Last Sunday was Evangelism Sunday across my denomination, so I preached on the theme in the church where I serve as interim pastor. In a message entitled “The ‘E” Word,” I said that we often regard “evangelism” as a dirty word, rather like those others we refer to only by their initial letters. Perhaps we do so, I observed, because we have witnessed or experienced abuse of the practice by TV preachers and cold-calling tract-readers. Or it could be we simply believe in the mainline church that religion is private, and we shouldn’t invade anyone else’s space. The point of the sermon was the recovery of the word as a good and proper one that Presbyterians could and should embrace as their calling.

After worship, a member invited me to preach a sermon sometime on “semantics,” as he put it, how some words have been taken away from us and need to be recovered. He didn’t say what particular words he had in mind, but the idea so intrigued me that I decided not to wait for an opportunity to talk about it in a sermon, but to comment here.

Three stolen words immediately came to mind: “liberal,” “conservative,” and “Christian.” All of them were once good and honorable terms. But it seems to me they have had their meaning so perverted as to render them nearly useless. They are so dependent on context and the prejudices of the speaker and/or writer that I’ve almost quit using them.

Liberal,” for example, comes from the root “liber” (free). Specifically, it meant “suitable for a free man, a gentleman,” or something not tied to a trade, a sense that survives in “liberal arts,” which are intended for the general broadening of the mind. Another meaning has been “generous” or “abundant.” But today it’s become a filthy epithet in some quarters, associated with wastefulness or even, as in the case of actions depicted in the ACORN videos, support of morally questionable endeavors.

The same can be said of “conservative,” also once a good and commendable word or quality. To conserve is to store up, preserve, protect from harm, keep for the future. Conservative estimates are cautious and thoughtful; a conservative dresser is modest and not flashy. The term even once meant what “moderate” means now. Earlier generations were conservative when they lived within their means instead of on easy credit, when they waited for things instead of insisting on acquiring or experiencing them right now. I dare say if our nation had learned those lessons from earlier days, we wouldn’t be in the financial mess we are now, having to remember those traditional values of thrift and savings. But, as with “liberal,” “conservative” has come to be a pejorative term for some. Conservatives are depicted as mean-spirited, angry, and uniformly fundamentalist in religion.

Which brings us to the third term, “Christian.” As a minister, I’m troubled by the way this word is used today even more than the redefining of the other two terms I’ve talked about here. The original name for the Jesus movement was “the Way,” but by Acts 11:26, the followers of Jesus were being called “Christians.” What I have always heard is that the name was not chosen by the disciples, but imposed. It means “little Christs,” and was intended as a term of derision. “Look at those little Christs,” the skeptics and pagans would say. “Who do they think they are?” But the followers of Jesus accepted the name and wore it as a badge of honor, just as their Lord had accepted insults and criticism during his ministry. To use for yourself a term coined by your opposition was a way of turning the other cheek, as Jesus had taught. It was a witness to the humility and gentleness of the One crucified and risen.

But today, “Christian” has become associated almost exclusively with a particular position on certain hot button issues, like evolution or gay marriage or abortion (usually all of the above). Attempts at pointing out that there is more than one “Christian” perspective on some issue are either drowned out by angry voices or else ignored by the media. We favor simplistic, sit-com answers, and are impatient with the nuanced discussion that admits more than one faithful and informed opinion.

I have all but given up on calling myself a “Christian” because of the abuse of the term these days. I prefer “believer” or “follower of Jesus.” But really in the end, what I’m called doesn’t matter as much as the way I act and the words I say. I intend for both to be faithful to my Lord, knowing that he will always be faithful to me. Others may take away and co-opt the historic term for my commitment, but they can never rob me of the presence of Jesus.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham