It’s a pet peeve: those people on Facebook (and real life) who call themselves “followers of Jesus.” Yes, I’m glad they’re followers of Jesus. I just wish they wouldn’t say it that way.
Why? Because it’s a substitute for the word “Christian.”
“Followers of Jesus” want to distinguish themselves from nominal Christians, from mean Christians, and from Christians who focus on “religion” instead of “relationship.” It’s great that they care about orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy. It’s great that they see faith as a journey. And, of course, it’s great that they like Jesus so much.
But I still hate the term.
From my perspective, many “followers of Jesus” focus on their individual relationship with God. They would be comfortable joining a group of followers, usually, but they’d prefer a more decentralized band of Jesus-following friends. That’s not to say they don’t go to church—typically they do. However, they want to think of themselves as somehow more akin to a New Testament disciple than a captive of the institutional church.
Christian, on the other hand, denotes connections to people of different perspectives and eras, to Rome and Constantinople, to Reformers and Anabaptist martyrs, to tacky pop music and exquisite icons, to Westboro Baptist and Metropolitan Community, to Gnostics and Arians and the creeds which ousted them, to Jewish roots, to a liturgical calendar, to Mother Teresa and the Crusades and World Vision and the Nazis.
“Christian” has baggage in many people’s eyes. It is claimed by people way more conservative than we are or far more liberal than we are. It links us with revolutionaries who have gone “too far” or traditions we see as dead and cold. It forces in our face the historic Christian creeds, but also means we ironically share a label of self-identification with many heretics, a label some of them still claimed—rightly or wrongly—after (formal or informal) excommunication. We are confronted with the sins of the past and present, and we don’t always have a chance to explain we aren’t like “those” Christians.
Being “Christian” forces us to have a history. It forces us to be humble. It forces us to be creedal. It forces us to be ecumenical.
In some sense, it forces all of us to aspire to the balance of Vatican II, recognizing a pure stream of Christianity while also accepting how broadly God extends his grace. While I may not be ready to call Rome home, I really appreciate this way of looking at things. We will all always think that our way is the “right” way, and it’s good to recognize and attempt to preserve the approach to Christianity that we think is best. However, when someone who disagrees with us—and perhaps we think is barely Christian—still insists on identifying that way, we should be gracious towards them and look for common ground.
Similarly, we should not be so foolish as to think we can divorce ourselves from history by avoiding the people from which our denomination separated, forgetting the wars fought in Jesus’ name, safely distancing ourselves from the sexual abuse committed by clergy, or magically returning to the New Testament church before bishops and councils.
Like it or not, we are connected to those who use and misuse the word Christian. We are connected with institutions of waxing and waning power. We are connected to millions of people both like and unlike us, a great communion of not-always-very-saintly-seeming saints.
We may wish that some people who have gone off the deep end theologically would admit they’re not Christian anymore. We may think our denomination has it right. We may wish people would stop behaving in very unChristian ways, and especially that they would stop using the Bible to support what they’re doing. It’s somewhat inevitable, and in some ways it’s good—because “Christian” should mean something and the misuse of it should offend us.
But we should not stop using the term, as if we are the only true “followers of Jesus,” unlike all of those other so-called Christians, as if we are simply “following Jesus” without cultural baggage and ecclesial traditions of our own, as if we “follow Jesus” unlike those judgmental hypocrites over there, as if because we “follow Jesus” and we just need to pray and read the Bible and can neglect to educate ourselves about church history (particularly between the New Testament and the Reformation), as if we have no lasting—and certainly no involuntary—association with people or structures.
We have a history, beautiful and marred. We have standards of orthodoxy and insiders who try to get away with breaking them. We have divisions. We have unnecessary committees. We have practices which originated centuries after Jesus. We have terrible, terrible bookstores filled with hideous T-shirts and embarrassing bumper stickers. We have weirdos and idiots and fuddy-duddies. And we all know some people using our name who we really think shouldn’t be (and probably really shouldn’t).
And we need to acknowledge that.
Which is why I’m happy to call myself, “Christian.”