Why we should stop calling Christians ‘believers’?
I’ve probably heard the term ‘believer’ thousands of times in my life. I’ve used it myself. It’s a colloquial Christianese kinda word that basically means Christian, but I think this term might have underlying negative connotations of what we really think a Christian is.
For example, one might assume that the primary basis of the Christian life is to believe. Believe what, exactly? In dominant church traditions, I would venture to say that a ‘believer’ is someone one who cognitively assents to the existence of God. What makes this God Christian, who knows.
From here, we might further ask: What sorts of things does someone who is a believer do? If the primary task of the Christian is belief, what role does action have in the Christian life? Seemingly none.
So let me respond with a couple of thoughts.
1. We can’t force ourselves to believe anything. We can live in denial and pretend to believe something that we don’t actually believe, but the truth is, if I don’t believe the tooth fairy is real, no amount of “evidence” is really going to make me believe, unless you were to introduce me to her face-to-face. Because of this inability for people to choose what they believe, we shouldn’t shame people for struggling with assenting to the existence of God. Pascal suggested that a belief in God had to be cultivated through habit; going to church, spending time with the poor, praying, and participating in worship are ways that become self-authenticating practices that confirm, not only the existence of God, but the love that God has for us.
2. Emphasizing the believing portion of the Christian life means that we necessarily have a lesser priority on action. And sadly, this is reflected in American Christian culture—we have way too many ‘believers’ and not enough Christian activists or advocates. In fact, many “believers” might hold the latter title to be an oxymoron.
3. To paraphrase James K.A. Smith, Jesus didn’t go around asking people if they believed in him, but instead, he asked them what and who they loved. He taught them how to love without exception—moving beyond social and political boundaries of who was acceptable to love. If love was our guiding principle, and not belief, how might Christianity be different?
I realize that there are too many accounts that deconstruct Christianity without a constructive vision for how to move forward, so I will offer a few alternatives.
1. Jesus-follower. This title points to the way that we are to imitate Jesus, not just believe in him (whatever that means).
2. Christian. While I generally don’t like the term Christian either because it is pretty carelessly thrown around, I will refer to Douglas Campbell’s understanding of a Christian in the first century. When the term “Christian” first originated, it was adapted from the Greek name Christos, which to surrounding Roman soldiers, sounded like the Latin word “Christis” meaning something like a useful slave. The Romans thought it was hilarious that people were naming themselves and following after a mere slave, and so they used it in derogatory ways. At this point in the early church, the word meant something and it was costly to call oneself by that name. Let’s re-estabish this kind of definition.
3. (Create your own) For convenience’s sake and for the sake of continuity of language, it is easy to use conventional titles. And I think this is actually the problem. Of course, it might be slightly difficult to simply find a new term that embodies the Christian tradition in a one or two word description, but such descriptions are needed to take the familiarity out of our culture. Let’s not be what dominant culture assumes a ‘believer’ to be. Continue to reflect on the life of Jesus and how we are being formed by the Spirit to live deeper into this identity, and let yourself be caught off guard by the words that come to mind as a result.
While it’s hard to cognitively believe in God sometimes, we can commit to following in the way of Jesus. And further, the Spirit is committed to us too—working to conform us to the image of the Son and presenting us before the Father as beloved daughters and sons.