The book of Hebrews devotes itself to one subject: The deity of Christ. The goal of the book is to make Christ’s sacrifice on the cross distinctive from the sacrifices of the Old Testament by explaining who Jesus is, and the effect and finality of the atonement. Hebrews rounds out the Bible’s presentation of Jesus. The Gospels focus primarily on his actions, and while they certainly discuss his divinity, they say very little about the effects of the cross. That is left up to the epistolary books of Paul and others throughout the New Testament. Hebrews illustrates that Jesus Christ is more that an ethical guru who had good thoughts on morality and gave good teachings on how to live. He certainly lived the life we should have lived, but also died the death we should have died, serving as a propitiation for our sins, standing in our place and receiving the wrath that God had toward us, thereby saving us from the punishment that wrath incurred.
Our culture is currently undergoing an assault on language. It is very subtle, and has been going on for some time, but it seems to be advancing lately, and is creeping into the Church. As younger, hipper, more socially aware Christians continue to separate themselves from the practices of their parents, the music and the methods are changing, and along with them, the language and theology are also changing.
While at times I feel that language is insufficient to describe every aspect of our lives I also know that we must work with what we’ve got, and that there is great power in words. More importantly, words mean something. You can debate philosophically for hours about why or how they mean something, but the fact is that each word we use goes along through history accumulating a meaning, and at whatever point in history that word is used, it conveys clearly and distinctly its meaning(s), both denotative and connotative. Simply turn on a news network for two minutes and watch the talking heads pick through every single syllable that our presidential candidates mutter.
So, if Hebrews is right, and if it’s true that words mean something, I am developing a serious problem with the fact that the term “Christ-follower” is beginning to replace the term “Christian” in our church culture. I’ve heard this term often lately, usually from church folk in the mid-twenties crowd, folks who are trying desperately to distance themselves from the religion of their parents. I think I understand what they are trying to accomplish in using that term, and I believe that it has both positive and negative connotations.
The intended positive is that the term certainly implies a more active faith. If someone says they “follow” Christ, they are saying that they are involved, acting, living out their faith. The negative implication, however, is that the term is used to differentiate oneself from “Christians,” those holier-than-thou hypocrites who do nothing but spout off rules and regulations, bicker about the color of church carpet, and yell at people for listening to secular music.
To throw off the term “Christian,” and replace it with “Christ-follower” is simply a move to separate oneself from one’s own historic faith in a way that smacks of arrogance. It is also a sharp turn into dangerous semantics, where, if we take the term at face value, we are not left with what being a “follower of Christ” really means. To simply “follow” Christ is not enough. To walk in the way Jesus walked and to do the things he did is empty and useless without his regenerating our hearts, saving us and giving us the ability to follow him. It’s not enough to simply model our lives after Jesus. Our hearts must be modeled after him.
Why all the fuss over a word? I believe that these are dangerous days for our culture, our language and our church. Teaching English, I see day after day the abuses and manipulations forced upon the words we use. I see students’ inability to see the power of language in shaping thought, and as a result, succumbing to the negative effects of its most popular abuses. When we start divvying up the language, when we start avoiding explanation of old terms, and simply replacing them with more “relevant” terms we are slowly and subversively undoing the groundwork of people’s faith. Words are tied to meaning is tied to thought is tied to belief. When we start undoing language, it has the same effect as pulling a loose thread on a sweater. At first it is the harmless removal of a nuisance, but soon the whole thing starts to unravel.
As I once heard one of my favorite English professors tell a student who was nit-picking her comments: “Don’t be afraid of language.” Don’t fear words. Don’t change what we know because of a fear that the old has become offensive. You’re not doing anybody any favors, you’re simply ignoring the problem, putting duct tape over a hole in the wall, putting a tourniquet on a severed head. Deal with the problem. If there is a problem with the old terms, correct the problem, but don’t just pick a new term and paste it on top. If we continue to do that, language will become less and less effective as more and more terms get piled on top of one another until none of them mean anything anymore.