Christian identity, the Ten Commandments, and the way of Jesus

To say “I am a Christian” is to say a lot, and saying it in the wrong setting, or with the wrong intention, or while in the wrong relationship to what (and whom) the term rightly refers to, is dangerous.

When I hear or see “I am a Christian” I always hear it in my head as “Christianus [or “Christiana”] sum,” because it reminds me of the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, the earliest surviving Christian document in Latin. You can easily find it online if you want to read it. It’s short—only 360 words in Latin. It transcribes the trial and execution of twelve people (seven men and five women) at Carthage in 180 CE. Their crime? When required to swear by the spirit of a human emperor and offer sacrifice for his health, they refused. You could boil it down to this: “I am a Christian. . . . I am a Christian. . . . I am a Christian. . . . And immediately they were beheaded for the name of Christ.” “Christian” in this case is an accusation, a hate-word, which these martyrs accept and embrace. “I am a Christian” was not a banner of pride, superiority, or privilege. It was an accusation to which they plead guilty, and died.

We’re told in the book of Acts (11:26) that the label “Christian” was first applied to followers of the way Jesus in Syrian Antioch. This was something that others called them. “I am a Christian” was not their own way of identifying themselves. To identify themselves, they said “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus Christ is Lord.” They knew it wasn’t all about themselves; it was about Jesus. If this is news to you, and you would like to read a little more, the Wikipedia article “Jesus is Lord” explains briefly and gives the basic biblical texts. It is still true today that the best way to make a profession of faith is not to say “I am a Christian” but to say “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and to show through your words and actions that he is that for you.

One who says “I am a Christian” is claiming membership in a human community. One is identifying as an adherent of one particular religion, as opposed to others. To say “I am a Christian” is to say, “I am not one of those atheists; I am not one of those Muslims; I am not one of those Jews, or Hindus, or Buddhists.” Often in our day it seems intended to claim a partisan identity, or to claim special privileges—especially when “I am a Christian” is paired with the claim that “this country is a Christian nation.” It means I am a member of a faction in our society, and if you see yourself as a member of that same faction, you should support me, and our faction should have special privileges. This is what it means, for example, when politicians claim the “[I am a] Christian” brand on their websites and in their campaign materials.

Factionalism was a problem already in the earliest Jesus-following communities. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1:12) he reveals that some of them are saying “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas.” It is not clear whether “I am of Christ” is what a fourth faction says, trying to one-up the others, or whether it is his answer to all of them, pointing out that loyalty to Christ is not only higher than loyalty to any Christian teacher/leader but also unifies, or should unify, them all. If when we say “I am a Christian” we mean, “I confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and I take upon myself all the requirements, costs, and disadvantages of being a Christian, including placing loyalty to Christ high above any and every political commitment”—which is what the Scillitan martyrs meant—then that is one thing. But if we mean “I claim membership in a privileged faction that scorns all others”—well, that is another thing altogether. And it’s hard to tell when “I am a Christian” means one thing, and when it means the other.

But when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are confessing our loyalty to the one who, “though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6–8).

The Ten Commandments come into the picture in this way: When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we are not merely saying that Jesus is the one whom we serve, as slaves serve a master, although we are saying that. We are also identifying Jesus with the “Lord” (Adonai, Yahweh) who said to Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20). This statement introduces the Ten Commandments, which Christians through the ages have always taken as a centrally important text (along with the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer) for teaching each new generation what it means to be a Christian. The third or fourth of these commandments (there are different ways of counting them) says “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” or “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

In popular usage, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is sometimes understood as a reference to using profanity, especially profane expressions like “goddamn,” or like shouting “Jesus Christ!” to express surprise or anger. That is ugly and offensive speech, and maybe it is sacrilegious, but that is not what “taking the Lord’s name in vain” means. In a Christian setting, the most direct and egregious violation of the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain is to say “I am a Christian” while speaking and acting in ways that dishonor Christ.

