What’s In A Name?

rig.jpgBHT Fellow leif rigney abandons the name “Christian,” but holds onto the faith once delivered.

One of my finest friendships is with OBI graduate, former OBI teacher, former member of the church where I preach, current English professor and BHT fellow lief (eric) rigney. He’s a top ten friend who I was always honored to share my pulpit with during the years we worked together.

leif grew up in Baptist revivalism and endured six years of Baptist boarding school, so he knows the side of evangelicalism that produced the Internet Monk. For the first two years of the Internet Monk site, he was a co-author, writing some of the best pieces to appear in these spaces. His defenses of Harry Potter and Cussin’ are still popular essays.

A recent BHT discussion took up an unusual subject that proved to be of more than casual interest to leif. The topic was the usefulness of the term “Christian.” What would be the result of just giving up the term entirely? Not faith in Jesus, mind you, but the label “Christian.” leif found the suggestion more than intriguing. He’s taking the challenge and is blogging his experiences along the way.

I may interact with leif at different places. At this point, I’ll content myself with some preliminary comments.

For starters, leif has the Bible on his side. The term Christian is never commanded to be used in any way by scripture itself. The term occurs three times:

Acts 11:26 And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 26:28 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

1 Peter 4:16 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

None of these occurrences bears any particular imperative of compulsory weight. The name Christian is, in fact, a derogatory term, given to the disciples of Jesus by their detractors. It is as Christians that some may suffer, because Christians are fit subjects for persecution. Agrippa is amazed that Paul would attempt to persuade him to join such as despised sect.

In no New Testament epistle does Paul assume or use the term Christian(s). There are many other terms with pedigrees that suggest common use: disciples, saints, followers of The Way. That Christians have adopted the term “Christian” is a bit of a historical accident. As that accident has unfolded, “Christian” has become a term applied to a wide variety of meanings and associations. Some of these are unfortunate, painful and embarrassing associations (which I feel leif has seriously undersold. Things are much worse than his brief post allows.)

Of course, the same historical accident has brought about many positive, fortunate and helpful associations. leif may be correct that sorting through the difference between Mother Theresa, Fred Phelps and rioters seeking revenge against Muslims is a lot of trouble.

I’m convinced that rigney’s interest in southern literature is a contributing factor to this experiment. Most of us who live in the south are aware that the name Christian has suffered the indignity of being equated with so many different aspects of southern culture that a person really has no idea if a Christian is a racist or a martyr against racism. Finding a path through this confusion may necessitate something like an abandonment of the abused and obscured term, in order to refocus the meaning of “Christ” in any meaningful way.

(I noticed today that Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown labels himself as a devoted Christian. Point…rigney.)

George Barna and others may be suggesting that what we are seeing with rigney is not particularly unusual. Are there many people who are Jesus-focused, Jesus-trusting, Jesus-inspired, Jesus-worshipping….but also intentionally standing outside the “boundaries” of official Christianity in ways such as this? I believe quite possibly so. Christian history would say there have always been Christians who avoided the name for varying reasons. Even as prominent a contemporary voice as Bono is reluctant to use the label Christian, quite probably for the same reasons as rigney.

Having said all of this, you may be surprised that I am going to be somewhere between neutral and critical on the entire experiment.

1. I have some experience with eschewing labels. I have abandoned the term “Calvinist.” Now if you run a checklist of what Calvinists believe, I would still be well above 80%, but I simply do not want to associate myself with what is called “Calvinism” in the real world. Even with my agreement with much of Calvinistic belief and practice, I am still NOT a Calvinist. At the core of the whole term is something that I cannot affirm; namely that God has organized truth in such a way that the best way to label it is Calvinism. I don’t believe that.

I even understand the impulse to avoid the label “Christian.” Since “Christian” is now an identifier with a whole subculture and market niche, I avoid saying that something I am listening to is “Christian” music, for example, as if that means something particularly helpful.

This discussion, however, frequently becomes quite irritating to knowledgeable persons. They understand what I am trying to do, and my refusal to allow some music to be labelled doesn’t move them to think differently about the music. It simply causes them to deal differently with me. The more knowledgable the conversation partner, the more annoyance.

