Are You “Christian”? Brad Jersak
Having firmly identified as an “Ex-vangelical,” a friend of mine was asked whether she would still call herself a Christian. Her answer was necessarily complex since the question involves defining “Christian,” who gets to define it and whether we should preserve the word or put it to rest. Frankly, identifying as “Christian” has always been a bit risky, whether because it incited persecution or was co-opted for domination. So, are you a Christian? How do you feel about that word?
What if we were to come at the question from a different angle? The following is a thought experiment that may prove productive:
What if the name “Christian” were something you were forced to identify with? For example, what if after a few too many drinks or a few too many renewal meetings you and a group of friends had rushed off to a tattoo shop and rashly inked the word “Christian” across your neck, just above your collar? What if, for the rest of your life, everyone who glanced at you would know: there’s a Christian—and there was no going back? What if you were forever identified with that word?
Now, what would it take for you to be okay with that? How would you define the word so that it would not embarrass you? Go!
I brought the thought experiment to a small group of bright, mature friends—Brittany, John and Annie—and it proved instructive! First, we could skip past all the negativity. You know the standard objections: Christians are judgmental, Christians are boring, Christians are hypocrites, blah, blah, blah. All that was off the table. Our answers needed to identify what Christians should be at their best.
What I loved was that, in their wisdom, none of my friends identified “Christian” with what one believes or what one does. That surprised me. I thought, this is perfect, because they all managed to avoid making themselves the subject or using a direct verb, such as “I believe this” or “I do that.” What an interesting intuition! But if a Christian is not primarily identified with what they believe or what they do, what then?
In each case, my friends made Christ the subject and the Christian the object. Whatever we may believe or however we may act, Christ came first. Christianity begins with Jesus Christ, both in history and in our lives. We are, first of all, objects of his love, grace and work. In every case, my friends used passive verbs so that the active ingredient in being a Christian was primarily something Christ is or does—Christianity is something we undergo! Their answers ranged along these lines:
“A Christian is someone who has been captivated by Christ.”
“A Christian is someone who has experienced the love of God in Christ and surrendered to it.” [note: even the active response is passive surrender]
“A Christian is someone whose heart has been opened by the love of Christ to love all people and all creation.” [note: even our love to all is an openness created by Christ]
In other words, Christianity is, first of all, an initiative of Christ and an experience of Christ (e.g. God’s love, grace and mercy). And second, Christianity is about what someone who has experienced Christ becomes as a result of that experience. Namely, Christ’s identification and union with us are what effectively transform us into those we can describe as Christian (adjective). That is, Christians become by grace what Christ is by nature: his grace creates self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering lovers who mimic him—“little Christs” as the word suggests.
As a first year youth pastor, I was chided by the pastor for being more obsessed with getting people to “become a Christian” (sign-up-here Evangelism) but not adequately concerned with helping people “become Christian” (discipleship). Today, I am fully convinced that he was right.
The experiment is a good corrective, I think, as it reorients us from what we believe or what we do to what Christ has done in us and is doing through us. This is neither the works-righteousness of performance-driven religion, nor the vague abstraction that we sometimes call imputed righteousness. Rather, we’re imagining the transformation of those who truly encounter Christ, undergo his love and grace and as a result (as fruit of the Vine), becoming Christians in faith and practice.
If that were how I, we, the world identified “Christians,” maybe we wouldn’t know very many.
But at least then we would want to know them.
Then we’d want what they have.
And we’d want to know the Christ who made them Christians.
But I still wouldn’t get the tattoo.