterized as an “evangelical”—at least, up until recently. What is an evangelical? Depends on who you ask, of course.
A standard approach would be to view the core features of evangelicalism to include: the belief that the essence of the Gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ's atonement; the centrality of the conversion or the "born again" experience in receiving salvation; and the authority of the Bible as God's revelation to humanity, and in spreading the Christian message.
Evangelicalism can be cross-denominational, so there are “evangelicals” in Anglican and Catholic churches. Or, certain denominations as a whole are evangelical (i.e. Pentecostal, Baptist, etc.).
An interesting aspect of the description of Christians is that existing words must now have qualifiers. For example, the word “Christian” previously implied that the individual practiced, or at least tried to, what their faith professed. In previous times the word Christian was enough. A Christian meant an active, church-going person with biblically Orthodox views.
But it was clear that people were Christians in name rather than spirit. The assumption of walking the talk could not be made. As a result, there needed to be various adjectives such as “devout” or “active” to denote that the person actually took this stuff seriously.
So, what are Christians to do? There is now a new name for Christians. I was at the Global Leadership Summit in last year in Chicago. I was startled to find out that Pastor Bill Hybels isn’t a Christian. In fact, I’m not sure he’s an evangelical. Instead, he’s a “Christ follower!” Hybels chooses his words carefully and during his remarks he referred to himself as a “Christ follower” several times.
I guess the term hasn’t been polluted yet. There is an article in Christianity Today in 2009 about the term “Christ follower”—I had not heard the term previously. Do Christians have any consensus as to what to call themselves? No. Why the name games? There are several reasons.
First, some people prefer denominational distinctiveness, rather than being part of the mainstream. So, TV preachers falling on hard times are of a different denomination or a scandal happens at a Christian institution of a different denomination. Well, I am of the “X Denomination” and in the “X Denomination,” those things don’t happen.
Second, sometimes the name game is part of positioning for mainstream respectability. I am not a Christian (that could be offensive if part of a government council); instead I am a “person of faith.” This is hard to argue with and is sufficiently vague that likely no one will be upset. People don’t want to set themselves up as a divisive person. You could introduce yourself as, ”a follower of the glorious and risen Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world, Redeemer, the One Way, The Truth and The Life.” That could be a bit of a conversation killer.
Third, Christians are embarrassed by other Christians, so they don’t want to be identified with “them” and all their baggage. They want to distance themselves from the misdeeds of others conducted in the name of Christ. So, we can join with others in pillorying “those” Christians because we are not part of that group and not associated by name (and, in fact, truth be told, we’re better).
What are the consequences of the name game? The most insidious outcome is that it fosters and embeds disunity. Christians are always defining themselves as separate and apart—and better—than others. The root causes are not trying to identify with the negative. The renaming phenomenon is an extension of tribalism, fragmentation and division with the Christian world. Better to be on the outside and not identify with the bad actors than to identify with them.
Families find it harder to disown one another; they stick together. Teammates stick up for one another. A self-identified community circles the wagons against outsiders. Not so in the Christian world. It’s better to disassociate with the others and strike off independently for preservation of self-righteousness.
What is the outcome? Do all Christians strive to be a church of one? No, there is a better way. It’s time for Christians to identify with each other and support each other, not to distance themselves from others. It’s time to look for ways to unite us, not names to divide us. It’s time to think of the “them” as non-Christian rather than fellow believers. If not, there will be no Christians left.