Christianity, Biblical or Traditonal?

For some it may seem heretical to even raise this question, however, the Scriptures admonish us to, “test all things and hold on to what is good” (1st Thess. 5:21). Additionally, we are encouraged to evaluate what we are taught in our churches. Acts 17:11 is an account of the early church carefully evaluating what Paul taught. In this verse, the Bereans are commended for “receiving the message with great eagerness and then checking the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.” It seems to me that two thousand years later we have even more reason to “test all things.” For me, the genesis of the question whether Christianity is Biblical or traditional was approximately twenty-five years ago. Ten years later it became a “front burner” issue after a conversation with a senior member of the Israeli Parliament.

While having breakfast with the Parliament member and his wife at their lovely home in Jerusalem, we began to discuss the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. After many personal stories about the pain and anguish he had experienced, our discussion turned to possible solutions. I asked if he could conceive of anything that could make a breakthrough in this desperate situation. He thought for a few moments and then said, “No; the hatred is too deep.” I suggested, that in my opinion, the only possible solution was the reconciling love of Jesus Christ. He quickly said, “I don’t have anything against Jesus, but I certainly do against Christians.” I also answered quickly and without thinking said, “I can understand that, but Jesus wasn’t a Christian.” He was visibly impacted and repeated several times, “Jesus wasn’t a Christian…wow! Jesus wasn’t a Christian.”

Several years later I had a similar conversation with the Chief Rabbi of Israel and he had the same reaction. Like it does for most people, this statement came as a shock to him but it is irrefutable that Jesus was Jewish and not Christian. In spite of this fact, since Jesus is the central figure of our Christian faith, for most people He is also a Christian. But does the Bible confirm this?

There was much more to both of these conversations because each man initiated a serious and thoughtful dialogue about Jesus. As I look back, that first meeting was also important for me since it caused me to start asking questions that have helped me become even more Christ centered.

Even though Jesus was Jewish and not a Christian, did He start Christianity? If not, did Paul the Apostle begin Christianity? Did Paul consider himself a Christian? Did the early church consider themselves Christians? What role has tradition played in the development of Christianity? Is it really Biblical?

These and other questions caused me to search the Scriptures and the following thoughts are my conclusions on the subject. My prayer is that the reader will consider this paper in the spirit of Acts 17:11 and search the Scriptures to see if these thoughts are consistent with our only standard for truth.

First, the word Christianity is not in the Bible, so it is not Biblical in the typical use of the word. However, absence of an exact word doesn’t itself mean that an idea is un-Biblical. The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and yet a picture of God existing in three persons is very clearly laid out. Even with this understanding, I cannot find a religion called Christianity in any form in the New Testament. The emphasis is in the person of Jesus, not on an organized or structured set of ideas and doctrines. Webster’s dictionary defines Christianity as “a religion based on the Old and New Testaments.” It is my opinion that Jesus didn’t come to start a new world religion. He is the Lord of the Universe; it is we who make Him the head of an earthly religion.

Let’s look at some of the differences between Jesus and Christianity. Christ unites; Christianity divides. Christ attracts; Christianity is often unattractive. Christianity is not pure, but Christ is pure. Christianity has buried Christ under layers and layers of traditions, doctrines, convictions, creeds and social issues. These things frequently draw people to themselves; consequently, many people have not come to the real Christ. Billy Graham has said he feels that his ministry has been to bring “Christians to Christ.” His message has not been, “Believe in Christianity and you shall be saved!” He has been faithful to the Scriptures that say, ”Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Secondly, Jesus didn’t use the word “Christian” in His teaching. Paul, who penned the majority of the New Testament, never used the word either. In fact a thorough search of the Bible shows that only Luke and Peter refer to “Christian.” They report the word being used three times but always by OUTSIDERS; “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Those who called the believers Christians may have been using Christian like some people use such socially incorrect words as nigger, wop, gook, or spic. These are words that are meant to hurt and degrade. 1st Peter 4:16 seems to confirm this when it says, “If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed.” To me, this verse shows that when people were called Christian, the intent was to cause shame. A modern day paraphrase of Peter’s counsel might be, “Don’t let them get to you no matter what they call you.”

When I raise this issue, some people get a bit agitated and tell me that when they use the word Christian they mean “a person who follows Jesus.” This has led me to ask many, many people for their definition of the word Christian. The most common answer I receive is, “one who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” This may indeed be a correct definition of a true believer, but if we use Christian when we mean Christ then we are saying they are equal. To do so is disloyalty to the name above all names. People seem to believe that if they know what they mean, substituting other words for the name of Jesus is justified. The name of Jesus cannot be replaced by something less without consequences.

After speaking about this idea on a retreat, a man approached me angrily. He said this was heresy and I shouldn’t talk about it anymore. He said he had been an elder for thirty-five years and Christianity and Christ meant the same thing. When he said Christian he meant Christ and vice versa. As we talked about this I suggested that I might call on him to pray that evening. I told him if he would close his prayer “in the name of Christianity,” I would reconsider my position. This would prove that he believed they could be used interchangeably. He flushed and said, “Oh no, we pray in the name of Jesus; how could I have missed it?”

