“Christian” has acquired many implications that obscure my relationship with Jesus
“…The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” Acts 11:26
I prefer not to refer to myself as a Christian, though I have been following Christ and HIs teaching so the best of my ability for years! Hmmm
In the first century, those whose lives were radically and remarkably changed by following Jesus and His teachings became a tight knit subculture which was both revered and despised by the world around them. They clung to each other for support and shared their lives – both spiritual and material. They gave their possessions to the apostles to distribute as the need arose, and they helped one another be true to the teachings of Jesus. One couple was dramatically struck dead for lying to the Spirit of God by withholding property (Acts 5), and this of course added an emphasis on integrity as believers were making commitments to God and each other. They were not too worried about being “seeker friendly”, but walked in “the fear of the Lord” – and yet their numbers increased significantly. Of course, at that time they had more than a little help from the leaders of the movement. The apostles had not only the message but also special miraculous powers, thus persuading people that this was more than just the latest “ doctrine of the day”. Acts 5 points out “By common consent they (the converted) all used to meet in Solomon’s Porch. But as far as the others were concerned no one dared to associate with them, even though their general popularity was very great. Yet more and more believers in the Lord joined them, both men and women in really large numbers. Many signs and wonders were now happening among the people through the apostles’ ministry. In consequence people would bring out their sick into the streets and lay them down on stretchers or bed, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall upon some of them. In addition a large crowd collected from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those who were suffering from evil spirits. And they were all cured.” (Acts 5:12-16jbp)
God was intent on convincing mankind of the authenticity of this startling message about relationship with Himself. First, His Son becomes a human being, then chooses a horrific death to purchase the friendship of people purposefully estranged by sin, and then entrusts this amazing truth to a group of largely insignificant individuals who became avid followers after conversion. Their gatherings were frequent and fervent. Their zeal became a threat to both religious and political “powers that be” (which are now merely the ‘powers that were’) and so they were hunted down, tortured, and even killed for their loyalty. But the deeply intimate reality of their relationship with the Son of God kept them not only continuing to believe personally, but determined on spreading this wonderful message as they were dispersed in all directions. The name “Christian” was ascribed by outsiders to denote them as Christ followers. King Agrippa interrogating Paul seems to use the term in a mocking way, noting Paul’s audacity at presuming to think that he could be converted. And the name is used one other time when Peter refers to ‘suffering as a Christian’ in a world where that was a crime, an indictment often resulting in torture and death. But through the ages believers came to accept the name “Christian” as a distinguishing label.
Contrast that with the present day connotation of ‘Christian’. The first question is “What brand of Christian are you”? So the word has been diluted from defining that first tight knit and devoted (albeit annoying to cultural norms) group that turned the world upside down with its teaching. Devotion to God and community with other believers was the original foundation. If we had to use only one word, “committed” would seem all inclusive. Back then it was the ‘Church at Whatever City’ although they met in different homes. Now there are as many different brands as there are bars on any given block. Christians are still annoying to the culture around them, but perhaps not as much for the same reasons as those first believers. A fragmented modern church teaches churchgoers of today (perhaps inadvertently) to ask “What can my church do for me?” when deciding where to go. So people hop from church to church, largely unaware of the needs or talents of those who sit next to them week after week. We feel better about it because we take a minute to shake hands, but that’s a far cry from giving your salary or your time to sustain your brother in need. We don’t even know his need materially let alone spiritually. It’s like being in a social club that you participate in when it’s convenient and commit in measured doses. It’s no longer so much about shared devotion and commitment . No wonder recent statistics suggest that only thirty-five percent of new members stay in a church for more than five years. Many attend services about twelve times per year – a little different from what we read about in the Bible.*
Second, in our culture the word “Christian” brings to mind a political group with an agenda that targets certain sins for legal action. The goal is political engagement with a polarizing fervor that too often disregards the hearts of its ‘opponents’. The first believers transformed society without marches, demonstrations, recriminations and legal action on unbelievers. They facilitated some of the first humanitarian shelters – caring for sick, abandoned, neglected and disregarded people. They insisted on addressing the deeper issue by telling people the Gospel story. Believers accomplished societal change by caring for peoples’ souls one by one -spreading the way of eternal hope despite the cost to themselves financially and personally. Their message was backed up by their life. But society then – as now- was not so willing to be transformed, and His followers for the most part got the same treatment their Savior did. Jesus pointed this out so well when He said “You must understand that God has not sent his Son into the world to pass sentence upon it, but to save it—through him. Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. This is the judgment—that light has entered the world and men have preferred darkness to light because their deeds are evil. Anybody who does wrong hates the light and keeps away from it, for fear his deeds may be exposed. But anybody who is living by the truth will come to the light to make it plain that all he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:17-21jbp)
So “Christian” means something much different now than it did then! For this reason I prefer to be called a “believer”. I believe and trust in the Son of God to be Who He claims to be. It’s more than intellectual. I don’t merely give mental assent that Jesus was real – a good teacher, an exemplary man, a religious leader. I trust Him. That means I have put it all on the line. If I am wrong I am all wrong. I direct my thoughts and life day by day -as He gives me grace- according to His ways, His thoughts, His commands (not suggestions we notice). I fall and fail and make mistakes. Sometimes too zealous, sometimes timid, sometimes running ahead with my own idea of how it should look, sometimes reluctant to keep up with His plan. Sometimes I’m simply impatient or distracted. But just like He did at my conversion, He reveals Himself to be daily and repeatedly “the Friend of this sinner”.
*”A Good Church is Hard to Find” May/June 2004 Modern Reformation