It’s hard to miss being aware that the very word “Christian” is poorly defined in today’s world. It’s hard to think of a word in our English vocabulary more loosely defined. It has so many meanings as to essentially mean nothing at all anymore.
Being a resident and citizen of the United States, I think of the word “American” and note that many of my fellow citizens consider themselves uniquely “American.” Yet, we are only one nation among many within the two American continents. We have no right to in any way exclude Canadians, Mexicans, and those throughout central and south America who are equally “American” residents and citizens. To not be inclusive of other nations within our two continents would be like Germany claiming they were uniquely European. Sounds more like Hitler than like any Germans I have ever met. They all seem to understand the difference between a nation and a continent, never confusing the two at all.
So what is a “Christian?” Who is included? Who is excluded? Can we at least be more clear than “Americans” sometimes are about that definition?
Ask non-Christians or the “nones” who are increasing daily in number even here in the United States (of America). Anecdotally, I have done so enough to gain such responses as “people who go to Church,” “people who are nice to each other,” “people who vote Republican,” “people who are opposed to homosexuals,” “people who don’t believe in abortion, or in a woman’s right to choose,” “people who say they have been born again,” “people who think they own the government or the constitution,” or “people who hate Muslims.” That’s quite a range to choose from right there.
Ask Christians themselves and I’m willing to bet you’ll get a rather different but equally broad range of definitions.
Ask Christians on Facebook and you’ll do even better. You’ll start World War III.
Ask Merriam-Webster and you’ll get “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Ask the Bible using the Koine Greek word Christós (Χριστός) and you’ll find 3 references: Acts 11:26 noting the name given to the disciples of the way of Jesus as taught by Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, Acts 26:28 noting it as a term of derision used by King Herod at Paul’s trial, and I Peter 4:16 when the apostle Peter wrote in the context of those suffering for the sake of Christ’s glory. That’s a rather small sampling, wouldn’t you agree? Not to mention three very diverse examples.
Which is why I’m now asking you. How would YOU define the word “Christian?”
Let me bump the question up a notch: How would you define the term in a way most likely to interest a non-Christian in becoming a Christian?
So here’s the reason I’m even raising these questions in today’s world. Actually, I have a couple reasons:
1. Though growing in numbers throughout the continents of Asia, Africa, and even South America, Christians are declining in number in North America and Europe (with the possible exception of in the United States prior to the deportation of millions of Mexican Christians, which would significantly lower our numbers here. And keep them lower after building a potential wall to keep more Mexican Christians from entering illegally to gain work to feed their families back home).
Psst! I’d better watch it or I’ll soon find myself walled off from any privilege of calling myself a “Christian,” or even an “American.” I may have already flunked one litmus test!
Because of the increasing number of “nones” and now “dones” who have chosen to leave Christianity because their own definition does not fit with their actual faith or belief system, there’s at least some hint that we have a “definition” problem on our hands that is itself in quest of a solution. Agreed?
2. Social movements are always born or grown by the positive performance of social roles.
Okay, that’s my own belief. It’s a bit of a Heldism. Don’t even try Googling it. But do let me say what I mean by it.
First, a bit of background. Back in the 70’s in grad school at Ohio State, I took quite an interest myself in what is labeled “Social Role Theory.” Social Psychologists like Talcott Parsons. George Herbert Meade. And so on. They believed that human behavior was largely assigned by one’s closest society or social grouping. The assignment occurred not as a formal set of rules and expectations, or printed “job description” handed out and kept on file, but as behaviorally modeled by group leaders. Roles are taught and learned within relationships between leaders and followers. One’s identity, and one’s behavior, is formed by these “social role models” who establish “norms of acceptable behavior” in that society or social group, per this theory.
Let me throw out an example. Let’s take the role sometimes titled “social bully.” Most likely, in this theory, bullying behavior occurs because a leader in that family or larger society is a bully. Leaders cause followers who reinforce leaders to create more followers. All said and done, you have a social movement of bullying on your hands. Until enough people stop following the leaders. The leaders then fizzle out themselves.
Are you getting this? If so, then consider also: Christianity has a leader for our “role model” who started a social movement (called Christianity) aimed at establishing a better society on earth that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. And it worked!!! For about three centuries! That’s quite awhile! (Longer than the United States has existed within America.) And all because the people who identified as Christians were following the leader, Jesus Christ, as their social role model. They performed their assigned role so effectively that the movement grew. They followed their role as most effectively defined (modeled).
If I had to come up with a reason as to why this movement is now in at least partial decline, borrowing from social role theory itself, I’d say that enough people have stopped following our leader, Jesus Christ, as to weaken his leadership within our society. And when any society has a leadership problem, it has a “definition of role” problem. Which lets the air out of the entire balloon. And the movement itself begins to shrink.
I’m going to try in my next blog to get at why I think we can start this movement over again, using Jesus Christ as our role model, and as an example using Paul as the Jesus follower who became an effective leader / role model himself. I’ll try my best to interest you in becoming a Christian as defined……through role modeling…….by Jesus and then Paul. I’ll start with Paul’s letter to the Philippians noting how he followed the lead of Jesus who followed, and performed to perfection, the very role of God under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Got all that?
Spoiler alert: read Philippians 2:5-11 and then 4:13.