The Shortcut of Changing the Labels – Christian vs. Christ-follower

In John 10 Jesus has some tough words for the Pharisees in response to their poor reception of the man he healed from blindness in John 9. I wrote up quite a lengthy post detailing what was going on in John 10, Jesus as the good shepherd and the gate and all the rest…context, historical background, etc. But then I realized I wanted to say something that is really needs to be said. Instead of speaking to the Pharisees, I think there is a message for us as sheep today.

I am sure I am not the only who has noticed the trendiness of moving away from the terms Christian and Christianity. It is everywhere from youtube Mac vs. PC parodies like this one where Christians are made to look stuffy and “Christ-followers” as cool.

But it isn’t just on youtube in some clever spoof. It has been addressed in mainstream Christian websites like Out of Ur’s article by Jason Byassee, “Not a Christian, But a Christ Follower?” where Jason writes,

“Anyone can understand the desire for an alternative to the word “Christian.” There are plenty of “Christians” I’d rather not be associated with. I’d much prefer to maintain my relationship with Jesus while making clear to others I am not in relationship to Pat Robertson or Jack Spong.” This took me back a bit until I read the rest of his piece where he makes some excellent points about the absurdity of changing the labels as if it changes the contents in the container. He writes,

“More power to the people looking for alternative biblical descriptions of Christians. We can all use those—they awaken our imagination to fresh evocations of our faith. But the choice of one such term need not—can not—excise another.

Those who disagree are still members of this family. They can’t disown me anymore than I can them. Weekly we have family reunions in buildings, big and small, all over the world. And I sure hope they’ll join the rest of us at one of them from time to time. The rest of us aren’t complete without them.”

This brings us back to John 10 and what we find inside the sheep pen. What bothers me today is that it is somehow trendy to claim Christ but not the church or Christianity. This is the shortcut method for evangelizing and feeling relevant. Dan Kimball points out in his video and book They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations that many in mainstream culture connect with Jesus as a man and great moral teacher but think his followers are angry and abusive hypocrites. So why not just toss out the church and Christianity and just connect them with Jesus without all the baggage, right?

It is like saying we want to hang out with the shepherd but not be bothered by all these smelly sheep. Sorry but you can’t have both. What makes this more palatable is when we recognize that we, ourselves, are just as bad as those we are trying to distance ourselves from AND that they are just as redeemed and holy as we are! People point to all kinds of Christian evils from the crusades, the silence of Christians over slavery, and the lack of concern for global environmental matters today. But in the middle of it they fail to realize they are also a smelly, stinky, redeemed sheep as well!

The Great Sheep Meeting of 2009:
One day some of the sheep got together and had a meeting. They were worried about the lack of new sheep in the pen and figured out the primary reason for lack of the flock growing was all the old stuffy, stinky sheep they didn’t get along with. So they came to consensus. They deciding their terminology was out of date and needed an update. The first thing they decided was that the term “pen” sounded to much like a facility. So they decided to give their quarters a face lift by calling their assembly of sheep, “The Flock”. Next they agreed the term “sheep” was derogatory with all kinds of bad connotations. So their next resolution was to call themselves “shepherd-followers” because they all agreed the shepherd was way more hip than all the smelly sheep on the other side of the pen that they didn’t agree with. The sheep pen had never been so divided and yet still so very much the same. New labels, same sheep, same pen, same shepherd. The sheep across the pen kept using the words pen and sheep and the in-crowd sheep, I mean shepherd followers, thought they had found better alternatives. But in the end they were all still just sheep in a pen trying to follow the same shepherd.

0 Responses to The Shortcut of Changing the Labels – Christian vs. Christ-follower

  1. This comment isn’t so much related to your main idea here as much as it is to the semantics of our identity…

    I had a professor in grad school who was very strict about (what he called) “mining the resources of the text.” By that he wanted us — especially in our preaching — to use the words & language of Scripture. Not imposing, or injecting, our own words/language where it didn’t exist in a text. In yesteryear, the creed for this was “Let’s call Bible things by Bible names.”

    Anyway, the word “Christian” doesn’t appear in Scripture very often at all. It makes me wonder why we should feel so attached to it. The words “believer” and “disciple” both appear more often. And I think I like both words better in terms of describing our identity in terms of what we do.

    “Church,” however, is a very common name in Scripture for our assemblies. I’m not ready to toss that one aside.

    Good thoughts overall, Matt. Changing the labels around really rather smacks of re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Church has the basic meaning of ekklesia – the assembly. For a time it had shifted to a facility mindset and was used more in reference of the building rather than the assembling of the people. If Ekklesia is perfectly biblical, which it is, then I would say “church” is as well. We are reclaiming the biblical ideal by trying to stop using the word church to mean 1 hour a week and/or the building itself and moving it back to the community. I think that is a good shift and is just as scriptural as anything else.

      Christian is used in the NT, as you are well aware of and means Christ-like. To me, that is the end result of being a Christ-follower is that we are following him because we want to be like him – “Christian.” That is a point many have made recently including Rob Bell and Ray Vander Laan and it is a good concept. So, while Christian is not used as much as other terms it is still not one I am willing to chunk because I do want to be like Christ and think that is part of our faith. But that doesn’t mean we hold so strongly to church that we call out people for using other perfectly good words like disciple or believer, as you pointed out.

      So we just need to know what words mean and use them accordingly. The end result of being a disciple (one who follows Christ) is that we would become like him (Christian).

      Just my two cents. I am probably picking at straws here.

  2. Yes and No, Matt!
    I find myself using the word “disciple” more and more often, and while I think some of that might be because of the baggage of “christian”, I think it is also a faithful way of speaking about the people who join Jesus.

    “Christ-follower” might be a decent, faithful translation of “disciple” for our culture, communicating not just the type of our religion, but the relationship between ourselves and our master.

    On the other hand, I too balk at the idea of changing our language for the sake of avoiding the understanding of outsiders. I think that, for me, there is a difference here between doing something because it communicates more clearly, and doing the same thing for the purpose of communicating around resistance.

    The business about the church is a little bit different though, and your main point here is very well taken. I would add that you can’t have Jesus-discipleship without affiliation with his church not just for the reason that he is intimately affiliated with them, inseparable from them, (that’s how I take your main point), but I would also say that the church is also the intentional methodology for being his disciple. Being a disciple means, in great part, enrolling in the sanctifying community of the church. The church is a powerful means by which the Holy Spirit shapes and changes us to becoming like Jesus.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Steven,

      I think you are making some good points, I would echo my response to Philip in this comment as well. See what you think in the above comment. I appreciate your insights.

  3. jtgerhardt says:

    Good points, Matt.

    I suppose I’m a bit ambivalent here–as you say, thinking that a change in packaging changes a defective product is simply misguided.

    At the same time, clinging to terminology that’s weighed down by negative baggage might not be the best move. Too, it seems “Christian” was applied to followers of Jesus by outsiders. In light of this, how much loyalty should we give this term? Sometimes a change in phraseology spurs a more healthy understanding.

    In the end, though, I’m not really a fan of believers intentionally contributing to the negative connotation of “Christian” through videos like the one you posted. Seems like this contributes more to the problem than to the solution.

    Thanks for the post.

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