Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

When more is less: Dubious words attached to “Christian”

Learning French, I came across the word aimer. It means “to like or to love.” I assumed that to place the word beaucoup (very much) after aimer would be an intensifier, i.e. “I love you very much.” That’s not so,” said my French teacher. “The verb for love is so strong, that to add any adverb afterwards is only to weaken its meaning.”

In the same way, some adjectives attached to the front of the word “Christian” just weaken the term. Like barnacles on a ship’s hull, is it time to scrape them off?  Here’s a quick list of some candidates for scrubbing:

Evangelical Christian” – From the Greek for Good News, “evangelical” emphasizes the act of evangelism, of telling others the Good News of Jesus. This is the Gospel, that God sent Jesus to save the world — that Jesus was born, died, rose again and will one day return. Yet truth be told, all communities that bear the name of Christ preach the Gospel as they understand it, so why the back-handed slight on others by claiming the word “Good News” (evangelical) in an exclusive way? Some of the readers over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog seem to agree, and are ready to jettison this word that divides.

Born again Christian”- Jesus told Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Yet “born again” attached to “Christan” is arguably redundant. According to the theology of some, the New Birth happens for a baby at the moment of its baptism. Others see it happening when a adult makes a decision to follow Christ. Still others believe the New Birth happens at the moment of adult baptism. All three agree upon one thing: The New Birth is the gateway to Christian faith. So, the only kind of Christian is the born again kind! To ask a Christian – “Have you been born again?” – is a simple question. There is only one answer: “I’m a Christian; therefore, I have been born again.” Let’s drop “born again” as an adjective in front of “Christian.” It’s a needless piling up of words, and only causes confusion. Say: “I’m born again” or say “I am a Christian.” Labeling yourself a “born again Christian” is like saying: “I’m a bison buffalo” – two different names, same animal.

Bible believing Christian”- This one is a bit trickier. I understand what people mean by it. They mean that the Bible is God’s Word, and should be our guide for our salvation and how we live. Some go further, saying that the Bible is without error in the original autographs (now lost, we are told). I think that there are other ways of getting this message across, without the kind of self-righteousness that the term “Bible believing Christian” exudes. Why not just say: “I’m a Christian, and the Bible is very important to me. I love how practical it is, and try to live by its guidelines.” You’ve made the same point in a non-combative way.

Spirit-filled Christian” – By definition, all Christians are temples where the Holy Spirit resides (Romans 8:9, 1 Cor. 6:19). Yes, we are to be open to the constant outpouring and renewing of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Eph. 5:18). However, using the term “Spirit-filled Christian” seems to imply that there are Christians who do not have the Holy Spirit. It would be better to say: “Are you a Christian who overflows with the presence of God?” Such a way of putting it makes the Christian hungry for the fullness of God without implying that they are bereft of the Holy Spirit.

Some today want to avoid the term “Christian” altogether, thinking it carries too much baggage. Interestingly, the word “Christian” only appears three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). In all three cases, it appears as a noun. It is never used as an adjective, i.e. “That’s not very Christian of you!” This sparse use in the Bible should give us pause when we insist too much on the word. On the other hand, the terms “disciple” (follower) and “believer” are replete throughout the New Testament. The former is the term of choice in the Gospels, while the latter is common in the book of Acts. Both words place emphasis upon action, i.e. to follow and to believe. When it comes to Christ, to do one is to do the other.


Photo credit: Catholic Encyclopedia