To me, part of the dilemma of modern day Christianity is trying to see what it actually is as opposed to what it isn’t. It actually comes from how we use the word ‘Christian.’
First, the word ‘Christian’ has come to be defined as many things most of which it is not. A Christianity, plainly, is one who professes faith in Jesus Christ. It’s actually quite simple.
It is important to note that the word Christian is a noun. It has become an adjective. We now have Christian books, Christian music, Christian colleges, Christian camps, Christian clothing, Christian diets, Christian breath mints, etc. Maybe it is tolerable to refer to a specific kind of Worship as Christian, or a specific type of religious institution (like a church) Christian, straining it as an adjective.
There are books about Jesus and about Christianity. There is music praising Jesus and God. There are colleges founded by churches that follow basic tenets of Christianity. These places are not Christians. They might all be great and good and accomplishing much good. They are not Christian, per say. They are written by Christians often for Christians or potential Christians, but to use Christian as an adjective seems, to me, to diminish the word. Jesus died for people and the people who follow Jesus are Christians. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for books, colleges, music, or breath mints. He died for people.
Christian is also a foundational belief that is beyond the realm of theological opinion. Quite often the word ‘Christian’ is used to define a series of set beliefs and set behaviors by some group within Christianity. I was raised Roman Catholic in New Jersey. When I was growing up, we were taught that we were the ‘one true church.’ A good friend and colleague of mine was raised Southern Baptist in Texas where he was taught that he was a member of the ‘one true church.’ We were both taught that we were part of the ‘one true church’ in different churches and vastly different traditions. It was based on an idea that the set beliefs of our groups made us the only real ‘Christians.’ That’s putting theology ahead of faith. (Side note: My friend and I might not be very bright as we both left the one true church and are now United Church of Christ clergy...)
My point on this is actually quite simple. The word ‘Christian’ isn’t about a theology and it isn’t about one group stating who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ It is a great deal wider and more pervasive than we often like to admit.
Lastly, the word ‘Christian’ is often defined by one very specific behavior. Very often people refer to things as ‘Christian’ or un-Christian based on one very simple little thing. Being ‘Christian’ is seen as being nice. Not being nice is often seen as being un-Christian.
Over the years at wedding receptions I have had the opportunity to sit at tables with someone’s great-uncle Waldo from Nebraska who has enjoyed the benefits of the free alcohol at the reception. More often than I’d like to admit, great-uncle Waldo finally gets up the nerve to come over to me, put his arm around me, look me in the eyes and say, “You know, I’ve never been a churchgoer but I do know what it’s all about. God wants us to be nice to each other.”
One of these days I’m going to leap to my feet and thank him for this great insight that reading the Bible, numerous theology books, and going to the seminary for a lot of years never gave me. No one ever told me that it’s all about being ‘nice’ and that the word ‘Christian’ is a euphemism for the word ‘nice.’ That is usually the time when I determine it is time to leave before I have a violent impulse toward Great Uncle Waldo.
Honestly, the word ‘nice’ is not in the Bible. Being ‘nice’ is not a Biblical concept and not a particular element of Christianity. Truthfully, Jesus was incredibly loving and incredibly honest (maybe too honest) and honesty and niceness don’t always walk hand in hand. Jesus wasn’t always very nice. He wasn’t always particularly pleasant to be around. If people actually read the entire Gospel accounts, they’d discover that Jesus was often incredibly difficult. To use the word ‘Christian’ to mean ‘nice’ doesn’t even come close.
Being a Christian means something. It is one who follows Jesus Christ, nothing more and nothing less. Part of our modern day dilemma is that we use a very foundational word and label to mean things far differently from what it actually is.