I suspect this is where rigney’s experiment will go, at least in many instances. Because he is affirming Christianity, he won’t avoid the negative connotations as much as he will cause his conversation partners a minor bit of consternation for being the “Christian who says he’s not one.”

2. In a descriptive sense, rather than an associative sense, it seems perfectly reasonable to use a shorthand label. If rigney finds himself in a discussion with Muslims and Hindus, his refusal to use the label Christian will be both helpful (in disassociating Christ from the acts of Christians) and confusing (“What’s the difference between what you are and a Christian?”)

Is there a difference?

3. If the purpose is apologetic, I see possibilities in the creation of conversations, but the situation becomes more complicated as time goes on. For example, if someone who does not believe the essentials of Christianity hears rigney say, “I am not a Christian,” he is entitled to say “rigney is like me.” This would be inaccurate and misleading.

Eventually, the refusal to use the adjective Christian will simply necessitate the replacement of the term with a number of sentences that, while relieving rigney of the responsibility of associating his worldview with the negative aspects of Christianity, may obscure the relationship of what he believes to the positive aspects of Christianity.

I am not one of the Christians who is killing Indians, but am I one of the Christians who is feeding the hungry?

4. All of us who feel the need to deconstruct our evangelicalism can admire what rigney is seeking to do, but I am skeptical that demolition or abandonment of the term, rather than judicious use, clarification and vital connection to Jesus Christ, is the way to go.

Many in the Emerging Church would applaud rigney’s project, but I must wonder what happens in these communities when the avoidance of a term creates a void that is replaced byfar less useful terms or just confusion.

It is far better to place the focus on Jesus, and to clarify that focus so that the relation of Jesus to history and faith is fairly presented. I am not as concerned about whether my educated friends understand my Christianity as I am that they know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus defines the “Christ” in Christian. The good, the bad and the ugly regarding Christians ought to be told, not avoided. The truth about Jesus is not “Christian.” Jesus is the only thing worth knowing about anything that is “Christian.” It is Jesus who judges and defines the term, and I would welcome that process.

I look forward to more posts from leif chronicling his experiment, and I hope IM commenters will share their thoughts here and at leif’s blog.

16 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. 1) What did Jesus and the disciples call themselves? Can I call myself that?
    2) If Christ is greek for Messiah, what can people in other languages call themselves? Can I use those words?
    3) Did Old Covenant folks have to call themselves “Jews” or “Hebrews” to be a good witness?
    4) What if I wanted to call myself a Yahwist?
    5) The day before they were first called Christians in Antioch, what were they called?
    6) Does having a Christian Bookstore in any way bias one’s view of this question?
    7) Does this change our view of having “Christian” tattooed across our backs?
    8) When we baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is “Christian” what we mean?
    9) Do they call themselves Christians in heaven?
    10) What if a situation arises such as Bonhoeffer’s, when “Christian” is co-opted for overt sinful purposes? Would adopting another name be ethically necessary in order to be faithful to Christ?


  2. I agree that it would be pointless speculation to argue about who is a Christian. But perhaps we can agree on what I think was the iMonk’s main point: that what Osteen preaches is, more often than not, not the Gospel of Jesus incarnate, crucified and risen. Therefore Osteen in his professional capacity is more properly described as a motivational speaker rather than a Christian preacher – whatever his personal spiritual state may be.


  3. My language was kinda strong… Love ya, Monk! 😉

    Posts are such a crappy communication medium. “That’s stupid crap” can be taken so many ways. Yeah, it’s pretty much only criticism, but I meant it as friendly criticism, if you can follow. Still, I would encourage all of us (myself as well) not to fall into the trap of arguing who is and isn’t Christian… Where does that all end, ya know?


    No, I take that back, maybe my initial post was a little irate. I tend to be all over the place. About a year ago I was insistent that Catholics aren’t Christian… Now… whatever…


  4. Did you read the part of my post where I say that I struggle against being a universalist? The whole thing about the “wide tent” on my site? No pissing contest here.


  5. Oh come on!
    You’re going to get on a high horse and say Osteen isn’t a Christian because you disagree with him? That’s really pathetic. This is why emergents (and I consider myself one) are looked upon with negativity. Don’t be like that… That’s stupid crap.

