Christian Living

“Christian”: A Sound or a Word?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

Any love that is not based on truth is not love, but adultery. Watch out when someone encourages you to not argue about things—but to just love the Lord and not make doctrine an issue.

Is “Christian” a word or a sound? That may seem like an unusual question to ask. But it relates to the broader question how unified the Body of Christ is, given the fact that we have different ideas about things—specifically, the unification of Roman Catholics and Protestants. It also relates to the statement, “Let’s not argue about things. Let’s just all love the Lord and not make doctrine an issue.” When I hear comments like that I raise the question “Is ‘Christian’ a sound or a word?” There is a difference between the two.

I often get approached by people who complain about something I say on the air. I make a defense for classical Christianity and classical Christian values to a world that rejects both of those things, by and large. I try to appeal to sound thinking to make my case. But many times my objections are not just with those who are outside the camp, but with those who are within the pale, as it were—those who identify themselves as Christians.

I have two points of conflict with these Christians. One is when they believe the same as I believe, but defend those beliefs with bad reasoning. Those beliefs are critical. If we are defending Jesus as Savior, or the Bible is reliable, or the sanctity of the life of the unborn, but we defend those points of view—points of view that are important, critical beliefs that have great moral or theological weight—if we defend them with bad reasons, I feel compelled to take issue with the reasons, though I agree with the conclusions. The conclusions in most cases can be supported by good reasoning, so why not use the best reasons we have and get rid of the bad ones? That’s one thing that brings me into ideological conflict with some Christians. The other issue of conflict is when there is disagreement and the issue at stake is something theologically, morally, or ethically weighty. Oftentimes the issue is a view that would not be considered orthodox. It would be heterodox, and it may even be heretical, such that believing this thing is not only contrary to the Scriptures, but also damaging to the individual and those who hold it, and is damaging to the church at large. Part of the job of an apologist is to defend orthodoxy against those on the outside and those on the inside.

This always sets up a problem. If you start defending orthodoxy against those on the inside, people say, “Why are you fighting with other Christians? Why are you arguing with your own? This is simply divisive.”

For example, the issue has been raised of the new document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which is meant to help bring Catholics and Protestants together on those things that they really agree on so they might accomplish the task of world missions. But I have problems with this document. Is it possible to bring us together on the issue of missions when we have foundational disagreements on the nature of salvation? I don’t think so.

This also comes up in the electronic church. I think the medium of TV lends itself to excess, such that people who are not well trained in theology can be launched into positions of high influence and authority, and end up teaching things that are a bit bizarre and weird. When that happens I take exception and try to be a defender of the truth, as I understand it. but then people call in and say, “Why are you dividing the Body this way? Why are you attacking Christians? These people love the Lord.”

If you’ve been around for a while and understand the issue of tactics here—especially the suicide tactic—you notice that this objection immediately defeats itself because this person is calling me on the air and publicly telling me that I am wrong for speaking on the air about other people who are wrong. In other words, they are accusing me of doing the very thing that they are in the process of doing. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, per se. But their whole point is that I’m so divisive. Why don’t we stay unified? After all, we’re all Christians. We all love Jesus—as if there is something magical about this sound “Christian,” or this sound, “love Jesus,” such that those who have a commitment to the sound should therefore not have any meaningful differences between them.

My view is that “Christian” is not a sound, it’s a word. And the phrase “loving Jesus” is not two sounds, it is two words. The difference between a sound and a word is that a sound is a noise and a word means something. It has particular and peculiar content.

I would be the first to agree that sometimes we major in the minors. Christians get all hot and bothered about minuscule theological issues, and Paul himself says don’t fuss about it; don’t waste your time with the silly things. I think one characteristic of an ill-educated church is that they create a tempest in a teapot. They fuss over the things that mean very little and they ignore the things that are really critical.

What’s the difference? If you know anything about church history, you know the difference. It is easy for someone to say, “Koukl, you think that what’s important to you is really critical, and the rest is insignificant. Well, maybe you’re wrong.”

Well, maybe I am wrong, but I’m trying to line up my understanding of what is critical with what the church has characteristically lined itself up with over the last 2000 years. I’m trying to maintain a historical perspective and not simply play my own evangelical joy-toy, my own hobby horse. A historical perspective will help protect you from doing that.

I’m deeply concerned about any rush to unification just for unity’s sake. This is the problem with the World Council of Churches. Their idea is, “Let’s just ignore our differences and get together.” But any love that is not based on truth—as a teacher of mine once said—is not love, but adultery.

I want you to think carefully about this for a minute. It really hinges on the distinction between the sound and the word.

