My Bulgarian neighbor shouted to me with his thick accent as I was getting into my car late for an appointment, “Hey Lewie! Are you are Christian?” His question put me in a predicament. If I answered, “Yes” it could be disingenuous because what George understands a Christian to be is not what I am. On the other hand, if I answered, “No” he would assume that I am either Muslim, Jewish, or an atheist.
Evangelicals need to become aware that when we use the word “Christian” we mean various things relying on context to define our intent. Many of our listeners either do not have enough information to understand our meaning when using the word “Christian” or they have wrong information so they misinterpret our use of the word. An example of this is my Jewish friend thought that Jesus Christ was the founder of an anti-Semitic movement, so he assumed anyone or anything “Christian” was anti-Semitic.
If a Roman Catholic, Evangelical, or Mormon says, “My daughter is a new Christian!” they do not mean the same thing but to the non-Christian ear we all use the same terminology. The Jewish, Muslim, and atheist see the Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Christian Science, non-denominational, and Mormons all as “Christian”. A Muslim that became a follower of Isa (Jesus) told me that he still cannot tell the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant let alone the difference between a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran.
I live in a Chicago neighborhood made up of Jewish, Indian, and Pakistani people. If I would ask my neighbors, “Wouldn’t you like to become a Christian?” what I mean by that question and what they hear are poles apart. For many of them a Christian is a negative and confusing term.
The responsibility lies on us as followers of Jesus to seek to understand the perspective of our listener so that we can communicate clearly the good news of Jesus.
- Have coffee with a Jewish person, Atheist, Muslim, or Hindu and ask him to describe his understanding of Christianity, a Christian, and Jesus Christ.
- Describe your faith to someone without using the words “Christian”, “Christianity”, and “Church”.
You are exactly right, Lewie. The label “Christian” is only useful when both parties in a conversation share the same understanding of the term.
Even when people share a language there can be confusion. For example, an American dining in England may be in for a surprise when requesting a “napkin.” [A diaper or other sanitary product is not a typical request at dinner.] A request for a “serviette” will result in a table napkin being produced.
Because of the differing meanings of “Christian” we often add further words of explanation: “evangelical,” “born again,” “Protestant,” “fundamentalist,” “Bible believing,” etc. But those descriptors are only helpful if understood in the same way by both parties.
For those who grew up identifying as Christians and view the term positively it can be confusing to meet believers in Jesus who don’t want to call themselves Christians. Many Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) use “Messianic” as a self-referent. The terms are equivalent: “Christ” comes into English from the Greek “Christos”; “Messiah” has a Hebrew root, “Mashiach.” Both words mean “anointed” in their original languages.
But as a result of 17 centuries of persecution, “Christian” connotes “gentile” or even “hateful enemy” in the ears of many Jewish people — and who wants to be identified as a persecutor? Jewish believers in the Messiah of Israel still want to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity; they have not become “gentiles.” So “Messianic Jew” is a preferred term. When the hearer (Jewish or gentile) doesn’t know the content of that phrase, it affords the Yeshua-believing Jew to “fill in the blank” with meaning.