Calling ourselves “Christians”

The reason people like me make distinctions about what it means to be “Christian” is because the term has been rendered meaningless by centuries of mind-numbing confusion, people behaving badly, and absolutely wrong ideas about it. And a lot of those wrong ideas have come from… Christians.

But this is also why I don’t let Christian despisers get away with the straw men they erect in order to dismiss our faith. As I like to quote G.K. Chesterton in this regard, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” 

Jesus Christ defines what it means to be “Christian.” And this is not some “no true Scotsman” fallacy like some scoffers ignorantly claim. We’re not making an appeal to the pure in order to make some ad hoc redefinition. This is how the Christian’s Bible defines it in the first place. Which means, none of us, no matter who we are, have the right to define it otherwise.

We don’t define anything fairly by pointing to the worst examples we can find. We define something by either its core principles or by its progenitor. And, in this case, Jesus Christ is the progenitor, and His life is the principle definition for being a Christian.

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal.2:20*)

3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Col.3:3*)

Passages like these pose another problem with understanding Christianity. You see, it’s not like becoming a teacher, or an artist, or plumber, or a Methodist…it’s about incarnating a Person who’s incarnating us.

It’s not about practicing certain religious rituals, it’s about “participating in the divine nature” (2 Pet.1:4); it’s about “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col.1:27). And while we confess this is a mystery we don’t fully understand, what we should understand is that Jesus Christ is the blueprint design for the true nature of God and our true nature in Him:

1:18 Until this moment God remained invisible to man; now the authentic begotten, the blueprint of man’s design who represents the innermost being of God, the son who is in the bosom of the father, brings him into full view! He is the official authority qualified to announce God! He is our guide who accurately declares and interprets the invisible God in us. (John 1:18 MIRROR *)

It is fair to criticize poor behavior by people who claim to be Christians, as Mahatma Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” But we should never confuse this with defining Christianity.

What we’ve witnessed is centuries of people calling themselves Christians because they go to church, or believe a creed, etc. But if they’re not being transformed into His image it doesn’t matter, none of these religious activities—good, bad, or ugly— define what it means to be “Christian.”

Of course, there’s also many examples, now and throughout the centuries, where people have admirably demonstrated Christ’s life working in them, which is why it’s a straw man to think we can simply dismiss Christianity by listing the worst examples of people behaving badly throughout history. No one with any common sense should accept this fallacious argument.

It’s also true that none of us are completely transformed into His image, none of us are good representatives by comparison to Jesus.  But as I said in my post, “God’s righteousness looks like Jesus,” it’s His righteousness, imparted to us by His indwelling Spirit, so it should look like something tangible for all to see. It should look like love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal.5:22-23),

And, if our lives aren’t progressively demonstrating more and more of these attributes, we’re not following Jesus, we’re following a religious façade.

Chesterton was right in his assessment. Christianity has not been found wanting, it hasn’t actually been tried, and that may even include people who call themselves “Christian.”

Why? Because it’s a whole lot easier to just say a prayer, sign a form, or put a fish decal on our car. Or, worse, blame something else for why we’re not a Christian anymore—the abusive priest or pastor, the greedy church, the doctrines that don’t make sense to us, the prayer that wasn’t answered, etc. All these reasons only expose what’s going on in us; they don’t change or even address what it actually means to be “Christian.”

Following Christ not only requires faith and trust in Christ, it requires a total re-calibration of our mindset and transformation of our character…it requires remaining in His love until we love people the same way God loves us (John 15:9-12). Sadly, too many self-identified Christians don’t even know how much God loves them. But, even with this experiential knowledge, it still requires us becoming other-centered and self-giving, which is the very last thing that’s in our nature to do.

You may argue with me on this, and that’s fine. But my experience has shown that while we say we already love this way, it often ends up looking like judging other people’s weaknesses based on our strengths. Our love eventually becomes conditional, because it’s very difficult to actually treat others the same way you would like to be treated (Matt.7:12). We eventually give up on that ideal at some point in the relationship. It inevitably ends up being about us.

This is why Christianity cannot primarily be about having our sins forgiven, because pardoned criminals will never become a new creation (2 Cor.5:17).

This is why I said that our faith is based on the miraculous; we’re not going to get there by natural means. It takes Christ’s resurrection life. And that’s the good news; Christ has already given us that life!

For since we are permanently grafted into him to experience a death like his, then we are permanently grafted into him to experience a resurrection like his and the new life that it imparts. (Rom.6:5 TPT*)

* New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted. All emphasis added.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 39 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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3 Responses to Calling ourselves “Christians”

  1. Well said, Mel. I never encountered a “bad Christian” in my entire life, until I decided to start talking to atheists. Guess where all the atheists are? All over that one hostile, angry, obnoxious, Christian who would drive anyone away from faith! It was a huge revelation to me. We kind of create our own realities to help justify our own worldviews. We need “bad Christians” around to validate and justify why we don’t ever want to be called a Christian our self. That’s kind of what helped to make Westboro church so popular, this tiny family cult of perverse theology shot to fame, went completely viral, simply because they help to feed the “bad Christian” stereotype. Conversely, not a lot of atheists are down at the park feeding the homeless with the Christians, while at the same time trying to lament the horrors of Christianity.

    I also like what you wrote about the golden rule, about how “it’s very difficult to actually treat others the same way you would like to be treated.” I really get that. We sometimes think we can just ditch Jesus and love people as we would want to be loved. Then we wind up like that husband who buys his wife a power drill for Christmas or that mom who keeps giving her addicted son money for drugs. We wind up loving people as we want to love them and not as they need to be loved. Sacrificial love can actually be really uncomfortable for us, not necessarily reflective of what “we want” at all.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “We kind of create our own realities to help justify our own worldviews.”

      That’s very true. We make emotional decisions because our heart has gone cold, angry, or indifferent, etc., then we look around to see how we can justify our decision. Any straw man will do!

      I don’t see a lot of scoffers helping destitute people like you said, and their willful ignorance of all the millions of people around the world who are being fed, rescued, freed from sex trafficking, addictions, slavery, educated, given homes, trained in job skills around the world by Christians is a bit annoying. But, again, whatever makes you feel better! 🙂

  2. Citizen Tom says:

    Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:
    When we judge Christianity, where should we start? If we are considering becoming a Christian, how should we determine if it is worth the trouble? How should we assess how much effort it is going to take to be a Christian? Here is an excellent blog post that explains how we should approach these problems.

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