The Ten Commandments tell us some of the behaviors that dishonor Christ. Some of them (the “first table of the Decalogue,” commandments 1 through 4 in the Eastern Orthodox and Reformed Protestant way of numbering them) are offenses against God: having other gods, fabricating and worshiping idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and neglecting to mark out and observe Sabbath time. Others are offenses against our fellow humans (the “second table of the Decalogue,” commandments 5 through 10 in the Orthodox and Reformed Protestant way of numbering them): failing to honor parents, committing murder, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness against a neighbor, and enviously desiring things that other people have.

There are Christ followers who have done all these things, but have confessed them, repented of them, accepted discipline, and reformed their lives. When the sins have been done in public or have been made public knowledge, then the confession, repentance, discipline, and amendment of life have also had to be public. Restoration is always possible in this way. But people who do these things, but deny having done them, and do not confess and repent, but nevertheless persist in proudly declaring, “I am a Christian,” are taking the Lord’s name in vain in the most serious way. And as Moses tells us—and the gospel does not contradict Moses on this point—“the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”

The sins that top the list—turning things or people into gods which we worship instead of the God who is Lord—are very much with us. We let ourselves off the hook too easily when we imagine idolatry only in its ancient forms, consisting of setting up statues and explicitly calling them gods and performing sacred liturgies around them. In our current setting, we can identify our idols, and others’ idols, by noting what we talk about the most, what we repeatedly lift up as the one thing that we most highly value, what we insist on as inviolable. It could be a useful discipline to ask ourselves periodically: is there something or someone that as a practical matter I am treating as a god, and perhaps even putting in the place of the one God? And not only to ask ourselves that, but to ask other people to tell us what they see in us.

But being in breach of the Ten Commandments—or in general, being in a scandalous state of unrepentant sinfulness—is not the only way to misuse the name of the Lord. I quoted above from Philippians 2, a passage in which the Apostle uses words that many scholars have suggested quote a Christian hymn. He quotes these words (or maybe the Apostle is himself the poet) in order to tell the Philippian believers that “selfish ambition,” “empty conceit,” and putting oneself and one’s own interests first are the very opposite of what our Lord has shown us to be his way. His way is the way of self-abasement, self-emptying, willing servanthood, even to the point of accepting death for the sake of others. It follows that every “me first” or “us first” way of thinking—whether it’s “Christians first” or “America first”—is alien to the thought pattern of a Christian citizen or politician. And marching into the political fray flying the banner of “I am a Christian!”—especially but not only if your manner is usually combative—strongly implies that you intend to put the interests of people who identify as Christians above the interests of the rest of the population.

This is a sub-Christian and even anti-Christian mode of being in politics. The way of Jesus is the way of abasing self to serve others. Yes, the Apostle tells us, God has highly exalted Jesus Christ and given him a name at which every knee should bow, and which every tongue should confess. But when we are commanded to imitate Christ, that means we are to imitate the self-abasement, leaving it to God to do the exalting in God’s own way and in God’s own time. As the Gospel of John tells us, God glorified and exalted Christ when Christ was lifted high upon the cross, that is, when Christ gave up everything, even his own life, for others.

For “I am a Christian!” people today, in our American setting, to march into political battle to force others to bend the knee to what we see as Christian values is the very antithesis of the way of Jesus. Even political leaders whose personal and public lives model many authentically Christian virtues go astray when they enter politics in a triumphalist “I am a Christian” mode. Those who employ this mode while in their personal and public lives betraying and violating everything that Jesus did and taught are blasphemers. Followers of Jesus will want to have nothing do to with them, apart from praying for their conversion and healing.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, the first and most important thesis said this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Jesus calls a man, he calls him to come and die.” Before we stand up and say, “I am a Christian,” may God give us the grace to remember who said these words first. May we remember the twelve people who stood before a magistrate in Roman North Africa and said “Christiana sum . . . Christianus sum” as their emphatic rejection of an invitation to idolize a strongman political leader, and who were promptly decapitated for their loyalty to the name of Christ. May God give us the courage to ask ourselves, and ask others who observe us, whether we are walking in the way of Jesus, or dishonoring Jesus by claiming his name while walking a different path.

The important thing is not to claim Christian identity but to follow in the way of Christ.

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