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When we no longer understand what the word 'Christian' means

Pastors of some destroyed churches are remaining hopeful to Jesus amid the devastating aftermath of a series of tornadoes that hit six different states in December 2021.
Pastors of some destroyed churches are remaining hopeful to Jesus amid the devastating aftermath of a series of tornadoes that hit six different states in December 2021. | Pixabay

What if we no longer understand what the word “Christian” means?

I’ve been working with Christian institutions for almost 20 years. Despite their differences, each institution would describe itself as “Christian,” but this description doesn’t provide the clarity one might expect. Rather, I’ve found that some institutional leaders struggle to answer two simple questions: (1) How are you Christian? and (2) Why does it matter? 

In answer to the first question, leaders often point to biblical coursework included in curricula, mandatory chapels, or requirements for local church membership. The second question is more challenging because, as important as specific practices, policies, and structures may be, they tend to become minimum standards. They lose their potency. When the practices in which we engage become excuses to be less than God requires, they hinder our witness. They provide us with a false sense of security that we are aligned with what God desires (Jer 7:1-29).

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My suspicion is that the church no longer has a clear sense of the meaning of “Christian.” As Niklas Forsberg suggests in his book Language Lost and Found

“Words are worn and torn, and so turned (differently)...since words are turned —  changed but not necessarily exchanged since words may look the same while their concepts change — it is oftentimes hard to come to see that one may fail to be in command of one’s own language.”

I’m concerned that God’s people have lost control of “Christian.” 

Phrases like “Christian college” and “Christian nation” seem to be more nostalgic than theological. “Christian” is applied because it has come to convey a sort of wholesomeness. It allows us to assume, for instance, that our children will graduate from a “Christian college” with a particular moral compass. That compass, however, need not spring from one’s faith in Christ.

For example, one “Christian college” president told me that he counted it as a success when a graduating Muslim student told him that the school had helped him develop a deeper devotion to Allah. It is unlikely that Christian colleges can succeed in converting every graduate. However, having a “Christian college” president identify greater devotion to Allah as a positive outcome suggests that, while the word “Christian” hasn’t changed, the concepts underlying it have.

We see another example of this conceptual shift when the United States is referred to as the “shining city on a hill” (Matt 5:14). While we may tolerate leaders who employ such language to advance American exceptionalism, we cannot identify this reference as a Christian idea. It would be more accurate to say that such references use biblical language to assert and perhaps assume divine legitimation for American exceptionalism. 

Using “Christian” in this fashion changes the concept that lies beneath the term. “Christian” begins to be more about politics than discipleship. The allusion to “a city on a hill” by U.S. political leaders is no more “Christian” than Biden’s appeal to the “image of God.” It isn’t that Biden is incorrect in suggesting that humankind is made in God’s image, but that appealing to the “image of God” to support specific transgender policy seems less like an affirmation of God’s authority or an evangelistic message seeking to point the American people to Christ and more like an attempt to convince those who respect, if not believe in the scriptures, to accept his political agenda.

To label Biden’s reference to the “image of God” or past leader’s use of “a city on a hill” as “Christian” is to confuse those who seek to be salt and light by following Jesus with a national vision in which Jesus is, at best, a marginal player. When Christ is dispensable to what it means to be made in the “image of God” or to be a “shining city on a hill,” the phrase cannot be identified as a properly “Christian” idea.

We blunt the distinctive claim that to be Christian is to be members of God’s Kingdom when we use the word “Christian” to: (1) denote a generalized set of morals and values that allow us to find common ground with those who do not profess “Jesus is Lord,” (2) describe institutions that have no interest in seeing God’s people be increasingly conformed to Christ’s image, or (3) designate a way of life that does not require us to sit at the feet of Jesus. If it is to mean anything of theological consequence, “Christian” cannot be decoupled from Christ.

I have no particular quarrel with the United States, the democratic system, or even free-market capitalism. God has appointed political leaders to maintain some semblance of order and, in doing so, to serve as a “secondary theater of witness.” That said, we need to differentiate human systems and values that conform in a more generic way to God’s order from what it means to be Christian. We need to reclaim “Christian” as a term for institutions, practices, and beliefs devoted to the risen Christ.

Language matters. It is one of the ways that we understand and shape reality. As cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky notes in her 2017 Ted Talk, “I’ve told you about how speakers of different languages think differently, but of course, that’s not about how people elsewhere think. It’s about how you think. It’s how the language that you speak shapes the way that you think. And that gives you the opportunity to ask, ‘Why do I think the way that I do?’ ‘How could I think differently?’ And also, ‘What thoughts do I wish to create?’”

If we lose control of our language, particularly our theological language, we will likely lose much of our capacity to offer a clear and faithful witness within a broken world.

When the nation or conservative values or institutions that have decoupled themselves from or marginalized Christ are described as “Christian,” we empty “Christian” of appropriate nuance. It is time to reclaim “Christian.” In doing so, God’s people will not be confused with conservatives or liberals, republicans or democrats, but recognized as followers of Christ.

Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and challenging God’s follow Jesus. His book titled “Useful to God: Nine Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody” will be released in 2022. He previously published “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind,” as well as co-authoring “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.” 

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