Christianity, Biblical or Traditional?

For some, it may seem heretical even to raise this question, but I ask you to hear me out because, the Scriptures admonish us to, “Test everything…Hold on to the good” (1st Thess. 5:21).  Luke confirms this by giving us an account of the early church evaluating what Paul taught.  He  commends the Bereans for “receiving the message with great eagerness and then checking the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.”  (Acts 17:11)  Approximately forty-five years ago, this became a life verse for me because two centuries later it is even more important to, “test everything.”  When I applied it to the teaching I had received, it took me in directions I could not have guessed.  I had been thinking about the question of whether Christianity is Biblical or Traditional when the following meeting occurred.

While having breakfast with a member of the Israeli Cabinet and his wife in the breakfast nook of their lovely home, 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.  He quickly said, “I don’t have anything against Jesus, just some Christians.”  I also answered quickly and without thinking said, “I can understand that, but Jesus wasn’t a Christian.”  He was visibly taken aback by that statement and repeated it several times, “Jesus wasn’t a Christian…wow!  Jesus wasn’t a Christian.”  He even turned to his wife and said; “Leah, 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.  There was much more to both of these conversations because each man initiated a serious and thoughtful dialogue about Jesus.  As I look back, those meetings were also important for me because they caused me to ask questions that helped me resolve my question about Christianity, and to become even more Jesus centered.

Questions like: Even though Jesus was Jewish and not a Christian, did He start Christianity?  If not, did Paul the Apostle start 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 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.

Firstly, I discovered that the word Christianity is not in the Bible, so it is not Biblical in the literal sense.  However, the absence of an exact word doesn’t itself mean that an idea is unbiblical.  The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and yet a picture of God existing in three persons is very clearly taught.  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 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’s 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.  Jesus unites; Christianity quite often divides.  Jesus attracts; Christianity is often unattractive.  Christianity is not pure, but Jesus is pure.  Christianity has buried Jesus 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 Jesus.  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, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Secondly, Jesus never used the words “Christian” or “Christianity” in His teaching.  Paul, who penned the majority of the New Testament, didn’t use those words either.  In fact, a thorough search of the Bible shows that only Luke and Peter use the word, “Christian.”  They report it was used three times but Always by Outsiders; “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).  Those who called the believers Christians might have used Christian as some people use such socially incorrect words as, kike, nigger, wop, gook, or spic.  These words are meant to hurt and degrade.  Scripture seems to confirm this, “But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian.  Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name” (1st Peter 4:16)  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.”  So if I am called a “Christian” by an outsider, I will bear it gladly.  However, since no believer in the Scriptures refers to themselves as a Christian, including Jesus and Paul, I do not call myself a Christian.

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.”  Their comment has led me to ask many, many people for their definition of the word Christian.  The most common answer I receive is, “a person who has received Jesus.”  That is indeed a correct definition of a true believer, but if we use Christian when we mean “Jesus” or “Christ,” then we are saying they are equal.  To do so is disloyalty to the name above every name.  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.  That would prove that he believed they are interchangeable.  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 the word, 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 2:28-29)

Most believers talk more about Christianity than they do about Jesus.  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 workplace 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.  Any who read this and question its truth may check for themselves.

It’s even possible that Satan is pleased when we use the term Christian and Christianity.  In fact, he may have something to do with helping us substitute those words for the name of Jesus.  I am sure that you are thinking, how could this be even remotely true?  My answer is; he knows there is no power or authority in the name of Christianity but all power and authority accompany 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.  So 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 received a complimentary copy of a newspaper called, “The Christian Courier.”  Given my new awareness, I counted the number of times they used the word, Christian.  It wasn’t 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 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 3:6)  Philip, the first evangelist, preached “the Kingdom of God and the NAME of Jesus Christ.”  (Acts 8:12)  “Paul and Barnabas…risked their lives for the NAME of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Acts 15:26)  “The NAME of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.”  (Acts 19:17)  “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 confess 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?  When we use Jesus and Christian or Christianity interchangeably, we are communicating that they are the same thing.  The Bible says.  “In everything, He must have the supremacy.”  (Col. 1:18)  This verse is speaking about the person of Jesus, not a religion called Christianity.  When we make the mistake of thinking, acting and speaking as if Christianity is equal with Jesus, we are dishonoring His name.

That seems to be the point of the events that took place on the Mount of Transfiguration.  (Luke 9:28-36)  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 habit 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.”  (Lk. 9:28-36)  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 interrupting Peter in mid-sentence.  While he was still speaking, a cloud covered them, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son…listen to Him.”  The Father was helping Peter have a proper view of Jesus, and then He makes His point dramatically.  Scripture says, 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 the religion of Christianity equal with Jesus.  If that is true, it has certainly been without intent, and it happened as it did to Peter; we didn’t even know we were doing it.

It is true that in our everyday world, it’s easier and more comfortable to speak about Christianity or use the word 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.

After these discoveries, I disciplined myself to remove the words Christian and Christianity from my vocabulary.  I did this to replace them with the name of Jesus.  Instead of asking, “Are you a Christian?”  I might say, “Are you a follower of Jesus?”, 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 these thoughts are just semantics, but I beg to differ.  Words are very important because they can build bridges or barriers and can present a true or distorted view of what the Bible teaches.  For 45 years, I have searched the Scriptures and given careful and prayerful thought to this idea.  I am convinced that the use of the term “Christianity” was passed from generation to generation causing the Church to equate religion with the name of Jesus.  Today more than ever, we need to be more careful how we speak about the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Tradition can be wonderful until it finds itself in conflict with the Bible.  Remember the Bible is our only standard and in it, the believers never promoted “Christianity” or called themselves “Christians.”

For those who love Jesus, one truth is absolutely without dispute.  The Father gave Him the “NAME above every NAME,” and “at His NAME of Jesus every knee shall bow.”  May Jesus be exalted and may His NAME be returned to its proper place of honor in the community of believers.