December 23, 2006

Christian–The Noun

Posted in I wonder, spirituality at 2:41 pm by jimazing

The word, “Christian” is a noun. You remember nouns from high school English class, right? A person, place or thing. The proper use of the word is something like, “I am a Christian.” The problem is that we have created an adjective from it. Rob Bell points out in his book, Velvet Elvis, that when we use Christian to describe, books and music, at best we blur the meaning and at worst, we say things that are untrue.
For example, what is “Christian” music? Is it music that is performed by Christians? Is it music with words about God from a Christian world view? (Whoops, I’m already in trouble. What is a Christian world view?) I am a Christian and I am a musician. When I play music, is it Christian music? What if it has words that don’t talk about God? What if it has no words at all? Is it still Christian music?

Is Christian music, music with a Christian theme? Is it worship music? Is Christian music the same thing as gospel music? What if it is performed by musicians who do not consider themselves to be Christians? I once knew a guitar player who was not a follower of Jesus and yet he loved to listen to (and perform) country-gospel music. Was it Christian music when he played it?

Do you see how quickly things get ugly when Christian is used as an adjective? Many of us Christians like to join together to find a consensus towards a goal or against something or someone else. For instance, the religious right want to make a Christian world view equivalent to republican world view. I think we do that sort of thing because it feels good to have our beliefs validated by others who believe the same thing we do. While validation and consensus sounds like a great thing, it is counterproductive to our becoming more like Jesus. “Christian” does not work as an adjective.
According to the Bible, God has given each of us unique spiritual gifts. I like to think of these gifts as talents and strengths given to us by God and blessed by Him to help us be the Body of Christ. Just like a body with many members, we all have unique functions. (Functions is not really the right word. It implies something I don’t mean. I am talking about “being” the Body, not “doing something”). I am at my best in the Body of Christ when I am being who I am in a Godly way. When I begin to change because I am concerned with what someone will think, I am moving the body towards conformity and away from being Christlike. A body was never intended to be an eye or a hand or a toe or a spleen or a liver. We need all the parts functioning the way they were created to function.
The best thing we can do as Christians is agree on the basics that make us Christians. After that, we should be able to hold our different beliefs and views. We should discuss them, learn from one another and most of all respect one another when we disagree. Agreeing to disagree is not a bad thing, but we cannot truly agree to disagree until we know that we disagree. We can only know that we disagree by listening to one another. Can we listen without agreeing? Of course we can.

By retaining our own views, beliefs, talents and strengths, the body becomes much more healthy. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki says that groups are smarter when the individuals can think and act independently of one another. I believe that the Body of Christ is smarter and more effective when everyone is able to bring their own perspective to the table… not to convince everyone that they are right and the others are wrong… but to share their perspective.

If everyone has a different perspective, how can there be a single “Christian” world view? There cannot be. “Christian” does not work as an adjective.
When we discuss a particular topic in my small group and we start moving towards a consensus, I frequently find myself asking if our consensus view is true of the universal Church. If it is not, I push back. The reason is that when we reach consensus in our little community, we shut off our brains and our hearts. That is counterproductive to our being the Body of Christ. Consensus implies that we are all the same. It feels good, but in my experience it is usually unhealthy. It feels good in the same way that having an advantage over my opponent feels good. This is not a game that we win or lose. The Body of Christ is not about being against non-Christians, it is about being Christ to them.
Being a Christian is about following Jesus. There’s so much more to following Jesus than having a cute Christian bumper sticker or Christian key chain fob.

I suggest that we stop using Christian as an adjective. It is too confusing and when it is not confusing, it is comforting for all the wrong reasons. Will you join me in reinstating “Christian” the noun?


  1. Paul said,

    I don’t think “Christian” is completely useless as an adjective. It may be abiguous at times, but it is still helpful. For example:
    “Christian missions”
    “Christian theology”
    “Christian men”

    “Christian” is not highly specific, however, it does distinguish what it describes from other religions and from atheism/agnosticism. “Evangelical” is more specific, and may be distinguished from “Roman Catholic”, but they are both Christian.

    It seems contradictory to say that we ought not use general terms like “Christian” because there is diversity within the category and at the same time to affirm that we should embrace diversity and learn to “agree to disagree”.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that much of American Christian culture has more to do with “Christian” branding than with Christ and his Church. All things “Christian” tend to be accepted unthinkingly while the “non-Christian” may be rejected out of hand. Then there are those that try to be “discerning”, but it mostly ends up sounding like criticism of anything that does not line up with their point of view.

    “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” Phil. 2:1-2

  2. jimazing said,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I feel like this is worth discussing and I value your thoughts. I like the challenge 🙂

    Your examples do seem to throw a monkey wrench in my blanket statement although, I’d argue that in the phrase, “Christian men”, it is the *men* who are *Christians*. And I don’t have any qualms about that.

    I am less concerned with the ambiguity of Christian as an adjective and more concerned that it seems to embrace the thing it modifies (as you said) without question. I’m listening to Manheim Steamroller playing Silent Night tonight on this Christmas Eve. Is that Christian music? Why or why not? Ok, that question is hypothetical. Who cares whether we refer to Manheim Steamroller as Christian music or not?

    Here’s a real life conundrum for me… We in the US have Christian music radio stations and I don’t like the music they play. Maybe I would like some of it if I listened, but I find so much of it to be so shallow and boring that I don’t listen. I have heard so many people imply or even say outright that that is the only kind of music that we should be listening to as Christians. As you said, it is accepted unthinkingly and “my” music is rejected out of hand.

    I remember someone who I won’t name (your mom would know them from Boone.) He was listening to elevator music during a time that he was feeling really close to God. He took that as a sign that God sanctioned only that kind of music. When I say elevator music, I mean elevator music. I don’t think any radio stations play that particular genre any more. Needless to say, I didn’t buy it… or play it.

    Maybe we should be a little more careful with using Christian as an adjective. We need to ask ourselves what that means and not use the name of Christ in such a flippant manner.


    PS. I didn’t realize what a yucky interface I have for leaving comments. I’ll see if I can find a WordPress plugin to fix that. Sorry.

    PPS. Merry Christmas

  3. Heather said,

    Maybe christian should be a verb so we would use it as an action in our lives.

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