Noun: a person who believes in Jesus Christ - e.g. David is a Christian.
Adjective: of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ - e.g. a Christian country.
How we typically use the term Christian can say more about our views of life, faith, and reality then we may know.
As a noun, Christian describes a person’s identity - it’s a self-forming term, that at its best, reflects a consistency of life and faith entailed with what it means to be a follower of Jesus with our whole life. In this sense, Christian is a holistic term.
As an adjective, Christian is used to describe a characteristic of a person, place, or object - it’s a clarifying term intended to sharpen or distinguish someone or something from within the diversity of our world. In this sense, Christian is a specifying term used to describe part of something in our lives.
Christian as both noun and adjective is necessary and helpful for better understanding the dynamics of faith and practice. Yet in my experience, it is the adjectival use that is employed most often.
Consider these examples related to a profession:
If you’re a plumber, are you a Christian plumber?
If you’re a lawyer, are you a Christian lawyer? (no, this one isn't a joke!)
If you’re an athlete, are you a Christian athlete?
If you’re a musician, are you a Christian musician?
Christian is used as a descriptor - an addition - to a person’s life. Such understanding and use of the term brings two examples to mind:
First, there is the little book you may find in your church foyer called The Shepherd’s Guide - “Christian Business and Ministry Directory.” If you’d rather employ Christian businesses, this resource is for you.
Second, fans of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) have recently celebrated the success of worship leader Chris Tomlin in reaching #1 on Billboard’s 200 chart (top albums). For a CCM artist to reach such status is truly remarkable - Tomlin’s is quite an achievement. And it's clear, this story has become newsworthy because Tomlin is a Christian musician.
As I reflect on these examples, I'm troubled. An adjective faith presents a limited view of life and faith. It’s incomplete. The wholeness that Jesus invites all to embrace gets divided and differentiated into tidy categories - Christian ethics; Christian music; Christian community...People end up doing a lot of Christian things with little reference to being a Christian.
With an adjective faith, aspects of God’s good creation are less-than or better-than depending on whether or not they carry the Christian moniker. To further complicate matters, the value of the label will depend on who’s doing the labeling - likely a great number of people see Tomlin’s success as a joke rather than an achievement.
Here’s where I’m troubled: a recognition of the goodness of all God’s creation is traded for a spiritualization of certain parts God’s creation. Music is labeled "Christian" and elevated to a different, often higher, status even if it sounds much the same as other music. Similarly, the Christian plumber is distinguished from the secular plumber, even if they perform the exact same duties with the exact same quality. Yes, words and actions may differ depending on a person's religious commitment, but surely we can agree that the label "Christian" is more than outward appearance. Yet we don't.
In these aspects of everyday life, an adjective faith is incomplete at best; divisive at worst. Feelings and actions born out of a sense of superiority are of no shortage in the history of Christianity. Jesus is clear that faith is more than a label - our words reflect our hearts (Mt. 12:34-35).
Furthermore, accepting the descriptor "Christian" misses the holistic qualities of the word as a noun - to be a Christian is foremost about our whole identity, not a music genre or business marketing ploy. Faith is not icing on the cake of life - it’s the whole cake.
In terms of music, what about Bono? Or Johnny Cash? Or countless other top musicians who are/were self-professed Christians? They have also produced Billboard #1 albums - many times over! Yet there is little fanfare about their faith and their achievement, especially from Christians. Alas, their music isn’t considered Christian. They don’t fit the criteria of an adjective Christian faith. Instead, and better I would suggest, Bono, Johnny Cash and others are Christians who are musicians - and very talented ones at that. Christian is their identity, not just a descriptor of their art.
So instead of an adjective faith that categorizes parts of life, prioritizing identity as a Christian provides a foundation for all of life. And considering Jesus’s call to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” - our whole selves! - we need more than an adjective faith.
Instead of a Christian faith, we need to be Christians.