Christianity and Why Words Matter

If you haven’t checked out the discussion on both my Facebook and my last blog post, you should. It’s in response to my thoughts entitled “Jesus Wasn’t a Christian.” You should go read them if you haven’t….

Here’s the deal – words matter. Sometimes I hear that “it’s all a bunch of semantics.” Well, yes. Language is vital. And Communication 101 is this: it’s not only what I say that matters, but what you hear.

I could tell you that today I feel gay. And insist that this word means “I’m happy.” I could do that, but my guess is, I wouldn’t really be communicating effectively. So why use words that don’t communicate what we intend. Maybe you could say that it almost lacks integrity to call yourself a Christian, since every time I do that with someone who doesn’t know Jesus, they think of about 5 things that don’t define me. When you tell someone who doesn’t know Christ that you’re a  “Christian”, do you think that the first things that come to mind are “Oh how nice. Carl loves God and people. He serves unselfishly and always puts others before himself. It’s so great that Carl the Christian has had his heart changed and warmed by the power of the Holy Spirit in order to see nations and peoples live an abundant life?” I doubt anyone would be thinking that.

So why use a word that doesn’t mean what we want it to mean?

So when I say that Jesus didn’t “start Christianity” and that “he wasn’t a Christian”, I simply mean two things:

  1. Jesus was Jewish by culture and religious affiliation. But even that wasn’t his point. He wasn’t selling “Jewishness.” He was offering Himself to the world. Jesus is above religion. Greater than religion.
  2. Jesus did not come to institute a new religious system, as if the old one was no good, so we need a better one. He came to provide life. A way. He doesn’t know the way. He is the way. He doesn’t point to the truth. He is the truth. And he doesn’t tell us that this new religion to be named after him will be the new life. He is the life.

This is quite the opposite of watering down our faith. It’s actually turning up the heat on all of us who might identify ourselves as “Christian” and saying something like “That’s great. But are you/we following Jesus?”

From day one, Jesus asked men and women to follow him. He invited both the crowds and the disciples to follow. Not simply to believe, but to believe and follow. That’s a disciple. Someone who loves Jesus so much that they believe in what he said, and they do it (follow).

You might say “Yes, Carl. And that person is called a Christian.” You can say that if you want, but it doesn’t communicate the heart of the matter. And that word no longer holds any power to it. The 3 times it was used in the New Testament are all in regard to what others (unbelievers) were calling the followers of Jesus. It was never mandated or encouraged by the Apostles.

But hey, listen carefully – ANY word or set of words we use, can and will be misused and misunderstood. So the words are not magic. The reality of how we live our lives and love others in the way of Jesus will win the day!

Now….does that help the discussion or confuse us some more? This discussion is the exact point where I live my life every day. And I can use all the help I can get! So let’s work on this together!


  1. Katherine Anderson says:

    I would go even further. Jesus only asked a handful of people to follow him; and the seemingly general audience comments about following Christ were addressed to specific people. They weren’t said to us.

    I think it makes more sense that instead of following him (a temporary thing because he would not always be there to follow around on foot) the sort of fulfillment of “following” is being like Christ. His prayer was that we be One with God as he was.

    So rather than saying we must always be obedient, rather we could listen to the Spirit and witness as the Spirit does within us, aligning our minds and hearts to be in agreement with God.

    All that is a huge leap from merely following, though that is a start and a worthy one. It could be all we ever do but following is not meant to be all we ever do.

  2. bruce says:

    Thank you for inviting this discussion. You are right that words matter, but I think the reality behind them matters more, and I don’t think I have the energy to get people to change their vocabulary.

    Of course it’s a *fact* that Jesus did not start Christianity, and it’s a *fact* that he was not a Christian, but it is also a *fact* that anyone today who is following Jesus is going to be called a “Christian” even though most people who get called “Christian” are probably not following Jesus.

