Is “Christian” an Adjective or a Noun?

“Christian is the greatest of all nouns—and the lamest of all adjectives.”

The quote is from the March, 2018 edition of Christianity Today. The article, “How Larry Norman Became the Elvis Presley of Christian Rock,” was written by Gregory Alan Thornbury, chancellor of The King’s College and a vice president at the New York Academy of Art. Thornbury is the author of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Larry Norman experienced severe criticism when he began to compose and perform songs with Christian lyrics and a rock ’n’ roll beat. Thornbury wrote, “Norman’s music inspired a generation of Jesus freaks, but he never shook the suspicion of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Thornbuy describes Norman’s attitude: “Christian is the greatest of all nouns—and the lamest of all adjectives”.

Let’s dissect the quote, “Christian is the greatest of all nouns—and the lamest of all adjectives.”

“Christian,” a label planted by critics, was intended as a word of derision and contempt. It quickly became, however, a tag to be worn proudly. Within a few centuries authentic Christ-followers, who dared to swim against the current of popular opinion, helped transform culture and dismantle pagan institutions. The godly response of Christians facing persecution became Christianity’s greatest apologetic.

Western civilization has been transformed by authentic Christians daring to expose injustice, even if it meant their own deaths. They helped put an end to endemic cultural sins like human trafficking, economic inequities and infanticide (at least prior to 1973 and today in New York State). Christians also supported reforms such as free education to help the poor and vulnerable break free from social, economic chains. Christians have been at the forefront in establishing hospitals, colleges, relief agencies and recovery ministries.

How about an imaginary game for just a moment? Imagine what the world be like if Christ and His followers had never lived? (Remember George Bailey and It’s a Wonderful Life?) Would women today enjoy the rights once withheld from them? Would children still be working ten-hour-days in sweat shops in America? Would blacks and other minorities still be considered one-half a person? Would slave ships still carry unwilling workers, bound by shackles, across the Atlantic if it were not for Christians like William Wilberforce?

Yes, the world is a much better and safer place (in spite of all the remaining injustices) because Christians have made a difference.

Now, let’s consider the second part of the quotation: “Christian is the lamest of all adjectives.” What happens when we add the word “Christian” as an adjective to modify another word? For example: “Christian political action group” or “The Christian Right” or a “Christian televangelist?”

Much harm as been done in the political and social arenas under the name Christian. We need look no further than the rush of European (Christian) nations to colonize Africa in the last part of the nineteenth Century.

Christian missionaries had brought light to the “Dark Continent,” as it was then called, by sharing the gospel as well as medical and educational assistance. The primary motive of European nations, however, was to exploit Africa and Africans. These nations were considered “Christian” because they weren’t Muslim or Hindu. Some European nations had also adopted a State Church, blurring the line between the noun “Christian” and the adjective.

The article in Christianity Today included this pertinent observation about Larry Norman’s concern over abusing the word Christian for personal profit or fame: “… the worst fate of all was simply to ‘make money off of Jesus.’” Candidly, I often have similar thoughts when I visit a “Christian” bookstore. It seems to me that the book section keeps shrinking while the gift and gadget section grows. I wonder if adding a Scripture passage to a picture frame makes it “Christian” art? Does placing John 3:16 or a religious slogan on a candy bar wrapper makes it Kosher? I am serious; such things exist.

I admit that in my more carnal moments I have toyed with upsetting the tables laden with “holy hardware.” Jesus is not into making a profit but making disciples.

I write the next sentences aware I may receive push-back. Have we made “Christian” music into big business? Have we made “Christian” artists into celebrities? I am not questioning the motives of the artists. God knows. I understand that an artist—a “Christian” composer or performer—deserves remuneration. God did say that an ox deserves to eat from the grain it helped thresh. Even so, I question whether the adjective “Christian” belongs beside the noun celebrity. People naturally celebrate their favorite musician, athlete or actress. That’s what makes them a celebrity. As a Christ-follower, however, I have but one person to worship and to celebrate.

When “Christian” authors or preachers or performers fall—as we humans so frequently do—more than their personal reputation is damaged. Their families also suffer, as does the word “Christian.” When “Christian” ministries enter into lawsuits with each other or are charged with moral or fiscal failure, the secular press takes note.

What is the message being sent when professing “Christians” (and there I struggle to even use the term) protest at the memorial services of soldiers while holding signs and screaming, “God hates America” or “God hates fags.” Watching a public television show, I was shocked to see “Christians” protesting during the memorial service of Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and founder of the children’s’ television show “Mr. Rogers”

I prefer to use the title “Christ-follower.” It’s not an adjective but a noun describing a person. Christ-follower may not be a verb, but it is an action word. Jesus didn’t say, “Adopt My name.” He said, “Follow Me.” Or, to say it another way, “Adopt My values.” That includes loving our enemies. Having the attitude of a foot washer. Taking up the cross daily, willing if necessary to die for Jesus.

Mahatma Ghandi reportedly said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Living the noun Christian is demanding.

Let’s also strive to make the adjective desirable again.


What am I reading: 

I have finished Francis Chan’s, Letters to the Church.  This book challenged me to reflect on how I should use my retirement years. I believe every pastor and church leader needs to be challenged by this book if there is to be any hope for revival in the American Church.

I also include Extreme Devotion as part of my daily reading to be reminded of persecuted Christians. This book is an international bestseller published by The Voice of the Martyrs.