Recently, I asked some other writers whether they felt (as I do) that at this political time, we need a word to replace ‘Christians’.
The name has a long history. It first appeared in the first century in Syria: ‘…it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians’ . This was a minor event, the naming of a group that broke away from Judaism under the Roman empire. At that time the growing group of ‘Christians’ seemed, to the ruling authorities, potential rebels against the Empire: ‘they were first called Christians’ suggests disapprobation and suspicion; think ‘..in late 19th century France, they were first called Marxists.’A couple of centuries later, in 312, the Emperor Constantine, as a good political move, declares that the Roman Empire must convert to Christianity, abandoning compulsory Emperor worship and the cults of local gods. All shrines become churches, official persecution of Christians ends, baptising all infants and teaching the basic tenets of the faith becomes the new normal. Christianity is the culture, the Empire ‘Christian’. A united Church is headed up (from Rome) by the Popes. Even after the Empire crumbles, though Western Europe is a collection of states ruled by their own leaders, it remains, as regards faith, a single cultural entity under the Pope. (And though the Eastern Orthodox break away, theirs is a Christian monoculture too.)
Throughout the period of the Crusades and the Reformation, Christianity was the European cultural norm. The label ‘Christian’ was taken for granted; it was only ever needed to separate off people outside Christendom with other religions, of which there were mainly three sorts, all ‘erroneous’: Judaism, Islam, and heathenism. The Crusades appear to us un-Christian, but those who went to fight claimed they were ‘taking back the Holy Land for Christ’. I don’t think it was at all what Christ wanted, but he wasn’t there to ask.
‘Christian’ also in England became a personal name. You can find it in the Census (from 1841 onwards) or earlier in church records of birth, marriage and death, you can find it on headstones. These all show it as a woman’s name. (Now, it’s popular as a name for men: I wondered when 50 Shades of Grey was in the news whether, ironically, that writer decided this deliberately.)
Maybe even up to and including the Second World War, almost everyone in Britain self-identified as ‘Christians’, or at least regarded Britain as ‘a Christian country’, whether they believed, attended church, or not. It was the norm. You were born one. People who didn’t conform to a ‘Christian’ lifestyle were ‘bad Christians’, not ‘non-Christians’. You could be converted to a different denomination, but all were different flavours of ‘Christian’.
It was only with the rise of evangelicalism, Protestant missions, and revivals, that this began to change. People who had ‘gone forward’ or otherwise ‘committed their life to Christ’ were, and could claim they had ‘become a Christian’ on that date, through ‘being saved’, rather than through baptism as an infant. To a Catholic or High Church Anglican, this made no sense, but to the early Methodists, to Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, or Pentecostals, conversion is vital, and only after that can one be rightly called a Christian. Hence ‘Christian’ became the distinguishing label of a certain type of highly assertive believer, in contrast to culturally defined Christians who, in their view, were not Christians at all.
Today, that label has been re-shaped again. The label ‘Christian’ has effectively been hijacked by a particular Protestant fanaticism. A set of people whose knowledge (let alone practice) of essential Christian beliefs appears scant. With their adoption of the extreme Right-wing politics and support for Trump, and with opposition to abortion for any reason set to become firmly established in the USA through their advocacy, what does the label ‘Christians’ mean to the average ordinary, non-believing person? A hectoring crowd of white extremists, determined to turn the clock back!
Believers in the actual teaching of Christ (justice, mercy, compassion, love of neighbour, repentance, forgiveness, etc., the list is long) ought to be able to convince the mind of the public or their neighbours that they are not part of this movement — a movement whose whole strategy is based on division, whose beliefs incorporate conspiracy theories, who are deliberately tearing the churches of their country apart — oughtn’t they?
So I asked one of these writers (those I mentioned above) how she felt about sharing this label with people like them. Sadly, she responded: Yes, she was still proud of the label ‘Christian’, since it had survived the Crusades… But has it? Haven’t wars continued to be fought to keep a nominally ‘Christian’ political culture alive? How many actually think about its true origins? How many white westerners realize that they profess a religion with deep Middle Eastern roots, whose early followers spoke Greek, or Aramaic, or even Syriac? And whose founder chose to die by crucifixion, forgiving those who had totally misunderstood his purposes, rather than to lead an army into battle and become king?