    We’re all embarrassed by a relative, yet how many of us change our name because of it?

    Yes, McLaren, Internet Monk, Osteen, Rick Warren, Billy Graham. CS Lewis, Hank Hanagraaf, Pat Robertson, you, me, we’re all Christians. Let’s not make it some kind of pissing contest–you lose sight of Jesus that way.



  6. Someone at the BHT, commenting on leif’s post, said that it is tempting to do this because of association with the TBN crowd.

    My response:

    Here’s a problem I have with leif’s project:

    I don’t want to say Osteen, etc are Christians. I mean, technically, they may be, but for my money, they deny the Gospel. I’d prefer to say THEY (and the rest of the whack jobs) AREN’T Christians, rather than to say I’m not a Christian….and they are!

    By abandoning Calvinism to [name deleted] and his ilk, I lose no sleep. Give me Five Solas and call me in the morning. (With a tradition chaser btw) But leaving the term “Christian” to the TBN crowd seems like a disservice to the true and faithful.

    It’s a hassle to disassociate myself from the idiots, but it seems to me to be an easier, more reasonable job than disassociating myself from the term Christian. Why? Because Christ stands in judgement over those jokers and their million dollar underwear or whatever. My job is to be congruent with the name Christian, which is still a pain, but not in the same way. I am seeking to define what it means to be human by way of Jesus.

    Here’s my suggestion to leif: don’t MAJOR in the name Christian. Use a lot of ways to label, story, explain and analogize this trip. (See Charlie Peacock, New Way To Be Human for details.)

    I’m inspired by Bonhoeffer, whose “religionless Christianity” ruminations affected me deeply as a young Christ….uh…..believer.


  7. “Even some Christians have begun to realize how indefensible Christianity is and are trying to fool you into thinking they’re something else. But they still believe [writer’s least-favorite Biblical doctrine here]. It’s just a typical dishonest Christian bait-and-switch.”

    That’s why this is a bad idea.


  8. I agree with Jerry here, although I will say that the question of whether we think someone is really a Christian or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that the term “Christian,” to many non-Christians is associated with “bad things.”

    Frankly, it seems to be human nature to group and label things. It allows many things to be said in one word, and allows us to mentally handle all the information we deal with daily. My point is, eschew the label “Christian” if you will, invariably, another label will replace it. If that label actually gains ground, it will eventually be tarnished by the same people that have tarnished the label, “Christian.”

    In addition, “Christian” is familiar. While not calling yourself a Christian outright may allow you to actually talk to someone who might just reject a “Christian” out of hand, eventually, the person will notice that you seem to believe a lot of things similar to Christians, and will likely group you as a Christian. This may be good, in that, perhaps, they now have an element of “good” in their experience with Christians, but if you object to them considering you a Christian, that can lead to confusion, if not an impression that you are being less than honest.

    Rather, I think a better approach would be one that seeks to show that Chrisianity is good, while acknowledging that Christians screw up. I think this will look more honest, and less silly, to those “on the outside.”


  9. I am not on the same intellectual level as most of you, and I can not articulate at your level, so I will simply say: if leif becomes successful at a name change with an other descriptive word to replace “Christian,” it is only a matter of time before it will be perverted also.

    In Revelation 2:2, it appears to me that the church at Ephesus was battling the same kind of issue: Namely, people calling [naming] themselves apostles, but not really apostles.

    Like it or not, if someone calls themself a Christian, we tests them by what we see and hear of and from them. If we start to label ourselves by another term “Of The Way,” we will still test those who start calling themself “Of The Way.” By the way, “Of The Way” will eventually be infiltrated by the wick, and they will pervert the term, “Of The Way.”

    jerry [fish on]


  10. Good luck, Leif!

    I tried for a time to avoid the term “Christianity” for much the same reasons. It was Jacques Ellul’s contention in “The Subversion of Christianity” that what we label “Christianity” has institutionalized behavior and beliefs that go against the cross of Christ. His translators attempted to split “Christianity” from X, in which X was the true Biblical faith. He noted

    “We need to formulate this global contradiction clearly, and then we shall devote the rest of this study to its elucidation. X (by which I mean Biblical Faith) is subversive in every respect, and Christianity has become conservative and antisubersive. X is subversive relative to every kind of power…It was not for nothing that the first Christians were attacked in the Roman Empire as dangerous anarchists, as agents subverting Roman order.”

