A way of life, not a label

A recent opportunity to listen to a talk by Richard Twiss has challenged me to return to a thought that I entertained and let slide about 30 years ago. In his talk, Twiss, a American Indian, referenced the fact that Native Americans have often used a phrase “the Jesus Way” to speak of what many of us refer to as “Christianity.” I want to practice doing the same, but I know that my habits will not be easily changed.

One reason I want to begin making this change is that it’s biblical. The writers of the Hebrew Bible spoke of living faithfully/trustingly, and following God’s way, and of being on the path/road of life, and of living in the way of the fathers. The New Testament writers  liked the term “disciple,” which had a strong emphasis on “being in process as an apprentice/student.” They loved to speak of being “trusters,” which communicates a deeply relational way of living (and is a better translation than “believers,” which now communicates primarily intellectual assent). And, the New Testament writers often used phrases such as “follow me,” “follow,” and “in his steps” to speak of “the Jesus Way.” Acts tells us at least eight times that the early believers liked to identify themselves as people of “The Way.”  

On the other hand, the entire New Testament uses the term “Christian” only three times, and it never uses the term “Christianity.” One use of “Christian” is in a one-sentence historical note explaining that the term was first used in Antioch. Another use seems to be a derisive use by a member of the royal Herod family, who many scholars think was using the term as an insult to Paul. And the other use, in 1 Peter 2, is a reminder that to be a “Christian” should mean that you are willing to suffer a lot for doing good, just like Jesus did—this is the only clearly positive use of the term.

Perhaps more telling is the fact that the term did not seem to catch on with the New Testament writers, since the books and letters that are usually thought to be written late all avoid using the word “Christian.” The Gospel of John does not use it, nor do 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, 1 Timothy or 2 Timothy. And the book of Revelation, which most scholars think is the latest of the New Testament books, never uses the term “Christian,” even though it is the book where we might most expect to find it used if the early followers of the Jesus’ Movement thought of it as a good description of themselves.

A second reason that we might want to move toward speaking more of “the Jesus Way” is for the same reason that the American Indian speaker avoided the term “Christianity.” “Christianity” and “Christian” are words that have become associated with cultural imperialism all over the world, just as they have among Native Americans. And cultural imperialism is certainly not the Jesus Way for a number of reasons, not the least that Jesus was executed by Roman cultural/political imperialists with the cooperation of the High Priest Clan of cultural/religious imperialists.

Third, speaking of “the Jesus Way” reminds us of the fact that we are not being called primarily to an institution nor to a religion, but to a way of living that flows from a relationship with God through Jesus. This is a reminder that most of us need quite often (I know I do): Following Jesus is a 24/7 call to a way of living in relationship with God and others.


Pastor Ron Simkins

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