I might ask you then, “What unites us?” And you say, “We all love Jesus. That’s really what is important here. Not all those little theological minutiae.” My response is going to be, “Why do you want to be so divisive?” You’ll say, “What do you mean?” I say, “Why would you exclude all these people who call themselves Christians, but who don’t feel about Jesus the way you do? In other words, they don’t ‘love Jesus.’ Why do you want to impose this doctrinal standard of ‘loving Jesus’ on them? That’s very divisive. You probably want to start your own denomination of people who are the ‘Love Jesus’ denomination, excluding all those who don’t love Jesus.”

There’s a reason I gave this little dialogue. Some take exception with people like me by saying, “Don’t draw lines that exclude people.” But in fact, everyone draws lines. The question isn’t whether one draws a line that excludes or divides or not, because we all have to at some particular place. The question is which lines are valid and which ones aren’t. Which lines identify fundamentals that determine what it means to be a Christian, and which lines miss the point completely, or which lines are unnecessarily divisive?

It’s possible to strike the line either too broadly or too narrowly. Our goal is to strike it accurately so as not to divide genuine Christians in an inappropriate way, but also not to include those whose teaching is clearly aberrant and hostile and destructive to the church that Jesus founded.

What is the basis of our unity? Is it the sound “Christian?” Or is it two sounds, “Jesus Christ?” Do sounds unify us, or does truth unify us? Is it enough for me simply to make the sound “Christian” with my lips, or “I love Jesus,” in order to be included with the group and therefore protected from theological censure? Is that all that it takes? If it’s a sound that unifies us then any person who applies the sound to themselves is part of the group, no matter what the sound means.

By the way, that’s the difference between a sound and a word. A word is a sound that means something. However, if it turns out to be meaning or truth and not the sounds themselves that unite us, then we have to look carefully at what it is people hold to be true regarding the sound they make with their lips.

Here’s another way of putting it that sharpens the point. Do sounds give substance or do meanings give substance? That’s a rhetorical question; the answer is obvious—not sounds, but meanings. How do we know? If sounds, then everyone who identifies themselves with the sound is in the group. Conversely, if our unity is based on the sound “Christian,” then Spanish speakers wouldn’t be included because their sound is “Christianos,” not “Christian.” You’ll say, “That’s silly, because the English word ‘Christian’ and the Spanish word ‘Christianos’ mean the same thing.”

Now, what is this “mean” business? The minute you introduce this concept of meaning you necessarily tie yourself to content. Then my question is going to be, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

Somebody called in yesterday and identified himself as a “pure Christian” who rejected the Trinity. There is no such thing as a pure Christian who rejects the Trinity. Why? Because the word Christian means something. It means a number of particular things, and if you disregard or reject those particular things then you can’t be called a Christian. A pure Christian is someone who holds to all of the essential teachings of Christianity, which includes the Trinity. If you reject the Trinity, theoretically it may be that you are right in that rejection, but I am not dealing with that issue now. Maybe your belief is true and Christianity is false, but you can’t call it pure Christianity because a necessary part of being a Christian is belief in the deity of Jesus Christ. Now, you might be something else—a modalist or a Sabellian or an Arian—and maybe you’re right, but you are not a Christian. Why? Because words are sounds with meanings.

It’s the meaning that’s critical, not the sound. Simply applying the sound “Christian” to oneself doesn’t solve the problem. We must know what one means by the word, and you must get your meanings of words like “Christian” or “Jesus Christ” or “loving Jesus” from the source material that introduces the word to begin with. And that source material is the Scripture. The Scripture ultimately defines what it truly means to be a Christian, what it truly means to love Jesus.

That’s how you resolve the debate. You can only resolve it by going back to the text. That’s the only way to do it. There’s no way of avoiding it, which means we have to introduce this ugly term that those who hate discord of any kind also can’t stomach. It’s the “D-word”—doctrine. What is doctrine? It is accurate knowledge about God and the things of God.

Doctrine cannot be avoided, because the minute you say “Christians shouldn’t let doctrinal differences divide them,“ I’m going to a have to ask you, “What does the word ‘Christian’ mean?” You’re going to give some kind of exclusive standard, a standard which excludes some people who might otherwise call themselves Christian, a standard which will include others. In other words, it will be a standard that divides. You can’t avoid it. It is part of the program—unless, of course, you want “Christian” just to be a sound and not a word.

How do we know what the word means? We have to go back to the source. Then we find out that a Christian is something in particular, someone who believes particular things, and lives in a particular way. If you object to those things, then you need to be corrected, and that’s a good thing. That is healthy.