“Christian” is not an Adjective

Jesus wasn’t very “Christian”.

Language matters. The words we use and the way in which we use them convey meaning: words not only reflect the ideas and meanings we have in our heads, but words convey those ideas and meanings to others.

It is through language that ideas and culture evolves in groups and societies. If we hear the words enough times we eventually come to believe those words. This is why marketing and advertising work: if we are continually hearing that a product is good and that everyone loves it, we generally come to accept this as true. In the same way, when the news media says the same thing over and over, we generally come to accept this as true as well.

Language can be used intentionally to shape perceptions and opinions.  What today we call “political correctness” really refers to using language to shift and reinforce perceptions and opinions. We see this concept at work in the differences between “undocumented worker” and “illegal alien”, between “physically challenged” and “handicapped”, and many other such phrases.

But through this same power, imprecise language can bring about unintentional perceptions and opinions. I would argue that using the word “Christian” as an adjective is one such example.

Originally the word “Christian” was a noun. It was first used in Antioch in ancient Greece as a label for the followers of Jesus Christ. (Acts 11:26) The word literally meant “little Christs”, probably in a derogatory sense. That is, people were said to be “Christians” if they believed and followed what Jesus taught.

Today, “Christian” is often used as an adjective that generally means little more than “nice”, or “compassionate”. For example, someone might say, “That wasn’t a very Christian thing to say.” Or worse, it can mean something of or pertaining to a perceived subculture, as in “Christian bookstore”, “Christian music”, or “Christian bumper sticker”.

The use of “Christian” as an adjective has done much harm. By simply using the word “Christian” in this way we have grown to accept that Christianity is focused on the attributes people think of when they hear the adjective “Christian”: nice, compassionate, law-abiding, generous, narrow-minded, judgmental…or whatever other attributes one might want to add to the list.

The phrase “Christian church” ought not to mean “a church that has the attributes that we associate with Christian”, but rather should refer to a gathering of people who are in fact believers and followers of Christ.

Christian is a noun, not an adjective.

Christianity is not about “Christian” behavior, nor about being part of a “Christian” subculture.

Instead, Christianity is about Christ, the almighty God who became human with flesh and bones so that he might live a perfect life for us, be put to death as punishment for our sinful condition, and be raised back to life to prove that he succeeded in defeating sin, death and the devil. Christianity is about God’s doing, and not about our doing.

I am a person who trusts in and follows Christ. I have been baptized into Christ’s death, so just as he was raised from the dead I too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4) I am a Christian because God made me one through faith and baptism. I am a Christian because God gave me Christ’s perfect righteousness even though I had no merit on my own. I am a Christian because God has declared that I have eternal life together with all the saints in heaven.

If you were to examine my life, you would likely find that I am not very “Christian”. I do things (and fail to do things) that make my actions inconsistent with what people consider to be the “Christian” way to live…whatever that means.

Much of my not-so-very-Christian life stems from the fact that I have been a sinful human since before birth…and consequently I do things that are contrary to God’s law. I confess and repent of my sin, and trust that Christ’s perfection has been given to me through faith. I stand before God as his restored prodigal son, as one who deserves nothing but has been given everything.

Some of my not-so-very-Christian life is due to the fact that what people think of as being “Christian” really has nothing to do with Christianity, but is instead about some sham veneer of niceness and respectability. That I don’t live up to what people think of as being “Christian” should not trouble me, for even Jesus didn’t live up to these kinds of expectations: Jesus said of himself:

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Matthew 11:19)

Jesus wasn’t very Christian: he did not live up to society’s suppositions of what he ought to do.

If I am a Christian, a follower of Christ, than chances are that I won’t be very “Christian” either.

Much of the so-called “Christian church” has gotten confused on this distinction as well. Much of the church is running around trying to get people to be more “Christian”. Doing so is a pointless exercise that does more harm than good.

People’s behavior reflects what is in their heart. (Mark 7:21) The church is to be about preaching that Christ was crucified for the forgiveness of sins, calling people to repentance and faith, baptizing them, and teaching them that Christ’s perfection is theirs through faith. The changing of people’s hearts is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit, and he does this work exclusively through the preaching of Christ crucified.

Even if the church could successfully nag, coerce or entice people into changing behavior (which it cannot) this would be of no spiritual value: without Christ’s forgiveness and imputed righteousness even such a “changed” person stands before God as a lost and condemned sinner.

By focusing on outward appearances and behaviors instead of Christ crucified, the church deprives people of the one thing they need (Christ) and instead tries to provide them with misplaced faith in themselves and their ability to change.

The word “Christian” is a noun, and not an adjective. The mission of the church must be to proclaim Christ crucified and thereby make disciples—not to make people more “Christian”.

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