During the process of taking a class on the gospels this semester, I have been thinking afresh about what it means to be a Christian.
To be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ,’ as it is said, a Christ imitator or follower. Defined this way, being a Christian is not primarily about remaining loyal to a set of ideas, adhering to a set of principles, or believing certain doctrines. It certainly involves those things (don’t hear me wrongly). But what it is primarily is a claim to follow a person, the real historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, not a person in the abstract (e.g., Jesus merely a means to an end that is my salvation), but an actual human being.
If this is central to what it means to be a Christian, this pushes against many contemporary forms of Christianity that have lost sight of the centrality of this person in favor of making other good but not central things central.
To illustrate, I will use evangelicalism’s infatuation with Paul.
I love Paul. I love his theology. His books are probably my favorite in our canon. And so I resonate with evangelicalism’s fixation with Paul. In fact I wish that if anything it was Paul that wasn’t popular enough within evangelicalism. That way my own attraction to Pauline literature and theology would be a bit more novel and I’d have reason to exhort people to study Paul more! However, for the better and worse involved in the reality, Paul pretty much dominates our theology in evangelicalism.
Now, I don’t want to downplay his significance. He is no doubt an immeasurably significant shaper of Christianity. And we shouldn’t forget that Paul himself was/is a disciple of Jesus. Thus, we should not extend this upcoming point into a false dichotomy of ‘Paul or Jesus.’ Rather, we should recognize Paul as Paul described himself: “a slave of Christ Jesus.”
However, compared to evangelicalism’s knowledge of and interest in Pauline theology, evangelicalism’s captivation with the earthly ministry and teaching of Jesus is unfortunately rather slim. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that most of our understanding of and love for Jesus comes through Paul’s presentation of him, e.g., we are grateful to Jesus for accomplishing our ‘Pauline justification.’ We love our ‘Pauline Jesus’ because ‘in him’ we find our righteousness—and rightfully so, no doubt! However, if being a Christian most fundamentally means being a Christ follower, not a follower of a Christ follower (e.g., Paul), and if being a Christ follower means be dedicated to the person, work, and teaching of Jesus, I, my church, and evangelicalism at large need to recover a dedication to the ‘raw’ (e.g., not merely that which is filtered through Paul) Christ as presented in the Biblical accounts of His person and earthly ministry, i.e., the fourfold gospel.
This has a plethora of practical implications. I’ll conclude with two.
Recovering “Christian” as an actual follower of Christ the man, viewing Christians as disciples of Jesus the Rabbi, would mean taking the gospels much more seriously. Are Jesus’s teachings—quite radical, disturbing, value-subverting teachings, mind you—meant to be written off and discarded through a Pauline hermeneutic of “through the law [or Jesus’ teaching in this case] comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20)? Or could Jesus intend for us actually to do what he says–“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Might the purpose of Jesus salvific mission include, not only to bear the penalty for our sins in death (e.g., Paul in Rom 3:25; Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21; etc.), but also to present to us the way of the transformed, redeemed life of his curse-reversing and sin-subverting kingdom?
I think this also has implications for church membership and who we consider a Christian. Many seem to identify a Christian as one who meets something like the following criteria, e.g., assertion of Jesus as savior and basic Christian doctrine, testimony to emotional conversion (or ‘born again’) experience recalled through heavy use of ‘Christianese’ language, and reference to having a ‘relationship with God.’ However, taking Jesus seriously, and taking ‘Christian as Christ follower’ seriously means identifying Christians according to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:16: “By their fruit,” not their clichéd affirmation, “you will recognize them.” Coming from an all-regenerate membership tradition, what drastic implications might result from holding our church members (professing believers), as well as potential new members applying for membership (professing believers), to this standard? For one, we’d have a radically different set of criteria for what we expect a Christian to be and look like.