Have you read my books? Why not take a look, over on the ‘books’ page of the Mari Howard Author & Publisher blog… https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/books/
I tend to refer to myself as a Jesus follower these days. I was raised evangelical, but I certainly don’t want to be associated with what passes for evangelicalism in America these days, nor do I any longer accept the narrow limits of who is “in” while everyone else is “out” that evangelicalism presents. The hymn my daughter chose for my late husband’s funeral, by William Faber, includes these lines:
But we make God’s love too narrow
by false limits of our own,
and we magnify His strictness
with a zeal He will not own.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind,
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
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Lovely hymn and have sung that! Thanks for your response…
I’m not sure the answer is to jettison the word but rather to reclaim its true meaning. ‘Christian’ means ‘Christ-follower’. Calling yourself a ‘Christ-follower’ will always attract mockery from some, no matter what.
I’m certainly dismayed at the weaponisation of evangelical Christianity that is taking place in the US, but a) it’s not only the Right that weaponises and b) I think we need to be aware of ‘othering’ those we disagree with. Using a phrase like ‘people like them’ comes very close to that. Eg Hillary Clinton’s famous ‘deplorables’ remark only hardened the attitudes of many who voted for Trump. I think we Christians should try to avoid this kind of ‘othering’, especially in a world that seems to be getting ever more polarised. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. (I’m not against actively fighting against evil regimes like the Nazis.)
You talk about the rise of evangelicalism as if it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. But it goes back at least 200 years in England, in fact even further back to the Wesleys, and before them to the radical Protestant groups that arose in the chaos of the English Civil War – in fact all the way back to the more radical fringes of the Reformation. The history of Dissenting churches in Britain is a rich and complex one.
Thank you for your thoughts. I wrote this piece for a secular audience, who often have poor picture of what ’Christian’ means – the public mind particularly today has little teaching/knowledge of the Scriptures, and can take away some strange ideas from present media representations on the News/social media, which are then thought to apply/applied to all of us. (Examples are many – opinions of the LGBT+ community, abortion, our likely way to vote, and other hot topics) This makes it harder to relate trustfully on both sides.
The main point of the article was consequently to show the most basic popular use of the label as understood by the ordinary person, over time, but it in no way involves ‘othering’ any group.
I’m sorry if you felt Evangelicals as a whole were being targeted or criticised. It was, rather, to point out that it is Evangelicals who have been ‘hijacked’ by some particular extremists, which of course is why the label ‘Christian’ has been made (more) problematic at the present time. This is something bothering pastors and ministers in the USA at present, since the beliefs tend to place centrally some ‘conspiracy theories’ etc. and has put churches in turmoil.
I hope this in some way explains my somewhat objective sociological approach, and not going into some details. My intro to the post on the Facebook group website hopefully explained more, including references to the ‘fruits of the spirit’ (I Cor. 13)
Thought provoking post, Mari.
What name would you suggest or be happy to wear? I sometimes refer to myself rather as a follower of Jesus. The first apostles were sometimes known also as ‘followers of the way’, I’m told. Whatever we are called, we are all fallen, broken sinners in need of, and in relation with, a God who loves us and who sent Jesus to enable us to come close to Him and receive that love. I think it’s good news.
Should we be followers? Gospel bringers? Compassionate-Ones? Justice Seekers? I guess folk will call us what they think best describes how we behave?
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Thanks for your response & interest. On what we can be called, I think it’s a real puzzle: as above (Ros, comment 1) we could use ‘followers of Jesus’ or (as you) ‘Jesus followers’ or ‘followers of the Way’. I’ll admit I was after giving people cause to think & consider, & have no idea! Maybe ‘Christ followers/followers of Christ’, which connects with the person ‘Christ’ who we (all!) celebrate at Christmas (& many then forget about…)?
I remember once hearing someone say ‘Christian? I’ve heard of Christ, but who is Ian?’ 😀