How many times have you had to qualify the term Christian? We use adjectives—“real Christian,” “genuine Christian,” “nominal Christian,” and so on—to describe what we mean. We define Christians by their views on particular issues—women in ministry, infant or adult baptism, their political leanings, their style of worship and music, or [add your pet issue here]. In college I was shocked to find that after my name, major, and hometown, the most commonly asked introductory chit-chat question was my church denomination. We do this too, dismissing or lauding a person by his or her adherence to a particular religious flavor—Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist.
[On this denominational front, I’ve always been thankful to be hard to nail down—I grew up in a tiny denomination few have heard of, attended an Anglican church plant throughout college, and now attend a church subtly connected to a Baptist denomination.]
We like labels. We like their ability to describe more clearly our meaning, lest anyone misunderstand what type of Christian of which we speak. We like to make judgment-calls on who is serious about the faith, who the “real” Christians are—and who are the imposters. We like our clean, clear-cut categorical boxes into which we can lock other people.
I must admit that I do this. I catch words coming to my lips; I catch my index and middle finger bending, gesturing to form quotation marks in the air around my words as they escape. I catch my thoughts crafting judgments on the quality and genuineness of another’s faith based on their actions, their commentary, or their attitude.
How quickly we forget that “we are all beggars.” How quickly we forget how easy it is to misrepresent our Lord. How quickly we forget that these categories are of our own creation—how quickly we allow them to divide us, to justify the judgments we cast.
How tragic it is that we feel the need to further qualify the word “Christian” at all.
In many parts of the world, calling yourself a Christian invites violence, familial abandonment, imprisonment, and other threats. There are no adjectives needed there. “Christian” is enough—the word means something. It means a radical allegiance to Jesus Christ and a commitment to walk in his way. It means accepting persecution and hardship in his name with joy, not counting the cost. It means a life of faith, of love, of praise, of compassion, of joy.
What would it look like for this to be the case for the church in America? What would it look like to have a church of Christ-following disciples? What would it look like to be able to drop our adjectives and our categorical boxes and live as a united body of Christ?
I understand that in many ways our nation’s cultural and religious history makes this a dream, not likely to fully become reality. But all the while, I take up the challenge myself—to live as a Christian such that the word means something itself, without any adjectives and labels. May we live a life worthy of the calling we have received. May we be Christians.