Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Christian Name Calling: Don't Use This Word (Pt 2)

Part 1 of my rumination on Christian name-calling focussed on the eponymous "Christian" as an honorable name. We saw that it had been foretold by the prophet Isaiah, that its first use was memorialized by Luke in Acts 11, that its ubiquity was confirmed by a King (Agrippa) to the Apostle Paul in Acts 26, and that its status was elevated by no less than Saint Peter in his first letter to fellow saints scattered across Asia Minor. So not only is calling ourselves and one another "Christian" not a problem, it's actually a divinely appointed name.
In the  Gospels and the first two-thirds of Acts, Christ-followers are mostly called Disciples. Jesus himself used that name, but he also called his posse and individual followers by other names—friends, brothers, sisters, children, man, woman, servants, branches, and many more. One interesting rabbit-hole to go down in this study is to compare the different animals Jesus cited when describing his pals—sheep, doves, sparrows—versus those animals used to describe people who opposed Christ: wolves, vipers, snakes, a fox.

Jesus was pretty binary. He trafficked heavily in either/or formulations—he was waaay more us/them than is currently in vogue. Jesus explicitly told us he came to divide people (Matt 10 & 25), and once called Peter, his first lieutenant, Satan. So let's dispense with the recent political-correctness among academics to alter names used in scripture (ie: gender-based rewrites of Bible translations). Instead we should examine scripture honestly for guidance as to what we call ourselves—since out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Because the way man thinks in his heart defines who he is. Which means the names we choose to describe ourselves are deeply important.

Would it surprise you to learn the scriptures nowhere refer to Christians as sinners? Not once. In the Bible Christians are said to be born again, new creatures, possessing a divine nature, having the mind of Christ, be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, the true circumcision, the bride of Christ, and many other affirming honorifics. But never sinners. Ever.

And yet, chances are in the last year you've heard a preacher call himself—and you, and all believers—sinners. I've certainly heard this. Sometimes it is followed by a qualifier "saved by grace," but not always. More and more lately this name-calling just stands on its own: "Look, we're all sinners here."

Excuse me? Says who? "Well," comes the defense, "scripture says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Sure, and Paul even admitted to having been the "chief" sinner. But that was the "old man," in the past—which is what Paul is talking about in Romans 3: "former sins." The Apostle is clearly saying that was then, but this is now. And anyway the passage is generic—not labeling the Christians in Rome as sinners. Paul is demonstrating the universality of both Jews and Gentiles having been sinners. "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested..." It's a new covenant, and now we Gentiles can become new creatures in Christ: grafted into the vine. Born again.

If you've read much of Paul's writing, you know he often echoes phrases and words from Hebrew scripture. "Sinners" were not unknown in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous OT use of the word is in Psalm 51, where David speaks of his own "sin" in verse 4, but then in verse 13 promises to teach "transgressors" God's ways so "sinners will be converted." David confesses that he had sinned, but he does not consider himself "a sinner," because he had repented, and came with a broken and contrite heart before the God of his salvation.

When the Pharisees called somebody a sinner, Jesus didn't dispute their characterization, but said sinners were the ones he came to save—the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. "For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:13) Once a sinner repents, believes, and is baptized their identity is now in Christ, and they are born from above. That was me, but not anymore: the old is past.

Paul acknowledges that his beloved Corinthians did indeed have a past. "And such were some of you" he said after rattling off a list of the kind of people who will not enter the Kingdom of God. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11) Something happened to the Corinthians, and they're not any of those things now.

There may be many different motives behind Christian leaders telling God's elect they are sinners. Some may think they're echoing Paul's exhortation cited above. Some may be flat-out guilt manipulators. And many these days seek to be "relevant," trumpeting a newly-invented Christian virtue of "empathy." This has the effect of lowering everybody to the same level, and is a hallmark of Progressivism. I can't be judgey if I say I'm a sinner just like you.

But I urge preachers, professors, elders, worship leaders, deacons, authors, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders— anybody who is in Christian leadership— to recognize the power of their words to shape the self-concept of those they lead. Because they lead the Bride of Christ—and she ain't no sinner.