Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
-Acts 11:25-26 (NIV)
A couple of weeks ago, someone called my attention to a tweet by a man named Erick Erickson, the editor of a publication called redstate.com. In the tweet, Erickson questions President Obama’s faith. “I don’t think Barack Obama is a Christian,” he tweets. “He certainly is not one in any meaningful way.”
I don’t know President Obama, of course. (He doesn’t return my calls.) I know he claims to be a believer in Jesus, and I know that Ericsson’s statement was likely more politically motivated than theologically. I think it must be difficult for a Christian President to always do what many would term the “Christian” thing when, say, negotiating with foreign nations or dealing with powerful special-interest groups at home who may not wear the “Christian” label. I also know that former Presidents who Erickson would likely embrace as brothers in Christ didn’t show half the interest in the poor, or in immigrants, or in those without adequate health care as President Obama has, and I suppose that should enter the picture as well.
In short, I don’t think I have enough insight into who he really is to judge whether or not he’s a Christian in a “meaningful” way. It might also be argued that Erick Erickson doesn’t either. I think that’s OK, though, because it really isn’t my call — or Erick’s — is it?
But since I saw the tweet, I’ve been thinking about that idea of being a Christian in a “meaningful” way.
Mark Love points out that we often use that word “Christian” in a sense almost exactly opposite from the way the New Testament uses it. As the church spread into the Gentile world, someone applied that term for the first time to the believers. The disciples crossed that cultural barrier, and suddenly a word was needed to describe them (because “Jews” wouldn’t cover it anymore). It was used to widen the circle, to encompass people who the old words weren’t able to include.
Now, we use the word “Christian” to draw boundaries, to exclude. “Christian” becomes code for “people like me.” There is Christian music, Christian publishing, Christian schools — all to include folks like us and tell others, “This isn’t really for you.”
And then you bump up against someone who doesn’t fit your categories, even though they wear the name of Jesus too, and suddenly you have to qualify the term: “Christian in a meaningful way.”
The Bible doesn’t really speak like that, does it? Paul doesn’t ever crank out a bullet-point list titled “Ten Ways to Know You’re a Christian in a Meaningful Way.” I mean, most of the New Testament writers include somewhere in their documents lists of characteristics that the new life we live in Jesus should be creating in our lives. Most of them list some things that shouldn’t be a part of those new lives. But the fact that they include those lists — in documents intended to be heard by people who were Christians — suggests that some degree of self-evaluation was needed, and that some of those original hearers were still doing things they shouldn’t have been, and not doing things they should have been.
So, were they Christians in a meaningful way?
More to the point, when I make a mistake, or choose to do the wrong thing, does that mean I’m no longer a Christian in a meaningful way? Do I lurch from Christian to non-Christian, or at least probationary Christian, depending on how I’m doing controlling my temper or watching my language or interpreting the Bible in the right way?
Surely that way madness lies.
Ask 100 Christians, “How can you tell that someone is a Christian in a meaningful way?” and I’m guessing you’d get about 100 different answers. That ought to be enough, right there, to suggest that we should leave that question alone. No one asks it of someone they care about, someone they love, someone they want to include. We only ask it of those who we already consider not one of us.
You might be surprised to learn that, outside of that use of “Christian” in Acts 11, the word is only used two other times in the Bible. The second time is in Acts 26:28, where Paul is trying to persuade King Agrippa to become a Christian. Again, he’s trying to widen the circle. Not narrow it.
The only other time is 1 Peter 4:16, where Peter tells Christians suffering persecution to “praise God that they bear that name.” And maybe that’s the most interesting usage, for our purposes. Peter doesn’t congratulate those believers for passing some sort of persecution test. He doesn’t give them credit for knowing their Bibles, or checking all the right morality boxes, or having perfect attendance in Sunday School. He tells them to praise God that they bear the name of Jesus, and to not be surprised that the same things Jesus suffered at the hands of the world were now coming to them as well.
So maybe we find out if our Christianity is meaningful or not in the way our faith holds up under persecution and suffering. And maybe, if our Christianity does turn out to be meaningful, it’s not something we get the credit for. It’s because of God’s grace and the suffering of Jesus that any of us can call ourselves “Christian.” It’s not because we live up to anyone else’s definition, or fit anyone else’s categories. I can and should learn and grow from those who follow Jesus before me and with me. But, in the end, they don’t determine whether or not my Christianity is “meaningful.” That judgment is God’s, and he has already, in Christ, offered me grace.
To be very clear: I am a Christian because I have put my faith in Jesus. My life in Christ may not look much like yours. You may raise your eyebrows at me, and I at you. You may shake your head and tsk and doubt my sincerity and worry about my theology. You may not even want me in your church. But my Christianity does not require your stamp of approval. Nor does yours require mine. We wear the name of Jesus because he has placed that name on us. We wear it because he gave it to us in his death and resurrection.
Am I a good enough Christian? Some days I think maybe I am. Some days not. But part of being a Christian is believing that salvation is ultimately Christ’s work, not mine. And that he will not lose those who are his.
That, I think, is meaningful enough.