    Most people (even Muslims) are smart enough to know that there are differences among Christians, just like Most people (even Christians) can figure out that there are differences among Muslims. In other words, there are different realities behind these labels, and I think it’s insulting to people’s intelligence to conclude that they can’t eventually figure that out.

    I don’t think imprecision in the word “Christian” is much of a problem. I think more attention needs to be given to exemplary living than to the labels we allow to be used for us.

    Ultimately, only Jesus knows the ones who are truly following him from among all of us who say that we are. It’s good for you to draw attention to these facts about the word “Christian,” but I don’t see them being especially significant in relation to friendships with Muslims.

  3. bruce says:

    Katherine, I think Carl and I are using “following Jesus” as a metaphor for becoming like him. Your comment sort of illustrates my observation about language and reality.

  4. Cassie says:

    I suppose, then, it would be silly to say, “I’m a Christian” and leave it at that. Why not say, “I’m a Christian,” and explain what you mean? You will have to explain anyway… using words. Unfortunately, words, though limited, are the only medium we have to communicate with…in our own merit.

    Of course this leaves out Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit talks beyond words. He talks directly from Himself to your spirit. You may not even hear the words with your mind. You may just know something is true because Holy Spirit told it to you.

    Now, if Holy Spirit is in you, and He is in another, He can impart something to both of you, thus bypassing the need of the use of limited words.

    Unfortunately, the unsaved (including Muslims) don’t have Holy Spirit. What do we do then? I guess we’re limited to using our words…and praying for Holy Spirit to reveal Himself to them. Only after this revelation will someone know what you mean, anyway. Jesus spoke in parables:

    This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.~Matthew 13:13

    No one can understand, hear, or see without God showing Himself.

    We are still called to plant seeds.

    I fail to see how my refusing to be called by Christ’s title helps me communicate any better. What words do you suggest we use to get the unsaved to understand who we are? Or should we just walk it out? Even that is not going to work without Holy Spirit.

    And when did connotation become more important than denotation? (When did subjectivity become more important than the truth?)

  5. Wesley says:

    The name ‘Christian’ – in and of itself – has NEVER had any “power”. Clearly, the power is from the One we follow. I look at this matter of not using the term Christian to describe yourself involving (at least) two issue:
    1: Laziness – you don’t use the term b/c it has all the negative conotations and instead of doing the hard work of either explaining what it actually means or living in such a way that the “labels” don’t stick to you, you just push the rest of your Christian brothers and sisters in front of the proverbial bus and say, ‘oh, I’m not one of those “Christians” i’m a Jesus follower.
    2: Cowardice – inextricably linked to this laziness is a cowardice that, like Peter before the crucifiction, fears the repercussions of being identified with Christ or His followers. Whatever your ‘reasons’ are for that (even missional ones) it displays ‘my God is not big enough to handle this and needs my help!’ Our responsibility is to preach through our words and our lives and leave the results up to God. I Cor. 2 sums this up pretty well.

  6. Cassie says:

    Not that I don’t understand what you’re saying. Paul became all things to all people. His METHOD changed a bit when he spoke to different groups. His MESSAGE never changed.

    I just wonder which you are changing here?

    X-post from Facebook.

  7. nathan says:

    In Life of Flavious Josephus; 110, Josephus was sent to confront a rebel during the Jewish-Roman War. He wanted to convince the rebel to stop the futile attempts of attacking the Roman Empire and look for other ways to achieve his desired results. He tells the rebel “Repent and believe in me or,“metanoesein kai pistos emoi genesesthai”.

    This is the same exact phrase that Jesus uses throughout the gospels. He’s not merely saying confess your sins to me and have certainty in my existence. He’s just seen the carnage left by previous rebel revolts against the Roman Empire, and he’s trying to tell this guy that his way of doing things are futile. Jesus meant much more by his statement, but surely no less.

