Voices: sectarianism within us

In recent posts on this site, I’ve echoed several “voices” that I thought should be heard.  I, and some of you, have heard the voices of

And in this “voices” post, I suggested implicitly that the term “Christian” is used variously and inaccurately.  I then specifically invited answers to a query about the use of the word “Christian.”  Only one reader bit (thanks, John), but presumably, more of you at least thought about  it.  “Christian” is a term that deserves thought.

Among the worthwhile slogans of the Campbell-Stone American Restoration Movement is this one:  “call Bible things by Bible names.”  We might infer from that suggestion that, since the Bible doesn’t speak of trash cans or trains or traffic, terminology in those spheres may be relatively unimportant.  However, the Bible does speak of pastors and parables, of sin and salvation, of Christ and Christians — so we ought to speak biblically accurately of such things.

And so I come to the question again:  what of the word-concept “Christian”?  What does it commonly mean?  Biblically, what does it mean?  And therefore, how should we use the word?

Put another way, how may we rightly define the term “Christian”?

About 15 years ago, my own voice was heard from a pulpit, of all places.  (I may soon have the opportunity to “preach” formally again, but it will be more exegesis than sermon at this point in my life, and this is all beside the point.)  In that fateful sermon, which ended up upsetting some folks sincerely and others vicariously or by projection, I called our small-to-medium-sized Church of Christ — which was fairly moderate and fairly healthy — to examine ourselves.  I believed then, and still believe, that sectarianism exists within us.

Now, to those peering in from outside the provincial history of my movement, this may not appear to be a particularly insightful or incisive observation.   “What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  But most congregations of our stripe have for long years been weaned on the notion of being just Christians and nondenominational, nonsectarian.  Many are (or would be, if the eye-wool were peeled back) horrified by the realization that we are now, by most estimations, a sect.  By way of defining terms:

  • A movement is the evidence of collective energy for a cause.
  • A denomination is a named entity that grows out of a movement.
  • A sect is alternately thought of a) as a delineated segment from a movement, or b) as a denomination crystallized.  The use of the term “sect” instead of “denomination” is sometimes intended to sound more harsh, implying divisiveness and not mere division.
  • A cult would be a sect that engages in brainwashing and/or illegal activities, usually based on one or more charismatic personalities, and marked by either excessive, strongly counter-cultural behaviors.

The above definitions are my own, formulated within 4-5 minutes.  They are not put forward as exhaustive or as even commonly accepted, but they can serve as working definitions for the purpose of this blogpost.

In naming the sectarianism within us in the Church of Christ in my sermon years ago, it was my purpose to call out those who would render blind whole groups of people to the self-righteous obstinacy of the decades — and then, to spur us toward serious thought about what it is to be a “Christian.”  What does the term really mean, and how did/does it function as a label?

I was taught on many occasions that “Christian” means “like Christ.”  But if we push that definition too far, those in a sectarian denomination may begin to believe they are the most like Christ, setting themselves up as “the only Christians” instead of merely being “Christ-followers only”.  One illustration I employed in moving toward a variant definition of “Christian” was the label “Bostonian”:  a Bostonian is not necessarily like Boston, but she is of Boston, belonging to Boston.

If we can re-envision ourselves as being of Christ, based on the scriptures’ idea of a) coming into, b) remaining in, and c) growing in that state, well, I think we could move back from being a sect or denomination to a movement.

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