Who Do You Say That I Am? | Should Christians be ‘Non Self-Identifying’?

by , under Emerging Church, Theology

When was the last time someone questioned you about your faith? Whereas once the question would have been ‘are you a Christian,’ the phraseology is now more often along the lines of ‘would you call yourself a Christian.’

The first is an objective statement of being, an absolute. The second a subjective assessment – you might not call me that, but that’s what I call myself. Perhaps the move from objective to subjective ontology is part of a wider cultural shift…

The question of disclosing my faith been a problematic one for me, not through any shame about my beliefs, more through issues about the culture that has grown up around it, and the way that it is popularly perceived. To declare myself ‘Christian’ is to enter an ecosystem of misunderstanding and judgements about what I believe. It is, too often, to be labelled homophobic, unscientific, intellectually closed.

Ironically, rather than answer the question, or offer to denominate ourselves, we should do as Jesus did and turn the question round. Who do you say that I am? was Jesus’ piercing question to Peter, and perhaps this offers something important. Jesus did not self-identify, and may be we should follow this lead.

Perhaps Christians should be non-self-identifying. If you want to call me ‘Christian’ then go ahead. But perhaps it’s best if I don’t identify myself as that. Aim to be known for my actions, not hiding behind my labels. What I think this does is turn the tables on our ethics. Our actions are not based on ‘I call myself a Christian, so I should do x,’ but more on ‘she does x, that’s a Christ-like thing to do.’


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  1. Veronica Zundel

    There are some monastic orders, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, that don’t publicly identify themselves as Christians at all, but simply do the work they are called to and let others draw their conclusions. I think this is a very good idea.

  2. Tom W

    A brilliant comedian, who I’m probably not allowed to “out” in a public forum, calls themselves not a Christian but “a fan of Jesus”.

    I am totally a fan of Jesus.

  3. steve collins

    based on actions we may find that others of ‘no faith’ are more christ-like than we are. and of course we will have no way to proselytise [the reason we want to be known as christians is so that people can see our good works and believe, yes? 😉 ]

  4. KB

    Interesting point Steve. What’s the Grace line on evangelism? Serious point – do you have thoughts on that?

  5. ayjay

    When Jesus said, quite publicly, “Before Abraham was I am,” that was pretty self-identifying.

    I also wonder how it’s possible to follow his commandments, especially the Great Commission, without identifying ourselves as followers of him.

  6. rodney neill

    We need the considered opinion of one of the foremost theologians of to-day -the realPeterollins (not to be confused with the other fake imposter!!

  7. KB

    RealPeteRollins is actually very interesting. I’d rather not blog about it explicitly – just seems too weird – but I’m interested in the arc of where that goes. It started as a joke, but given the rise in popularity, does RPR then try to ‘formalise’ and start to make ‘real statements’? He/She already has merchandise… to what extent are they building their identity vicariously through someone else, and what does that do to the real Peter Rollins? Has he responded with a shadow-shadow in ‘@symbolicRollins,‘? It’s a genuinely interesting phenomenon.

  8. Dan

    @ Rodney,

    The word “Christian” was first applied by outsiders to the movement of people who were following Jesus (at Antioch I think). Jesus did not mandate a group name, just that the world be told about him.

  9. Chris Peterson

    I am tempted to used Derridian language to describe my faith – by all appearances I am a Christian. For me, this would be an objective statement about the reality of appearances in social life, while tipping the hat to the subjective by acknowledging that it is the “I” that appears. But this statement is problematic, in that it is not myself that determines the nature of that which appears. So it seems somewhat Pharaisical to make such a statement. Indeed, if I look at the Jesus in the Bible, his relationship to the Pharaisees, and to the Gentiles, by all appearances, Jesus was an atheist. And so, I come full circle back to Derrida, and consider making the same claim that he made – by all appearances, I am an atheist – and wonder if this might point to something deeper…

  10. HH

    1 Peter 4:16
    However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

  11. Chris Peterson

    @HH – That still begs the question of who applies that label. Many suffer as neo-pagans because they claim the label ‘Christian’ when that’s not what they truly believe…

  12. Tiggy Sagar

    I’m not an anything, I’m just me.

    Only God has real identity. When Jesus said ‘I am’ he was using the name of God (JHWH – meaning ‘I am’). Before Abraham was Jahweh. Jahweh the Bread of Life. Jahweh the Light of the World. Who do you say Jahweh is? Only God can say ‘I am’.