    We can’t trivialize God and Jesus to a mere set of beliefs like my 3 year old has about the existence of Santa Clause and whether he really does fly his sled and slide down chimneys. We need to be able to express in current language what it means to follow Jesus. Does that mean shooting our enemy? Or does that mean following Jesus’ path of non-violence?

    We need to adopt a much more intelligent way of approaching our text.

    1. Wesley says:

      I gotta say, whenever i hear people talk about “Jesus’ path of non-violence” i always cringe b/c i wonder if you’re talking about Ghandi or MLK Jr. and just putting Jesus’ face on him. Jesus didn’t have a path of non-violence. His path was VERY violent only in His first incarnation He came for the purpose of having violence done to Him. But don’t confuse the fact that Jesus didn’t start some revolt against Rome or burn chariots or whatever that His was a path of non-violence. His very words were, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Don’t forget too that the glorified Jesus returning will have an extrememly violent path.

      1. Cassie says:

        Good point!

        In the Gospels, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, symbolizing that as a king He came in peace.

        In Revelation, He will come back on a warrior horse, signifying that He comes to fulfill His Father’s plan, rid the world of evil, and display Yahweh’s wrath against said evil.

        So many people remember Jesus as the cute little baby born to save the world. But they forget that He grew up. He got angry. It was righteous anger, to be sure, but anger nonetheless.

        Jesus is so very violent against the wickedness. He almost has to be. It’s His nature to oppose evil. Like soap and dirt. One must necessarily overcome the other, because the two cannot coexist in the same location. And since Jesus is omnipotent…

        1. nathan says:

          Can we please read the Bible in its entirety, instead of being selective about the verses we like to fit our own paradigm of how the world should be?
          The context is Jesus sending his disciples out to minister to “the lost sheep of Israel.” That is important, as 1st Century Judaism was deeply embedded in tradition and the proper way to live as a good Jew. As a charismatic figure, Jesus brought a completely new message that is the Word of God, and runs counter to the religious narrative and political narratives of the time, which keep in mind were and are extremely powerful narratives. He warns us of this in Mk 7 “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
          When he sends his disciples out to preach to “The House of Israel” he is in essence mounting an insurrection. The word for “sword” in Aramaic (which Jesus spoke) is a dividing tool. His new message which runs counter to the dominant religious traditions would no doubt pit family members against each other. He then gives them a passage on Micah 7:6. I think anyone who enters or leaves a religious tradition counter to the religion of their family experiences deep hostility. You can’t select verses that you like to fit your own paradigm. You have to take the Bible seriously…All of it.
          How do you explain Jesus’ sermon on the mount? Or his actions in the garden of Gethsemane? How do you explain thousands of documents from our Early Church Fathers who for 300 years after Christ forbid any Christian to be part of the military and carry a sword? The saw the words of Micah, Amos and Hosea as beginning on earth. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
          Justin Martyr wrote in 160 AD:
          “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.” (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4)
          Hippolytos wrote in c. 200:
          “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Hippolytos, Apostolic Tradition 16:17-19)
          Yes, Revelation talks of a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. Do you really think that Jesus will actually come on a horse, wielding a sword to kill “evil” people? Why doesn’t he use his hands? Is it supposed to be just a neat trick, like the guy on Venice Beach who picks up tables with his mouth? Or maybe the sword is a metaphor for Truth speaking to Power, which makes sense in his Kingdom narrative brought through powerlessness where the last is first and the first is last, instead of an Empire of Power, like the world of pagans and hierarchies. Look at all of the other places throughout the Bible where a sword is used metaphorically.

          1. Cassie says:

            Why do you keep quoting ancient historical documents instead of the Bible? I don’t care what Flavius Josephus said. I care what Yahweh said.

            And I’ve read the whole Bible. And Jesus WILL COME BACK WITH A SWORD.

            I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,”[b]dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. ~Revelation 1:12-16

            Note the “double edged sword.” Yes, it is the Word of Yahweh, but the Word will kill the wicked.

            The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. ~Revelation 16:19

            The wicked will drink the “cup of the fury of his wrath.”

