Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader in the German Confessional Church, was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943. A year later, he was jailed in Berlin’s Tegel prison. He was hanged by the Nazis at Flossenbürg concentration camp only two weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied armies.
Christians in crisis
But on April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer was still very much alive, though imprisoned. He was mulling over the significance of what it meant to be a Christian in such trying times. Nazi Germany was testing Christian discipleship in a direct and crushing way. We in today’s Western society have not been tested in the same way.
Bonhoeffer had seen a tragic appeasement among Christians in Nazi Germany. Most church leaders and their flocks had gone along with the pagan and anti-Christian sentiments at the heart of Nazism. Only a few had spoken out, like those Germans who formed the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer’s Christian faith as a member of this group was on the line, and so was his life.
When Bonhoeffer sat down to write a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge on that day in 1944, the meaning of the Christian faith was uppermost on his mind. “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to,” he wrote. “What is bothering me incessantly is the question: what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (Letters and Papers From Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge, page 279).
Christianity in Germany had become, in Bonhoeffer’s view, nothing more than pious talk and a sterile repetition of creeds. Those who call themselves Christians “do not in the least act up to it,” he wrote. Bonhoeffer was dismayed at the many German Christians who had sold out.
What about us?
What happened to Christianity in Nazi Germany should send chills through us who call ourselves Christian. But it’s easy for those of us who live in democratic and nominally Christian nations to take Christianity for granted. Well more than half of Americans call themselves Christian. Some even consider the practice of Christianity be patriotic. It seems easy to be a Christian.
We may not be forced to face human tragedy and madness in the profound way Bonhoeffer and his community, the Confessing Church, did. But we can be overcome by the world in more subtle ways. For this reason, we all need to ask ourselves a basic question: What is Christianity? When we say, “I am a Christian,” what do those words mean for us who were born into a Christian world?
The word Christ is the foundation and basis of the words Christian and Christianity. It is logical to assume that Christ would also be the foundation and basis of Christianity, and of each Christian’s life. But as Bonhoeffer asked, who is Christ for us today? Where does he fit into our Christianity?
Today, Christianity is often defined by specific religious practices. It’s about such things as going to church, ceremonies of various kinds, and giving some financial support. But you don’t have to be a Christian to listen to preaching, to go through rituals, or to give money to a church or charity.
Christianity emphasizes correct beliefs, creeds and doctrines. Biblical truth is important to faith. But is Christianity only about believing? Is it about doing good and being a certain way? Christianity for many is primarily about being moral and doing good. That’s commendable. However, people of other religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, to name a few—also try to live good, law-abiding lives. Christianity has no monopoly on morality.
For many, Christianity is a cause to get involved—to change the world through politics. But is cause-Christianity transforming the world, or is it selling out by putting its faith in the political world? Much of what passes for Christianity falls under the five Cs: causes, ceremonies, churchgoing, conduct and creeds. But is it enough to define the Christianity of the Bible?
Perhaps we can see by now that it’s a bit harder to discover what the Christian faith should be about. So what should it be about?
Chipping to Christ
There’s an old story about a sculptor who had just finished a magnificent horse in marble. When asked how he was able to sculpt such an exquisite piece, he replied, “I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.” In a similar way, we need to chip away everything that passes for Christianity but is not an essential part of it. If we use our hammer and chisel properly, we can discover what the Christian faith looks like at its fundamentals.
Let’s begin by offering a basic proposition: Christ is Christianity, or Christ = Christianity. That is the good news the Gospel of John proclaims. John records Jesus as telling his disciples: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). According to the apostle John, Jesus Christ kept insisting that he was whatever true religion might be. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told Martha (John 11:25).
Since Jesus is the way, that means Christianity ought to be the way. Since Jesus is the truth, that means Christianity ought to be the truth. Since Jesus is the life, that means Christianity ought to be the way to life eternal.
The simple solution to finding true Christianity, then, would be to follow Jesus Christ, and to become Christ-like. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. We can’t just decide to do it.
The apostle Peter thought he knew what it meant to be a dedicated and zealous Christian—a follower of Christ, which the word implies. To him, faith was having a religion of dedication and zeal. When challenged on his ability to be a Christian, Peter said: “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). Jesus said Peter didn’t know what he was talking about—and that he would fail. Peter soon did (Mark 14:66-72).
Philip, another disciple, said something about Jesus showing them the Father. “That will be enough for us,” he said (John 14:8). Perhaps Christianity was only a mystical experience for Philip. Thomas, the doubting disciple, was befuddled about the center or way of Christianity. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” he asked (verse 5).
Jesus wasn’t that easy to understand. He announced a message that turned common beliefs upside down — and gave them a surprising dimension. People lacked a spiritual ear with which to hear Jesus’ counter-cultural message. For one thing, Jesus didn’t act like people thought a religious person should act. He was often accused of being irreligious. He was called a drunk and a glutton. He interacted with tax collectors and prostitutes—among the worst social outcasts of the time.
The local religious leaders, the Pharisees, complained that Jesus didn’t keep their religious ceremonies or hold to their beliefs. More than that, they felt he was slighting, even attacking, them. The Pharisees thought: He keeps knocking our religion. He’s accusing us of giving up the true faith so we can keep our own traditions. Imagine that? The gall of this upstart. Does he think he personifies true religion? Yes, Jesus did think so. He claimed to be the originator, the embodiment, the perfect example and the High Priest of the way, the truth and the life. If you didn’t have him at your center, he insisted, then you had a useless religion.