Some people ask, “If you don’t call people Christians, what do you call them?” My answer is that Paul didn’t seem stumped by this, even though he never used Christian. Call them what he did: believers, saints, followers of the way, sons of God, disciples, brothers, sisters, etc. Paul obviously didn’t consider himself a Christian since he never used the word but he did say that he considered himself a true Jew since he was in Christ (Romans 2:28).

For many years I have heard people say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.” I wholeheartedly agree that the Gospel is not about RELIGION but rather, a RELATIONSHIP with a person. In spite of this, most people talk more about Christianity than they do about Jesus Christ. From the pulpit, in Sunday School and in our songs we hear the name of Jesus frequently, but go to the fellowship hall and listen carefully. A few minutes after singing, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…there’s just something about that name,” we find that people rarely speak His name. Listening to conversations in the work place I have found this to be almost universally true. People will talk about Christians or Christianity but rarely will they mention the name of Jesus Christ. Any who read this and question its truth may check for themselves.

It’s even possible that Satan is pleased when we talk about Christians and Christianity. In fact he may have something to do with helping us substitute those words for the name of Jesus. How could this be remotely possible? He knows that no power or authority resides in the name of Christianity but all power and authority accompanies the name of Jesus. He knows that when we use the name of Jesus, the power of God is released to accomplish whatever He wants to do. If Satan can take the name of Jesus off our lips and replace it with a religion that has no inherent power or authority, he wins.

To show how far off we have gotten let me recount another personal experience. I was sent a complimentary copy of a newspaper called, “The Christian Courier.” Given my new awareness, I counted the number of times the term Christian was used. It wasn’t really a surprise to find Christian used 97 times (Christian lawyer, Christian Radio, Christian psychologist, etc.). In the Bible Christian (always used by outsiders) is a noun and never is used as an adjective as in Christian TV or Christian Books. In this entire “Christian” newspaper, Jesus Christ was mentioned only once and that was in an article reporting a conversation with a pastor. This might seem to be an aberration, but when one is alert to this phenomenon it seems more like the norm.

When one reads the New Testament it is just the opposite. The writers emphasize the name of Jesus and only use Christian when they are reporting what others have said. The following are examples of how the early church talked: Peter said to the lame man, “In the NAME of Jesus Christ, walk” (Acts 3:5). Philip, the first evangelist preached “the Kingdom of God and the NAME of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). “The NAME of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor” (Acts 19:17). “Paul and Barnabas…risked their lives for the NAME of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:16). “Whatever you do whether in word or deed do it all in the NAME of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). “We pray this so that the NAME of the Lord Jesus will be glorified in you” (2nd Thess. 1:12). “At the NAME of Jesus every knee shall bow” (Phil. 2:10). “Through Jesus, let us continue to offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that glorify his NAME. (Heb. 13:15).

Given this emphasis on using the name of Jesus without even a hint of encouragement to call believers Christians, why do we persist in doing so? Col. 1:18 is clear that, “in everything He must have the supremacy.” When we make the mistake of thinking and acting as if something is equal with Jesus, we suffer the inevitable consequences.

This seems to be the point of the events that took place on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28). As Jesus was praying, His face changed, and His clothes became brighter than a flash of lightning. All of a sudden, Moses and Elijah were standing there talking to him. Peter, in his typical manner of speaking before thinking, said, “Master, it’s good to be here; let us put up three shelters, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for you.” He didn’t say, “…and a big one or a special one for you”; he simply proposed making them equal. Luke’s editorial comment on Peter’s statement is, “He didn’t even know what he was saying.” Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets, both good and given by God, but Jesus is greater. Without being aware of it, Peter was making Moses and Elijah equal with Jesus. The Father was not pleased with this and acted immediately. God interrupted while Peter was still speaking, a cloud covered them and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son…listen to Him.” The Father was trying to bring perspective to Peter and help him have a proper view of Jesus. God is so gracious; He often gently corrects and then gives a second chance. Scripture says, then He lifted the cloud and “they saw Jesus only.”

This lesson must not be lost on the Church. Most people today think the church is in need of revival but maybe there is simply a cloud on the church because we have made a religion (Christianity) equal with Jesus. If that is true it has certainly been without intent. It has probably happened as it did to Peter; we didn’t even know we were doing such a thing.

After these discoveries, I disciplined myself to remove the words Christian and Christianity from my vocabulary. I did this in order to replace them with the name of Jesus. Instead of asking, “Are you a Christian?” I say, “Do you follow Jesus Christ?” or “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” Rather than, “Christian bookstore”, I say “a store that sells books about Jesus” or “Bible bookstore.” Some think this is just semantics, but I beg to differ. Words are very important as they build bridges or barriers! After almost 25 years of considering this, it has more substance than when I began.

It is true that in our everyday world, it is easier to say Christian than it is to speak the name of Jesus. In spite of this, take a risk and try it for thirty days. Be observant and see if Jesus doesn’t become more active in your life as you confess His name openly.

Among true believers, one truth is absolutely without dispute. The Father gave Jesus the “NAME above every NAME,” and “at the NAME of Jesus every knee shall bow.” May Jesus Christ be praised and may His NAME be returned to its proper place of honor in the community of believers.

“…receiving the message with great eagerness and then checking the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.” – Acts 17:11