            When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. 9They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

            11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. ~Revelation 20:7-15

            ALL will be judged, and those whose name is not the the book of life will DIE.

            Does that mean we get to judge? No. that’s Yahweh’s job. But He’s not some namby pamby “kumbayah” peace for even sin (note I said SIN, not SINNER) God. He is omnipotent and fierce! He is merciful, yes, but ALSO JUST.

            You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil;
            with you the wicked cannot dwell. ~Psalm 5:4

  8. JE Oppenheim says:

    Carl, I heard you this morning at Greenwood Community and love your message. Jesus! Absolutely!

    Carl, I tried to subscribe to your blog, but there’s a broken link or something, so I thought you’d want to know to get your tech support friends to work…

    Richard and I have already ordered 2 copies of your Hezbollah books for our sons-in-laws who have birthdays this week.

    Blessings! Elizabeth Oppenheim

  9. Please try to limit your comments and keep them specific to the topic. A couple of you seem to be preaching your agenda here – not sure who you’re preaching to, but this is not the place. If you want to have a civil discussion – great. I enjoy controversy and appreciate some push-back…. But not grand standing. Thanks.

    1. Cassie says:


      I mean you no disrespect. I suppose I get a bit angry when I see things that want to water down Christianity and make it more palatable to the unsaved. It looks like this is what you are doing, and if it is not, I’m sorry. I am sorry that my anger has been so obvious in my posts. To clarify, I am not mad…just passionate.

      I do think that my posts have all been on topic, though.

      I would like to clarify another thing:

      Main Entry: 3grandstand
      Function: intransitive verb
      Date: 1900
      : to play or act so as to impress onlookers
      — grand·stand·er noun

      I am not trying at all to impress anyone. Because my identity is in Christ, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

      As for civility, I consider debating rather fun and nothing anyone says makes me any less civil to them. So….yeah. Like you, I appreciate controversy and debate. I respect all with whom I debate, though I may not respect their beliefs.

      I would email you this instead of posting it here but 1) not sure where to find your email address or if you are offering that to the public
      2) you publicly called us out, so I will publicly clarify

    2. Cassie says:

      Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, or attributing to you what the others who posted on WDYFM or here have said. If that is so, I am sorry.

      There is one thing we agree on, Mr. Medearis, and that is that it is not about religion. Yahshua is so much more/deeper than religion.

      But, instead of making further assumptions about what you believe, I am going to ask you straight out.

      1) Do you believe, as John 14:6 says that Yahshua is the ONLY Truth, LIfe, and Way to the Father?
      2) Do you believe that Islamic Jesus is the same as Yahshua the Christ/Messiah?
      3) Do you believe that Yahweh is of the utmost importance? Even more important than people?
      4) Do you believe that it is possible to have love or peace at all without Yahweh?

      I’m sorry to ask because I’m sure you’ve answered these before in your books and things, but frankly, I doubt I’ll read your books any time soon.

      Anyway, I know you believe that Yahshua is your Lord and Savior, so you are my brother in Christ, whatever other differences/issues we might have, and so…

      God bless!

      1. Susanne says:

        You really should read Carl’s books, Cassie. Try “Muslims, Christians & Jesus” first –it’s very easy to read and you can finish it in a day or two. You will be introduced to a man who truly has the heart of God and a love for people. (If you can’t handle a whole book, check out my blog because I’ve reviewed both books there with copious notes of things that stood out to me from each.)

        My Muslim friends are way more impressed by people like Carl who actually love and care about them than people who go around trying to divide people.

        Carl is about building bridges with Muslims not tearing them down. I think we’ve had enough tearing down by “Christians” so it’s time to demonstrate God’s love towards all people instead of being so divisive.

        READ THE BOOK then come back here and ask Carl about his spiritual views if you still have questions.