    So in following Ellul’s lead, I attempted to go without the term “Christianity.” It lasted about a week and for the same reasons noted in Michael’s blog. In confused some and upset others. In no case did it better illustrate or clarify my point.

    So I have returned to using “Christianity” even though there is less support for that term in the Bible than for the use of “Christian.” Sometimes you just have to use the cards you are dealt and move on from there.

    However, my church is going about the task the same as Leif. We are referred to as “followers of Christ” or “passionate followers of Christ” in sermons and literature and not “Christians.” I believe Leonard Sweet makes much the same point in SoulTsunami. Maybe Leif is onto the next stage of the Church speaking to Post-Modern culture.

    Maybe Jacques and I were just too ahead of our time.


  11. I am saddened over the twisted global view of “Christians.” My emotions can shift rapidly from joyous, to embarrased, to angry, & a host of other complex feelings when I read or hear of activities or comments attributed to “Christians.” But, Lief, are you bored or what? Is it worthwhile to expend the energy necessary to create a distinction in name (if even possible) so the the REAL Christian (or whatever) could please stand up? My conviction is that people who know you will usually see you for who you are (+ or -) and that there is no degree of clevernees by which we can help God, Jesus & the Holy Spirit to let the world see His REAL followers (not that this is your intent). Let’s just walk with Him & my guess is that He will do the rest! The parable of the tares in Matt 13 may speak to this at some level.

    Respectfully, Tim


  12. I tried to do this once, but it isn’t showing up here. I am just not having computer luck lately.

    Anyway, PWinn, I share your disdain for the “Who’s the real Christian?” game. And I assure you, that’s not what I’m about. I’ve brought my share of shame to the name, unfortunately, so I don’t intend to start a finger-pointing routine. This is more of an inward look, as I am noticing more and more as I go.

    I do plan to answer Michael’s question on my own blog, because it is certainly a good one.


  13. PWinn, I share your disdain for the “Who’s a better Christian?” angle. That’s not what I’m about though. And I plan to answer Michael’s question on my own blog eventually, because it’s a good one. A preview: I would not answer it like you suggest. I think we all are embarrassed by some who claim the same name we claim (it’s a natural reaction), but for me, to dwell on that would lead to arrogance and judgmentalism pretty fast. I have brought (bring?) shame to the name myself on more than one occasion, unfortunately.


  14. You have absolutely put your finger on it with this: “What’s the difference between what you are and a Christian?” Is there a difference?

    The answer to those questions could easily be “Yes. I don’t share XYZ with those who would falsely call themselves by the name of Christ.” or similar, but no matter how you define the answer, I think, it’s the same thing for any label or formulation.

    As I said (I think) in the BHT, it’s all about “Who is the real Christian?” and I hate that game.


  15. Only time will tell, but it may turn out that by temporarily shedding the term, one will be forced to solidify in one’s mind, heart, and soul what it is they really believe. A hopeful outcome, which is what makes the experiment so interesting to this emerging/evangelical “Christian,” is that the word will come to hold a more powerful personal meaning as it is centered in the person of Jesus Christ, and not all the other things.

    This can be useful not just for the word Christian, but for any word in the Church’s form of buzzword bingo. You cited Calvinist. I was talking about this very topic and BHT exchange with friends yesterday, and one mentioned being at Moody not long ago, and for fun, shouting outside at the top of his lungs, “I am not a Calvinist!” Within a few seconds, 2-3 friends were whispering to him, “you need to be careful. You could get in trouble saying things like that.”

    I have an optimistic view of the experiment, and may do something similar myself. But, as you’ve said, if it doesn’t point to Christ, what’s the point. What I may do is go as long as possible in conversation without using the word, then after the discussion finally gets around to Christ and His gospel, I can say, “yes. I am Christian, and everything we’ve been talking about is what I mean by it.”

    In essence, let the definition front-load the conversation to minimize the negative images the term would otherwise conjure.


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