Being a Christian vs. Following Jesus

Is there a difference between being a Christian and following Jesus? I guess it depends on who you ask. I know this much, there is no definitive answer to this. Because who would make that call anyway?

Some people would say the two are synonymous. Someone holding this position might ask how it would be possible to separate the two. How could someone follow Jesus and not be a Christian or vice versa? To them there is no difference. Set aside your own views on this and consider how a person sees this if they hold it. In a way, it’s similar to people who say they see no difference between being religious and being spiritual.

Some people take an opposite view – that the two may overlap, but not necessarily. These people would point to the reality that there are plenty of Christians who don’t seem at all concerned with attempting to follow Jesus – or at least the Jesus they believe in. That’s the key to this because I imagine that the people who are supposedly guilty of this would argue that they are following Jesus and they could probably point to several things to back up their claims. Whether one agrees with the defense is a different issue. These folks would be very sincere in their belief that they are following Jesus.

In some regards, both views are similar. I think it starts with how we view our own journey of faith. Often we are less critical of ourselves and find it easier to claim that we are Christian AND following Jesus in a way we understand Jesus is calling us to follow. All the while looking at others who see faith quite differently and casting them down as not following Jesus, but being Christians in name only. In some ways this is because people see different aspects of who God is, and especially who Jesus is. Is Jesus the one who upsets the status quo or the one who is against chaos and disorder and was a part of the making order out of chaos? Is Jesus for the poor and outcast, or is he concerned with telling people to repent and sin no more? The answer is yes. Of course, these options aren’t nicely in opposition to each other either though.

Can one be a Christian and not follow Jesus? I believe that is possible for some simple reasons that have nothing to do with the arguments above. Technically, being a Christian means being a member of a Christian church. Membership has few responsibilities – show up and give from time to time. That’s what many churches’ membership requirements are. It’s no different than being in a club.

Following Jesus on the other hand implies action, listening, learning, trying. Of course there is then debate on what Jesus is calling on followers to do. And a lot of that comes from the theological lens that you look at faith through. More conservative oriented Christian churches put the emphasis on correct belief. More progressive oriented Christian churches put the emphasis on correct action. It’s orthodoxy versus orthopraxy – which is a long standing feud in Christianity. Both have positives and negatives. And I would argue that you need some of both.

One of the biggest challenges that Christians/followers of Jesus need to deal with is the institutional church’s long history of violence, abuse, cruelty, division, exclusion, and more. That’s a real challenge and what I think is the core of this whole debate. It’s why there are many who see a difference between being a Christian and following Jesus.

Some might even say that being a Christian is an institutional matter, while following Jesus is a movement matter. I’ve written about the interplay between the institution and the movement of Christianity/faith before. There’s a tug of war going on between these two. The church/the Body of Christ/the faithful get into trouble when we see that the movement exists to support the institution. That is where we often see the abuses of the church take place. That’s because institutions exist for their own preservation. And institutions exist to maintain a status quo. But institutions are not all bad either though. They offer some important advantages. Institutions offer order, process, effective use of resources, easier ability to mobilize when needed, history, and more.

Movements are at their best when they are supported by institutions because of what institutions can provide. Movements have their own advantages. They rally people together and provide purpose and meaning. They can implement change because they are flexible and adaptable and often have a vision in mind. They are imaginative. But movements also have some down sides – they are often disorganized and cannot sustain for long on their own. They burn people out. They are always scrambling for resources. And they have a tendency to exclude those who aren’t as “pure” in thought as the true believers who are throwing themselves all in on the movement.

The reality is, much like the earlier question, we need both. The question becomes which one is the foundation? That’s the wrong question actually. That’s just playing the tug of war and continuing to see the institution and the movement at odds with each other. Jesus is supposed to be our foundation. That’s easy to say of course. What does it mean? To me it means listening to Jesus and discerning what God is up to in the world is first. And from there, we can see how the institution and the movement are being invited to participate and being called on to carry the vision forward. Institution and movement aren’t supposed to be at odds with each other – they are supposed to see the value in each other, recognizing that each only has half the picture. Put them together with Jesus as the focus, and you get a beautiful picture.

What might this look like in practical terms? It’s looking at the church as it is – in decline in terms of membership numbers and budgets, often racially segregated and growing older, and not trusted in society for a variety of reasons and no longer the center of our culture. Often the church is very divided by political and ideological beliefs, which is ripping it apart. It’s important to acknowledge all of this. It’s real. So what is Jesus up to? I think this goes beyond just looking at what Jesus is up to in the church, because when we do that, we are missing so much. We end up being far too concerned with institutional issues, rather than how God is active in the world already. A lot of this is going to be contextual and localized and vary from place to place. Where I serve, God is active by seeing a need for healing and utilizing what is already there to provide that healing in the community. The institutional church has its role to play in providing healing. And there are non-church entities that also have a role in this. And it’s not just programatic either. It’s in relationships, it’s in presence. It’s in activity. Healing happens in a variety of ways too – physical, mental, emotional, community, social justice, and spiritual among other ways. It shows up in celebrating the diversity that exists (a way for us to see a broader slice of the image of God) while also highlighting what unites us as one (a common care for the community and people, and a vision for what God is moving the community towards, through healing). It’s institution and movement together. It’s Christianity and following Jesus.

That’s the path forward. That’s the invitation. It requires humility in acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. It’s about being vulnerable as well. It’s about seeing the sacredness and the sense of order, while also adapting and being flexible to move us to a better relationship with one another, with ourselves, with God, and with the rest of creation around us. It’s both/and. And it is possible.

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