Yes, but word meanings in cross-cultural contexts are always difficult. Andrew (October Missionary Herald) suggests that “Christian” only has negative connotations in his Asian culture and is unhelpful in his ministry. However, the choice to acquiesce to a cultural definition and avoid the term altogether is not desirable. At best, this only pushes the problem down the road; at worst, it reaffirms the cultural misconception of “Christian.” Permitting a culture to define “Christian” fits Niebuhr’s description of the “Christ of Culture,” which we should avoid; rather, we are called to “Christ Transforming Culture.” In other words, true Christians should “author” the meaning of “Christian” for those who are deceived. There is a middle way between carelessly declaring ourselves as “Christians,” thus acquiescing to a culture, and forfeiting the term altogether. This middle way requires careful discernment, proper teaching and living, and patience.
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare. What do a Methodist, Mormon, Anabaptist, and Moony all have in common? They were named by enemies. Neither did Christians name themselves. Today the word means Roman Catholic to millions of people in nations where evangelicals are called “believers.” It means materialistic persecutor to millions of Arabs. A Christian has the dilemma of a politician who needs his political party, yet must insist that he will not do as they have done. But in spite of the baggage, we have a heritage too rich and blessed for us to discard it and start over. We must identify with the community created by the gospel. We cannot be like the cults that say that only they have finally gotten it right. And remember, some people get their concept of a Christian by observing you.
I recall sitting at my desk in fifth-grade geography class, looking at maps of Central and South America, and seeing markings identifying those regions as Christian. I thought, If those are Christian nations, why do we send missionaries to them? Much later I learned that the term, “Christian,” covers a wide range of beliefs, from Roman Catholics to all sorts of Protestants to evangelicals. Some people even consider Mormons to be Christian, despite their erroneous doctrines.
For many people, the word “Christian” simply identifies someone who is not Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or of some other religion. In their minds, “Christians” commit the same sins and follies as everyone else. That’s why some leaders advise us to say that we aren’t adherents of a religion; we are followers of a Person. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, let’s act like it! Those sins and follies have no place in our lives.
Words have meaning. Over time that meaning can change because of experience. In some contexts, the word “Christian” has become corrupted and should not be used. How are people of the world to properly understand the word “Christian,” or how are true followers of Christ to identify themselves, when the term has become filled up with meaning so contrary to the nature of our Lord? It may be that other words need to be used. However, the reason that there are problems with the name “Christian” is that there have been problems in the lives and character of people called Christians. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I would be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” May God help us to live in such a way that we properly represent the person and character of Christ, whatever we are called.
In our current Western mind-set, tolerance is a key practice. The term “Christian” can mean almost anything you desire. I even heard of a “Christian” professor who was an avowed atheist! I fear that many Western Christian dollars are sent overseas to financially support “Christian” workers or families in other countries. Is there accountability so that we know where the money goes? Accountability in a variety of ways is important within the body of Christ.
What term should we use? Hmmm. Within the Muslim world, “Christian” is not a safe term. In secular Europe, “Christian” means little-to-nothing. In post-Christian America, “Christian” is often laughable and mocking. In many countries, “Christian” means Catholic. Perhaps we should invoke the words, “Are you a follower of Christ?” To me the phrase implies: 1) current relationship, 2) biblical foundation, and 3) active discipleship. This phrase may even be more acceptable within the Muslim world.
The problem with the term, “Christian,” is that it means different things to people in different places. For example, in America when we as authentic believers self-identify publicly as Christians, we are not simply using a word, but we are saying that we love and follow Christ as Lord. However, nominal church attenders proclaim themselves to be Christians as well, because they go to church, were born Catholic, believe in God, or pray occasionally, to name a few reasons. No one bats an eye if you proclaim yourself a Christian. "Christian" is generally considered a hollow title at worst and commendable at best.
In much of the rest of the world, to proclaim yourself as a Christian means you purposefully reject the state, deny the false religions of your culture, and shame your family. To be a genuine Christian in those lands is meaningful at best and deadly at worst.