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du Garbandier

"Christ-follower" > "Christian"?

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[Tonight I watched Heartbeat Detector, which offers a powerful reminder on the connection between language and ethics, and so I have had language on my mind.]

I have noticed the term "Christ-follower" used more and more frequently in recent years as a sort of preferred alternative to the term "Christian." Mostly the new term seems to be used by younger Christians applying it to themselves in a fairly deliberate way. Of course, there are also estimable philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff using the term--but he does not appear to use it as a substitute for "Christian." Some time ago Newsweek picked up on the whole trend as well:

"Follower of Jesus" has at least two advantages over "Christian" or "evangelical," its boosters say. First, it doesn't carry baggage. You can wear it abroad, in Islamic countries, or at home with your Jewish or Buddhist friends, without causing offense. Second, it distances the bearer from the culture wars that have made American politics so divisive. David Durenberger, the former Republican senator from Minnesota, puts it this way. "As my party in particular has begun to characterize its base as 'Christian' and to express its values as 'Christian' values … it has been really important to identify myself as a follower of Jesus." The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas adds that "follower of Jesus" has the virtue of reflecting biblical truth: the earliest Christians called themselves "followers of the Way."

I am not sure quite what to think of this phenomenon. On one hand, it is certainly true that Christ calls us to follow Him, and that wanting to do so is surely bound up in a Christian's core commitment.

But isn't there also value in the term "Christian"? Doesn't the Latin suffix form serve as a reminder that the "Christian" "belongs to," is "of" Christ? Isn't the etymological trace of "belonging to" just as deep and authentic a marker of identity as "follower"? Thus, isn't "Christian" a markedly Christocentric term, in which Christ is the root of the noun and the believer is the appended suffix, the proverbial branch grafted onto the life-giving vine, if you will? Whereas a "Christ-follower" is a more of a hyphenated entity, yoked slightly more tenuously, the "follower" and the "Christ" having a compound, coequal relationship, like two potted plants that happen to share the same windowsill.

And what of this apparent desire to separate oneself from those who may have hijacked or abused the name Christian? Just how much energy should we devote to divesting the Body of "baggage"?

Perhaps I am simply making too much of this. Should we even care much at all about what we call ourselves and instead focus on living as Christ-followers? And I cannot help but be reminded of this.:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ."

I wonder if anyone here who might use this or similar kinds of self-designation would shed some light on this subject, and perhaps correct me if I have committed some wrong or uncharitable inferences and speculations.

Edited by thwackum

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I first encountered this sort of thing in Charlie Peacock's A New Way to Be Human, which is a yawn-inducing, poorly written book that constantly repeats the phrase "student-follower of Jesus" until you want to throw it across the room.

I agree that there are plenty of people doing a yeoman's share of work at lousing up the term "Christian" and the institutions associated with it -- but is etymological abandonment the proper response? What about trying to redeem the old term from its various misuses/corruptions? The various "follower" terms all have more of an individualness to them than "Christian" does, and I wonder if that doesn't indicate some desire by users of those terms to divest themselves of ecclesial ties. Which sounds like a bad idea.

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[Tonight I watched Heartbeat Detector, which offers a powerful reminder on the connection between language and ethics, and so I have had language on my mind.]

I have noticed the term "Christ-follower" used more and more frequently in recent years as a sort of preferred alternative to the term "Christian." Mostly the new term seems to be used by younger Christians applying it to themselves in a fairly deliberate way. Of course, there are also estimable philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff using the term--but he does not appear to use it as a substitute for "Christian." Some time ago Newsweek picked up on the whole trend as well:

"Follower of Jesus" has at least two advantages over "Christian" or "evangelical," its boosters say. First, it doesn't carry baggage. You can wear it abroad, in Islamic countries, or at home with your Jewish or Buddhist friends, without causing offense. Second, it distances the bearer from the culture wars that have made American politics so divisive. David Durenberger, the former Republican senator from Minnesota, puts it this way. "As my party in particular has begun to characterize its base as 'Christian' and to express its values as 'Christian' values
Edited by Andy Whitman

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As one of the "warmongers" Andy refers to, I have used the term quite a bit myself. When I became an adult, I may have been shedding some of my fundie and narrowly pietistic upbringing, but I was becoming more aware of the wider world outside the hothouse I had been in. "The Christian Thing To Do" was a catchphrase I had stumbled on rather early. My experience was showing me that the word christian was becoming just another word for good, "what is right behavior as opposed to what some had fallen into", and worse, the noble gesture. Christ was an afterthought to many I encountered that used the term. Furthermore, it fostered the view that everyone was a christian, if not self-identifying as something else. Or worse, Moslems and Jews and agnostics were christian because they did stuff folks admired or lived a good life.

Andy and I are pretty close in age. Around the same time, I became attracted to The Jesus Movement(TJM). I happened to see similar neuroses and pathologies in those groups to other churches, but I adopted the label because TJM's and my reasons dovetailed. I'd say though, that what prompted me to use the term is VERY politically incorrect and most don't twist the term in the way that disgusted me at the time. If anything, as Andy has shown, christian is an unpopular badge, or worse, a pejorative label. I don't always use follower of Jesus or Christ anymore. I don't want to be confused with Jesus Only beliefs. I don't want to encourage the old "Jesus was a good teacher" crap. And I want to reclaim a perfectly good term and badge of honor from the strawman charicatures of those who would despise anyone from the right, political or theological. Besides, most of the folks with whom I worship would be clueless as to why I would do an either or on christian v follower. They apparantly naively see them as the same.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

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My own denomination has the unwieldy name The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because some of our 19th century lights thought we should only be known as "Christians", but one (and the most prominent) of our leaders at the time thought to claim to be Christian was a bit presumptuous as if we'd already achieved our goal. He preferred "Disciples of Christ" - since we could never really settle the question, we just use them both.