  13. Adam McInturf

    I agree that at times calling ourselves “Christian” can be a grasping after identity in an us-vs.-them sense. Insofar as this is the case, I’m with you in calling for an arcane discipline where they “they will know we are Christians by our love” and not just because we say so.

    But there is also a sense in which the term “Christian” is a confession of solidarity with the People of God. We ought not try to dissociate ourselves from those who have disgraced the name. Bonhoeffer insisted that the guilt of the German nation in the time of the Nazis was his own. Perhaps Christ calls us to a similar solidarity in sin with our more judgmental bretheren in our time, so that our stance should be less “I’m not them, don’t call me that” and more “Yes, I am guilty with them, please forgive us.”

  14. mic

    Interesting post but what I always find sad is that there are such negative connotations attached to the word that we want to dissociate ourselves from it.

  15. Bryan Berghoef

    Subjectively speaking, I appreciate what you’re saying, Kester. Nice call on the ethical imperative. I often find myself saying, “As a pastor, I guess I should do X” or “As a father, I guess I should do Y”, but the idea of allowing Jesus himself to set the bar on actions and leaving the labels to everyone else is an interesting premise. Perhaps I’ll drop this discussion into our Pub Theology gathering tonight. I think that’s what Jesus would do. 🙂

  16. Marika

    I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of not self-identifying with a Christian, but it seems to me like on some level it always relies on the assumption that I will be a better representative of Jesus than the Church at large. Adam’s point about solidarity with the Church in all its awfulness strikes me as very important. Relatedly, I happened upon this Martin Buber quotation about using the word ‘God’:

    ‘Yes, it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word … it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger-marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasurechamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of Him whom the generations of men have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying … They draw caricatures and write ”God” underneath; they murder one another and say “in God’s name.” …. We cannot cleanse the word God and we cannot make it whole; but defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great concern.”1

  17. Rhonda

    I think that the label Christ Follower is the most comfortable for me personally. If I try and live my life and base my actions on Christ’s teachings then am I not following his path? I think one of my favorite quotes is from I believe Ghandi, “I like your Christ, but don’t like your Christians.” (paraphrased) I think that the negative conotation comes from the need of the Church to become like the Pharisees, in that they try and impose their doctrine on all others and if you don’t follow this specific doctrine, then you are a sinner. But didn’t God as well as Christ love the sinner. He loves us in spite of our sinful nature, a lot like a parents unconditional love for their children. If they screw up, it doesn’t make you stop loving them. You just help pick them up, dust them off and pray like crazy that they learn and don’t repeat.

  18. Josh W

    Maybe the most Jesus-like responce is to answer their question with a question; “What’s one of those then?”

    My answer is usually something like “Hmm, yes I suppose”. or “Yes … in a good way.” Maybe a nice glib answer would be;

    It depends what you mean by christian, I try to express most fully the good results of what Jesus did, and be like him.

    but I’ve met enough literally minded people to know that means

    “gobble gobble gobble not really, maybe” unless they are really in the mood to parse it.

    I find that in actual situations my responce is to disuade them from basing my “christianity” on ritual touchstones or oath like behavioural restrictions while affirming my current level of dedication, what that dedication is for is generally expressed by a mangled example or parable, in a way that causes people to shrug and make strange dogmatic statements, the usual ideological terminator plugs. If I’ve got the mental energy I poke that in a way to maybe destabalising it a little while still showing my respect for them, if not I leave things for another time.

  19. Fernando

    I went down the non-identifying route some time back. That’s why my blog is no constituted around what I do, not what I believe. And, in conversation I treat the faith stuff as something that will arise when it needs to.

    But, I’m not always comfortable with the ethical extension from this. Although I stopping fearing the implications of “if it looks Christian it might well be” nearly a decade ago, it still feels like an imprecise move. It helped me accept more mystery in life, but these days it doesn’t do much more than that.

  20. Thomas Doane-Swanson

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines. This is a kind of breathtaking thing to contemplate–this idea that for at least twenty or thirty years–probably longer than I’ve been alive, there was no ‘name,’ no precise terminology, for what would have designated people who were following Christ. I’ve been writing about it a little bit on my blog. Check me out: http://g0spel0fj0hn.com/2011/03/01/bad-words/