learning the words: christian

celtic cross

Today’s guest post is from Lana, who blogs at Lana Hobbs the Brave. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

When I was in the third grade–in the Bible belt–I was discussing my faith with a classmate, and she asked when I’d been baptized. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, so she told me if I wasn’t baptized, I must not really be a christian.

To be a Christian, in my mind, was synonymous with being saved. In fact, “being saved” is talked about more often in some circles, perpetuating the idea that getting to Heaven is one of the most important parts of the faith.

Now someone was saying I had to be baptized to be a Christian?
If I died in an earthquake at school before I could be baptized, would I go to hell?

I asked the teacher on recess duty if I was doomed to hell. She didn’t really answer.

On the other hand, I was saved by faith alone, right? So I didn’t have to be baptized?  So if my friend believed only baptized people were saved, maybe she wasn’t really a christian, since she wasn’t relying on faith alone. Maybe I needed to share the gospel with her.

Since then, Christian has always been a difficult term to wrap my mind around.

Catholics pray to Mary (or so I was told)– so are they the real Christians? Dad said probably a lot of them are, Mom seemed to doubt it. Mormons? Dad knew Mormons, he figured that a lot of them were, but I read a book from the church library that said Mormonism was a cult–so maybe they weren’t.

Then there were the people who responded to calls to “be saved” multiple times, and even got baptized several times, saying :I realized I wasn’t saved before, but now I am.” They believed they were saved, they believed in Jesus and tried to obey, and then they realized they weren’t really Christian–  they didn’t have actual faith, they only thought they did?

If that is what Christianity is, how can anyone ever be certain they are really a christian, really saved, really following after God?

Then there are those who claim to be Christian, and  bomb abortion clinics, or picket soldiers funerals, or write hateful messages online. They claim to be obeying God, but many quickly say “They aren’t true Christians.” The same goes for Christians like Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell, when conservatives talk about them. Well, then, what is “Christian”? From looking around, reading what people write, hearing what people say, does it just mean “acting and thinking in a way consistent with my interpretation of the Bible”?

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the only meaningful way to define ‘Christian’ is “one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity.” He anticipates, in this usage of the word, a possible objection: “may not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” In response to this imagined objection, he replies :this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful.”

“If once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening,’ the sense of the word Christian, it, too, will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts . . . and obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word.”

Lewis says the original meaning (he also uses the word ‘obvious,’ but I didn’t find it so until he pointed it out) is “those who accepted the teachings of the apostles . . . The point is not a theological or a moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.”

I do find this a far more useful way of talking about it, and it helps us avoid the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy that so many people use when confronted with ‘Christians’ who they really don’t want to be associated with.

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the issue of “who is saved?”

I don’t think Lewis would think this is quite the problem my childhood self thought it was. For one thing, he’s rather an inclusivist, and for another, he seemed to believe the Christian life was more about being a new man than about avoiding Hell.

I think that following Christ” is more about loving others than about whether or not you are saved. I think it makes sense to stop trying to evaluate how “saved” a person is, and instead take them at their word– do they believe in the basic doctrines of Christianity?

And for the record, by that definition, I am not a Christian. There are many doctrines I can’t make peace with right now. As soon as I put a useful meaning to the word “Christian,” I realized I couldn’t take it on myself anymore. I’m now nameless, but I still embrace the teachings of love, humility, and justice.

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