What seems different in the current question is that the rejection or avoidance of "Christian" seems to be about not identifying with the many who claim that name because of the baggage it carries as opposed to DOC history of wanting to claim nothing more than being Christian because it was baggageless.

Edited by Darrel Manson

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thwackum, that's a fascinating application of the I Corinthians passage.

I tend to resist terms like "Christ-followers" because the obvious implication seems to be "and I ain't following anybody else", as though each of us could somehow have a direct line to God and not rely upon the help and experience of others. The very fact that we have a New Testament containing 27 different texts, NONE of which were written by Jesus, puts the lie to that idea pretty quick ... but I suppose there are some "Christ-followers" who might not make much use of the New Testament either, I dunno.

I also think the term reflects the sense among some evangelicals (and whoever else uses the term "Christ-followers") that only people can be "Christian", that you cannot have buildings or customs or works of art, etc., that are "Christian", too. This, for what it's worth, is a sense that I do not share,

And I wonder if anybody debates the term "Christ-followers" outside the United States, and if so, on what basis. Saying "The word 'Christian' has come to be synonymous with 'Republican'" obviously makes no sense in territories that don't have Republicans.

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And I wonder if anybody debates the term "Christ-followers" outside the United States, and if so, on what basis. Saying "The word 'Christian' has come to be synonymous with 'Republican'" obviously makes no sense in territories that don't have Republicans.

Unless they also don't have Christians.

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thwackum, that's a fascinating application of the I Corinthians passage.

I tend to resist terms like "Christ-followers" because the obvious implication seems to be "and I ain't following anybody else", as though each of us could somehow have a direct line to God and not rely upon the help and experience of others. The very fact that we have a New Testament containing 27 different texts, NONE of which were written by Jesus, puts the lie to that idea pretty quick ... but I suppose there are some "Christ-followers" who might not make much use of the New Testament either, I dunno.

I also think the term reflects the sense among some evangelicals (and whoever else uses the term "Christ-followers") that only people can be "Christian", that you cannot have buildings or customs or works of art, etc., that are "Christian", too. This, for what it's worth, is a sense that I do not share,

And I wonder if anybody debates the term "Christ-followers" outside the United States, and if so, on what basis. Saying "The word 'Christian' has come to be synonymous with 'Republican'" obviously makes no sense in territories that don't have Republicans.

I don't think the intention is to deny the help and experience of others. It's a simple acknowledgment that labels can be hijacked from their original meanings. Incidentally, the Orthodox Church has its own version of this phenomenon -- The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), formed when the "official" Russian Orthodox Church was deemed to be too corrupted by and implicit in Bolshevik politics. And while I think there are surely differences of degree here, I think we're talking about similar issues that have resulted in people labeling themselves "Christ followers."

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I would say the circumstances that led to the formation of ROCOR were a difference in kind more than degree. I would also note that ROCOR has a reputation for being more ardent and fundamentalist (like the ROCOR priest who, in an online discussion of the St. George legend, responded to my questions with "How do you knew there WEREN'T any dragons back then?") than the more "liberal" Christians who prefer to be known as "Christ-followers" because "Christian" sounds too "Republican" etc.

But even if we set all that aside, the fact remains that ROCOR, in naming itself, identified itself explicitly with the church that it was distancing itself from. There is a history of sorts embedded in their very name. "Christ-follower" has the opposite effect, of skipping over everyone and everything that has come between Christ and ourselves, both chronologically and hierarchically. It's like what you said about all those communities that proclaimed themselves "the New Testament Church" in the 1970s. Some evangelicals even go so far as to say that, if they perceive a disagreement between Christ and Paul, they're following Christ. That's a problem, obviously, because it is only THROUGH all these intermediaries -- including, yes, the ones who wrote the scriptures -- that we even know (or think we know) who Christ is in the first place.

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Some evangelicals even go so far as to say that, if they perceive a disagreement between Christ and Paul, they're following Christ. That's a problem, obviously, because it is only THROUGH all these intermediaries -- including, yes, the ones who wrote the scriptures -- that we even know (or think we know) who Christ is in the first place.

My first inclination in response to this would be to point out that your description is an innovation within evangelicalism. It would seem to me that most evangelicals and fundies of the post war era seemed to have a de facto preference for Paul, at least insofar as one could quote and live by those quotes. I do not declarew that anyone of whom I have been aware would say that St. Paul could save us from sin, or even absolve us, except in Jesus' name.

Darrell makes an interesting point about baggage. There really is no escaping baggage. The Church Universal is very baggage laden and a real, final reckoning of its inventory will have to wait for Judgement in the future. But even the UCC(DoC) is ironic. What was once denuded of baggage might now be fraught with baggage with the passage of time and the evolution of the dff's of words. Better to plunge ahead with the bretheren as constituted, rather than distinguish pesky secondary and tertiary differences to death.

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Darrell makes an interesting point about baggage. There really is no escaping baggage.

Precisely. There is real spiritual peril in trying to cleanly separate "baggage" from the "body," especially by means of rebranding.

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Yup. But sometimes rebranding is inevitable. So, I suppose that it should be done carefully. Possibly in the affirmative, as opposed to reacting to what one wants to avoid, escape from, or abhor.

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