Christ the center
Jesus gave us the answer to the question: What is Christianity? Christianity is Christ living his life in Christians through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not merely living religion in us. He is not primarily living doctrine in us. He is not living ceremonies and rituals in us. Jesus is living himself in us. When he does, that means we have his new life in us. We are his. What, then, is Christianity for us? It is Christ. Who is Christ for us today? He is the center of our lives; he is our life.
No scripture better summarizes what we are as Christians, and what Christianity is, than Paul’s statement to the Galatian church. Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). If Christ as our center is embedded in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we are Christians indeed. Christianity will not be an empty religion. It will bear witness to and be an example of Jesus Christ to the world.
How can Christ become the center of our lives? It can come about only through God’s revelation to us, and his rescue of us. We must first be drawn by God to understand that we must be rescued. Humanity without God leads only to death. This hearing—this understanding—comes by revelation of the Holy Spirit.
At one point, Peter recognized something about who Jesus was—the Son of God. Peter didn’t figure it out on his own. Jesus told him, “This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). The Holy Spirit must give us a hearing ear so we can recognize who Christ is—and our need for rescue. The rescue is our transformation through a renewed mind that frees us from conformity to the evil in the world. However, we must respond positively to God’s revelatory call and rescue.
Jesus explained it by a farming example. God is a sower scattering the seeds of understanding in human minds. Some seeds never germinate because they fall on hardened minds enmeshed in the world. Such people don’t understand what they’re hearing. Other seeds fall on shallow minds. The seeds of understanding germinate and grow to a point, then die. Such people catch a momentary glimmer of the truth, but the light is overpowered by the glitter of material things. The worries of life, the desire to make it in the world and to live a life of worldly pleasure—with no place for God—choke out the seeds that bring the revelation of God.
But in some people the seeds of truth grow into magnificent plants. They “hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop,” said Jesus (Mark 4:20). Such Christians understand the revelatory call of rescue from God and continue to respond to it. Today, God is calling each of us to a relationship with him that rescues us from the clutches of our society and its values—and saves us to eternal life. The question is: Are you answering God’s revelation and rescuing call?
What’s in a name?
The word Christian, which describes those who follow Jesus Christ, was first used by pagan outsiders, probably as a term of ridicule and abuse. Luke tells us, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Pagans in Antioch probably coined the word as a term of derision to mock people who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. (Antioch, in the province of Syria, was the site of major Christian evangelizing work among Gentiles in the A.D. 40s.)
The word Christian appears only twice more in the New Testament (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). Once, it’s on the lips of a Jewish king who tells the apostle Paul it won’t be as easy as he thinks to convince him to be a Christian. In the second instance, the apostle Peter used the word Christian in the context of accusations made by the enemies of the church. (The word Christianity does not appear in the New Testament.)
Only a few references to Christ and Christians occur in secular literature of the time. The Latin historian Suetonius spoke of an action taken by emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54): “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” (Claudius 25.4). Christ would have been a generally meaningless name to the Latin-speaking Romans. It’s easy to see why Suetonius confused it with the common name Chrestos, which meant “good” or “kind.”
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68) had “inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Annals xv.44). However, the church in those earliest decades called itself by terms other than Christian. Some of them are described below.
Names for disciples
The church referred to itself as the group that followed “the Way” (Acts 19:9). This showed that Christianity was more than an abstract philosophy. It was a description of the way to fellowship with God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Christians also called themselves “the believers” (Acts 4:32) and “God’s elect” (1 Peter 1:1). The first title explained that the disciples believed in Jesus Christ as Savior. The second pointed to the special place Christians had within God’s plan as the heirs of his promises.
The church often referred to its members collectively as “the disciples” – a word that means “people who learn” (Acts 6:2). The early Christians were carrying on Jesus’ teachings and following his example. They were a living community that embodied the teachings of their Master. The disciples also called themselves “brothers and sisters” (Acts 9:30; 17:14). The name stressed the intimate, familial relationship of believers to one another.
Another designation for the followers of Jesus was “friends.” Jesus had called his disciples his friends (John 15:14-15). John used this designation for believers in one of his letters (3 John 14).
“Saints” was the apostle Paul’s favorite name for Christians (Romans 1:7; 8:27). The name is also used 13 times in the book of Revelation. The word did not emphasize any special holiness achieved by individual obedience, but rather the individual’s special calling to salvation. The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ was credited to people who were called out by God and separated for his purpose. Such people were holy, or saints, in God’s sight.
Christians also called themselves “the congregation,” from the Greek ekklesia. We use the word church rather than congregation, but they mean the same thing (2 Corinthians 1:1). They define the presence of God’s people in the world at large or in a particular place.
“Christian” wins out
The word Christian seems to have had no special significance for the earliest church. If used, the word was but one of a number of self-designations. (The apostolic church apparently did not have a single official name for itself.) Eventually, however, the word Christian became the common way to designate the collective church. By the beginning of the second century, the word was used by both outsiders and insiders to refer to the followers of Jesus.
Today, the term Christian has lost some of its meaning because it is so loosely used. It seems everything is Christian. We have Christian churches, schools, political parties, cultural associations, kings and even geographical areas such as the Christian West. Because of that, it would be well for us to reflect on what we mean when we call ourselves Christians. A Christian is one who belongs to Jesus Christ, one who is transformed by him, and one in whom Jesus Christ dwells.