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Saturday, July 16, 2016

I Need a New Word

I've been in the Christian world for most of my life. Born into a Christian home, we attended church "whenever the doors were open." (That's in quotes because it's an old saying and because it is hyperbole.) I went to Christian school from kindergarten through 8th grade, hung out with Christians in high school, and so on. As long as I've been alive, it seems like we've kept changing terms.

At first, the question was, "Are you a Christian?" You know, the opener to determine if we need to share the gospel or enjoy the fellowship. It wasn't too long before we realized that "Christian" was too generic. Instead of the connotation of "follower of Christ", it was more along the lines of "go to church", "mostly moral", and even "not entirely opposed to your beliefs." I remember a friend of mine speaking to a woman. He told her in the conversation, "I am a Christian, you know." She blinked a couple times and said, "Well, aren't we all?" No, we wanted to be more specific. So we started asking, "Are you saved?" Ah, now, see? That's a cryptic word, a "secret handshake". "Saved." Not just connected by birth or nationality with "Christian". And that worked fine for a short while until people figured out that "saved" was simply a term for "Christian" and answered appropriately. So we moved again. "Are you born again?" You see, that was Jesus's term to Nicodemus. That was specific. That was different. That was clear. In fact, it was a good question because if they didn't know what it meant, they might ask you and that would lead into the gospel. Good stuff. Eventually "born again" went the way of "Christian" and "saved". We need a new word, some way to identify ourselves as distinct from all the other clutter, from all the non-Christian Christians.

Christendom -- that historical body of people and beliefs connected with Christianity -- has long had various branches. There was the catholic church which shifted to the Roman Catholic Church and split into the Orthodox Church. There were Anabaptists and Reformed and Baptists and on and on -- someone said there are now more than 40,000 of them. All of them are listed as "Christian". Not all of them are. On the other hand, many of them that are actually Christian have differences with many others that are actually Christian. Genuine Christianity shifts about a bit in its application. At one point the effects of the Enlightenment threatened to wash out Christianity entirely. "Biblical scholars" were explaining away the miracles and the words of Christ. It was becoming watered down and meaningless. Still is today in many of those denominations that are labeled "Christian" without actually being Christian. At some point it got to be too much. During the Great Awakenings in the UK and North America voices began to be heard calling for a return to the gospel, to the key doctrines of "saved by grace through faith in Christ" and the authority of the Bible and certainly the necessity to spread the gospel. They were called "Evangelicals" and they were a split from liberal Christianity back into biblical Christianity. For more than a century "Evangelical" has been a term that meant something. Oh, it has shifted, to be sure, but only slightly. It was premised on that original concept -- the basics. Like the terms I referenced before, this one was useful in determining the actual beliefs of the self-identified Christian. "I'm a Catholic" had its meaning and "I'm a Baptist" had its meaning and "I'm an Evangelical" had its meaning. (Note: Generally "I'm a Baptist" overlapped with "Evangelical". I wasn't suggesting otherwise.)

Well, no longer. Like all those terms -- "Christian" and "saved" and "born again" -- "Evangelical" has finally gone the way of dilution. It once meant a call for conversion, for (I like this term) crucicentrism -- the centrality of the cross -- for biblical faithfulness, and for sharing the gospel with the world. No longer. First, it became linked to "angry right-wing zealots" who hate ... and that's about it. Fortunately (tongue in cheek), others rescued it. Now, so-called Evangelicals are embracing homosexual behavior as good. "Evangelical" is more about social justice than the cross or the truth of Scripture. Today's Evangelicals hardly know their Bibles at all. Earlier Evangelicalism understood the call to "come out from among them and be separate", but today's version tends more toward "be just like them." Formerly Evangelicals were concerned about the gospel. Now they're concerned about politics. And they can, because in earlier times Evangelicals, by standing on basics and on the Word and on Christ alone, made themselves marginalized (as they should be), but today's Evangelicals have power (as demonstrated by Trump's felt need to meet with them). Earlier Evangelicals put their trust in Christ and the power of God; today's have their own source of power in the form of public opinion, votes, and voice.

There are lots of theories about why this change came about. Some suggest it's actually because of the success they enjoyed, like when Newsweek magazine named 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical" and when they formed their own National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Others trace it to the watering down of the Emergent movement that managed to water down much of the church. has an article that offers multiple reasons for the changes and suggests it needs to change again ... by returning to its roots. As for me, I'm no longer comfortable with the term "Evangelical" as a reference to those most closely tied to a biblical worldview (2 Tim 3:16-17), a focus on the cross (1 Cor 2:2) and the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-8) -- defined in views and lifestyle as followers of Christ.

So, I need a new word. "Christian" is so worn that it is entirely possible for someone to call himself a "gay Christian", even an "atheist Christian". A genuine connection with "Christ" is no longer expected with the term "Christian". "Fundamentalism" meaning "a belief in the fundamentals" has been taken, dragged through the mud, and rendered worse than useless. Use that word and you'll be vilified as an evil person ... right next to the fundamentalist, bomb-vest-wearing Muslim. "Bible-believing Christian" might be helpful except that "Bible" has become more of what you want it to say rather than what it actually says and "believing" is too generic -- you can "believe" it without actually acting on it -- and "Christian" ... well, I covered that. I need a new word. Something that would express what all of these once did. Without this new word -- required because of theft, not merely slippage -- I don't think I can be classified by any of the existing terms. That would be theological "taxation without representation", so to speak.

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