Is “Christian” A Tainted Brand?

From the start, “Christian” was hurled at those of The Way so as to degrade and humiliate them. It was not a compliment, not a name to proudly put on your resume. Things changed when the Roman emperor became a Christian and mandated that all his subjects follow suit.

I don’t doubt that he had good intentions, but telling people they have to believe in Jesus hardly means they actually do believe in Jesus. It was the same problem the (few) good kings in Judah experienced when they tore down idols to Baal and reinstated worship of Yahweh with appropriate sacrifices and observances of the Jewish Holy Days. No sooner had those kings passed on than the idols were back up and the worship instituted by the Mosaic Law in disrepute.

Still, the effect of the emperor’s decree was to elevate the standing of Christians. No one in the Western part of the world, under Rome’s influence, was any longer ashamed to bear the name Christian. In fact, it was expected.

Today Christian has again begun to take on a derogatory meaning in many circles, but I tend to believe that’s because few people–even some in the church, some who are fighting to “reclaim” Christianity–actually know what a Christian is.

First, what Christianity is NOT:

  • Christianity is not a default position that an American claims because he isn’t Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist.
  • Christianity is not the religion of the political right.
  • Christianity is not a religion requiring members to adhere to a particular set of rules to qualify.
  • Christianity is not exclusive.

Sadly, these are all things that some group of people believe to be true. Reality is quite different.

  • Christians are first and foremost sinners. If we did not recognize ourselves as sinners we could not become Christians.
  • Christians recognize we can never do enough to earn God’s favor. We must rely on His grace.
  • Christians accept God’s grace through faith.
  • Finally, Christians accept that God in His justice punished His Son so that in His mercy He could redeem us.

Becoming a Christian changes a person; a person doesn’t change in order to become a Christian. Hence, a drug addicted prodigal doesn’t have to clean up his act so he can become a Christian. Rather, he needs to become a Christian so he can, through Christ’s power, learn to clean up his act.

Living as a Christian is really the secret of Ephesians 4:

Therefore I [Paul], the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (vv. 1-3)

We are to walk in a manner worthy of the great sacrifice Christ made on our behalf, and that walk puts us in right relationship with other Christians, even those who are different from us. Paul said in Colossians 3:11b

there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

Unfortunately, not everyone who is a Christian acts like a Christian one hundred percent of the time. This is due in part to our immaturity. We are a work in progress, starting out as babes, newborns. We need to grow up in respect to salvation, Peter tells us.

It’s also true that Christians sin. We have a renewed nature, but we hearken back to our old way of thinking all too often. We enter into a battle within our own hearts, as Paul described in Romans 7, and too often we lose. We believe what God says, but it’s hard, so hard to actually live what we say we believe.

We believe in grace, but fall back on legalism; we believe in holiness, but fall back on sensual living; we believe in dependence on God, but fall back on self-effort. On and one it goes.

Anyone looking on can easily find something to criticize. Christians don’t get it right all the time. Even saying that, I’d like to justify myself and my brothers and sisters by saying, we get it right more often than not. But that’s a meaningless statement. We don’t live up to God’s holy standard. Ever. What separates us from anyone else are two things: we are forgiven and we are being renewed.

The forgiven part we celebrate. The renewal part is painful, embarrassing, slow, hard. We hold up Christ and say, I’m not fit to tie His sandals.

And sometimes, sometimes when we’re trying to figure out how to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, we fall and fail. In public. Where everyone–even other professing believers–can start hurling invectives at Christians.

So is the brand tainted? No, we are. If we adopt a new brand–born again, evangelical, Christ-follower–it will quickly suffer from the same problem: it’s attached to imperfect people who make no bones about following a perfect Master. If we’re compared to Him, we fall short.

People expect us to be perfect and rail at us when we aren’t, though they also accuse us of sanctimonious behavior when we come close or closer.

We won’t win, and we ought not try. Instead, we should gratefully accept the free gift God has given us, and go about living for Him, trusting that He will use us, imperfect as we are, as light in the dark world, as a beacon of love in a sea of hate.

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