        Also I recommend Nabeel Jabbour’s “The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross” which helps explain the “western wrappings” we have that hinder Muslims from understanding the Gospel of Jesus. It’s a wonderful book from a Christian Arab who loves Muslims.

  10. al ballard says:

    Has there been a change in your agenda? Are you making a campaign to attempt to dislodge followers of Jesus from their local congregations and the term Christianity? I have listened to all of your audio and video segments, read all of your blogs, agreeing with the opportunity to share being a follower of Jesus. Over and over in your past presentations when the topic of Christianity is brought up by others you have proudly stated, “whatever, i’m a follower of Jesus,” defusing debate over Christianity the religion or cause. Which is awesome. You have seemed to move away from that strategy to attack the term Christianity. Where do you believe this will take your ministry? Are you promoting a concentrated effort to disconnect and in some regards degrade the term Christianity. And, unfortunately there is even a defiance tone towards others opinions and an agenda to seperate yourself. Isn’t this what Christianity has done worldwide, disconnect from others?
    Are you having a crisis, are you frustrated, just where is the old approach to “just being a follower” vs this new campaign to disconnect others from Christianity. There is a change in your writings, even Face Book comments. Please come back to the Carl we love as a follower of Jesus and not a Christianity basher. How do we pray for you?

  11. Susanne says:

    Carl, I totally get what you are saying. I know Muslims in the Middle East who think “Christianity” is support for the Iraq War, Desperate Housewives and other such things represented by America. So just as “gay” has lost its original meaning and the hearer might think “she’s not happy, she’s a lesbian,” you are saying one who HEARS “Christian” may not think “there’s one who loves her enemies,” but “Oh, she is against us. She supports killing our children in Iraq and loves our enemy Israel.”

    I totally get what you are saying. I don’t think you are bashing Christianity. You are just saying that we need to realize what “Christianity” means to those outside of our circles. To an American Baptist a Christian is a good thing. To a Muslim in Iraq, a western Christian means bombs and sanctions.

    My Muslim friend told me they are fearful when people like us come to power. If you think of their logic — evangelical Christian Bush = bombing their children and destroying their country then it makes sense. Especially when they read that 75+ per cent of fellow evangelicals supported Bush and the Iraq War.

    To them it’s the Crusades all over again.

    We need to try that whole “overcome evil with good” thing and “love your enemies” command. It’s amazing how we call ourselves followers of Christ yet often are the first to support bombing our enemies.

    I think Jesus would have fed those Iraqi children who were without food during those years of sanctions. And I think Jesus would take food and water and medicine to those suffering now in Gaza.

    Yet the Christians still strongly support Israel because we think God expects us to. Even at the expense of compassion and love which Jesus so wonderfully demonstrated.

  12. Alas, the problem of words demonstrated here. Al and Cassie (and others), it’s not the reality of following Jesus (what you might call “Christianity) that I’m upset with – obviously – it’s the communicating the heart of the words we use. The words “Christian” and “Christianity” don’t communicate what you or I mean to a world who is lost and doesn’t know Jesus. Not sure why that’s confusing?

    Calling yourself a “Christian” may be watering down the truth, but saying “I try to follow Jesus” surely isn’t watering down anything -in fact, quite the opposite.

    Let me say it another way: What religion are people who are born and raised in Spain? What about Serbia? Columbia? Italy? THey are Catholic. Or as they would say “Christian.” Now we can argue with them if we want and say “No you’re not REALLY a Christian” and then see how that works…. OR we could drop and unhelpful and confusing term and focus on the reality. The biblical Jesus Christ who has provided for us a way to the Father.

    While it’s true that for the last 2000 years some who have been called “Christians” have actually following the Christ, but so many more have not (think of the 2000 years in its totality, not your local church which is probably doing it well). So to hold on to a term that is misunderstood and confusing is not helpful.

    That’s my whole point. It has nothing to do with ripping on the body of Christ, the local church or watering down anything – all quite the opposite if you can hear the point.

    Does that help?