Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Chaos that is American Christianity

It is no secret that over the past several decades Christianity in American culture has undergone dramatic and even radical change. American Christianity has seemingly experienced the kind of metamorphosis only found in certain species of insects. I do not think it controversial to maintain that Christianity has never witnessed the kind of radical and rapid shift away from its core teachings that is has recently, since the inception of the movement (if we can call it a movement) in the first century. It was not so long ago that when we called someone a Christian we had a pretty good idea what we meant. Today, that no longer seems to be the case.

Despite the goings on in American and western culture, I still believe that the term Christian means something very specific, at least where the Christian Scriptures are concerned. I realize I am making a bold assumption when I point toward the Christian Scripture in order to understand what we mean when we use the term ‘Christian’, but for that assumption I will make no apologies. If we hope to understand this term, we must inquire into the source of its origin. And there is only one source for the origin of Christianity: the Bible.

The word Christianos appears three times in the NT, once in 1 Peter and twice in Acts. It is used by Luke in Acts 11:26 to record that the Disciples of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch. It is again used in the case of Agrippa when he responded to Paul by asking him if he thought it was that easy to convince him to become a Christian. Textual issues aside, the notion that Paul wanted Agrippa to become a Christian meant something very specific. Finally, Peter uses the term to encourage those who might suffer as a Christian not to be ashamed but instead to glorify God in this name. Peter contrasts Christian with meddlers, evildoers, and murderers. Obviously, there are things that Christians are not.

According to the lexical evidence, a Christian is one who is a believer in and a follower of Christ. Another source tells us that a Christian is one who is associated with Christ. The name itself presupposes that confession of Christ constituted the characteristic feature of Jesus’ adherents.[1] At its most basic foundation then, to be a Christian is to believe in and follow Jesus Christ. Another hint can be derived from Luke’s record again in Acts 11:26: a Christian is synonymous with disciple. Luke informs us, “and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” A Christian then is a disciple of Christ. That begs the question, what is a disciple of Jesus Christ?

The Greek word mathetes is used 264 times in the GNT. It is very well attested. At its most basic level it describes a person that was a follower of some Rabbi, Teacher, or Philosopher. Now, this  “follower” is not a follower in the modern sense of the term. In order to understand what the Bible means when it talks about a disciple, we have to understand what it mean when the Bible was written. How did that Greco-Roman culture understand and use the word disciple? How do Christ and His followers use the word disciple? I think we can begin to understand what a Christian is if we can understand what a disciple of Jesus Christ was in Greco-Roman-Jewish culture. One thing is sure: we cannot possibly understand what it means to be a Christian by listening to all the noise and chaos going on in modern writings about.
The disciple-teacher relationship has deep roots in the ancient world and there is nothing to which it may be compared in modern times, at least not in western culture. A man is called a mathetes when he binds himself to someone else in order to acquire his practical and theoretical knowledge.[2] This picture of learning becomes extremely clear in Deut. 4:10; 14:23; 17:19; 31:21. In each of these cases the object of manthano is phobeisthai kyrion ton theon, to fear the Lord God. Learning means the process by which the past experience of the love of God is translated by the learners into obedience to the Torah of God. This understanding is to lead to an inner acceptance of the divine will (cf. Deut. 30:14)[3] To be a disciple is clearly more than just being a learner or a student. In fact, it is much more than simply being a student of someone else.
The noun mathetes occurs 264 times in the NT, exclusively in the Gospels and Acts. It is used to indicate total attachment to someone in discipleship. The verb form of this word, manthano, carries the idea when used in the epistles that to hold to the teaching which the recipient of the letters received is to hold to their faith (Rom. 16:17; Eph. 4:20; 2 Tim. 3:14). In other words, a disciple is one who learns from God and holds to the teachings that God is giving through the holy apostles. And this is precisely what it means to be a Christian since being a disciple is being a Christian.
Disciples were identified with the teacher they followed. In Matthew 9:10, the disciples of John came and asked a question about Jesus’ disciples. In Matt. 10:1, we are told that Jesus summoned His twelve disciples. Jesus also recognized that His disciples were to be viewed as of more importance than one’s own family (Matt. 12:49).
One of the traits of a disciple of Christ is love for other disciples. The world will observe the disciples behavior and recognize the deep love that Christians have for other Christians. Disciples of Christ prove themselves to be disciples, not with words but with fruit (John 15:8). Jesus said that the cost of discipleship was high. In fact, He said if anyone wanted to be His disciple that they would have to take up their cross, deny themselves, and follow Him. In fact, Luke 14:26-27 If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Any view of Christian that involves significant focus on self is entirely out of accord with the idea that Jesus taught. One does not have to look very far to see that there is hardly a stripe of American Christianity that does not begin with and focus on the self. In fact, the most sacred doctrine of American Christianity, the one thing that every version seems to have in common with every other version is the radical notion of libertarian free will. No doctrine is more focused on self than the doctrine of the free will.
In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus identifies disciples in community with one another as His Church. Any disciple in that community guilty of sin must be confronted and lovingly corrected and restored. In other words, sin will not be part of the Christian community in any way, shape or form. If a professing disciple refuses to repent of sin as a result of this confrontation, they are to be excommunicated and not treated like a disciple. They are instead to be treated like an unbelieving pagan. The disciple’s life is a life that believes all that Jesus teaches and that adopts, embraces and lives the values that Jesus lives and commands. The teachings and ethic of Jesus are more important to the disciple than their next breath, than even their spouse, and yes, more important than their own children and parents.
The Bible provides a clear demarcation of what it means to be a Christian as opposed to a pagan as opposed to a pagan claiming to be a Christian. Contrary to the chaos in American and western Christianity, Christian has a definite meaning. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Christ. To be a disciple of Christ is to be one that believes Christ’s word and teachings, and one that lives Christ’s words and teachings, His values and ethic. No one who claims to be a disciple of Christ rejects the teachings of Christ either outright or by way of a subversive hermeneutic. Christians do not look for ways around the clear teachings of Scripture. Christians do not challenge the Word of God; they obey it. Christians submit to the Word of God. They reject the theological and hermeneutic skepticism that is the by-product of philosophical skepticism. They humbly embrace Christ's Word. "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Col. 3:16)
The message to the believer then is that you must stand up and engage. You must seek the truth, live the truth, proclaim the truth, and yes, you must defend the truth. This is what it is to love the truth. This is what it is to be a disciple of Christ. This is what it is to be a Christian.

[1] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 478.
[2] D. Muller. Disciple. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. I, 484.
[3] Ibid.

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