On television, an ad for begins “Single Christian? Good news!” and promises to “Find God’s match for you”. What does the noun Christian mean in this context? Not, I am sure, what NOAD2 says:

a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings.

and certainly not the very broad sense in this quote from Anita Loos’s A Girl Like I (NY: Viking, 1966), pp. 195-6:

This small bouquet of words is quite insufficient to express the fondness and gratitude I shall always feel for Joe [Schenk]; it often strikes me that one of the best Christians I’ve ever known was a Jew.

Loos’s noun sense is the one related to a use of the adjective Christian that NOAD2 characterizes as informal:

having or showing qualities associated with Christians, esp. those of decency, kindness, and fairness.

Instead, Christian dating and matchmaking sites are using a much narrower sense of Christian, roughly ‘evangelical Christian’, with a specific sense of evangelical that excludes much of mainstream Christianity.

ChristianMingle hints at its restrictive use via the phrase “Good news!” — with the phrase translating Christian gospel or (in archaic language) evangel. The restriction to evangelicals or fundamentalists is implicit on most of the dating and matchmaking sites. A few typical sites:

The Single Christian and Dating Network (link)

Welcome to Single Christian!, the best place in the world for Christian singles for finding single christian woman, christian single chat, christian dating relationship, christian free dating single. In, you can date, relate, and find your soul mate among the Web’s largest community of Christian singles. (link) is part of a Christian Network Enterprise, which provides members all around the world access to many resources that help them establish and further develop their businesses and careers, improve their social and personal life, learn new things, or just stay connected with the Christian community locally and globally. (link)

Christian Dating at eHarmony: As a single Christian, do you feel like God has someone special in mind for you but you just haven’t found them yet? Well that someone is out there looking for you too. And at eHarmony we can help you find each other. … eHarmony is committed to helping Christian singles find love every day. (link)

On at least one of these sites, Agape Christian Singles, the restriction to evangelicals is made quite explicit:

In the Bible, the word “Christian” only appears three times. … In each case, the Greek word Christianos … is used, which is translated “follower of Christ.” So, what exactly is a follower of Christ? It means you have a personal relationship with Christ, by accepting Him as your personal Lord and Saviour. Simply believing in God is not enough. Being a good person is not enough. Nor is going to church, being baptized or taking communion, although all of those things are done by Christians.

… You Must be Born Again … In other words, none of the “things” we do count for anything without a personal relationship with Jesus.

You can bet that these dating sites would not welcome Catholics (Roman Catholics or Orthodox Catholics), non-mainstream Christians (Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.), or even mainstream (or “mainline”) Protestants (most Lutherans, most Presbyterians, Anglicans / Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists, northern Baptists, etc.). You can also bet that they don’t welcome singles who are looking for partners of the same sex (more on this later).

From the Wikipedia entry on evangelicalism:

Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s and gained popularity in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th century.

Its key commitments are:

The need for personal conversion (or being “born again”);

A high regard for biblical authority [treating the Bible as the Word of God and interpreting it “literally”];

An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ;

Actively expressing and sharing the gospel [“evangelizing”].

David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism noting, “Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”

(The full article goes on to sketch some of the complexities in evangelicalism vs. fundamentalism and to distinguish different threads of evangelicalism.)

Categories and labels. What we’re looking at here is a set of judgments about how people are grouped into socially (and personally) salient categories. These categorizations can vary from person to person and are often a matter of contention.

We confront the categorizations through language — through labels used for the categories. And there’s further contention about the labels, even when people are pretty much in agreement about the membership of the categories. So it is in the case of the category I’ll call B-A (to suggest born-again). Members of B-A tend to refer to themselves simply as Christians (unmodified), thereby claiming a kind of terminological — and substantive — centrality for their group; non-B-A people who are otherwise Christian in belief and practice (see above) understandably resent this terminological move and the substantive baggage that comes with it.

Sometimes B-A’s will use modifiers with Christian to clarify the intended sense. My experience of such usages comes mostly from discussions by B-A’s about Christianity and homosexuality: some will simply say that they “don’t accept” homosexuality because they’re Christians — we’re Christians, no homosexuality, please — but others will stipulate that the basis for their disapproval and rejection is that they’re traditional Christians, Bible-believing Christians, or true Christians. Rarely do they say born-again Christians or evangelical Christians, but instead use exclusionary language.

[Digression, on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as a hurdle for South Carolina’s many evangelical Christians, as reported in Matt Bai’s “The Tea Party’s Not-So-Civil War”, NYT Magazine 1/15/12, p. 37:

“If you want to debate whether Mormonism is a form of orthodox Christianity in South Carolina, then there is no debate here – it is not,” said Oran Smith, who runs Palmetto Family, a group that lobbies on behalf of Christian conservatives. “But is that important to his doing well in South Carolina? No.”

Here’s yet another terminological option: orthodox Christian. Smith was probably reluctant to use unmodified Christian — as many B-A’s do when they straightforwardly declare that Mormons aren’t Christians — as a diplomatic way of welcoming Romney as a candidate while denying Mormons full status as Christians.]

[Another digression, on why some B-A’s might be wary of evangelical as a self-identification. Two facts: one, that many other religious groups engage in evangelization (most notably, the Roman Catholic Church, which has evangelized aggressively from its earliest days; most recently, an organization called Catholics Come Home engaged in a tv ad campaign of evangelization from December 17th through January 9th, aimed at bringing people “home” to the church — complete with claims that “We developed the scientific method” and “Guided by the Holy Spirit, we compiled the Bible”); and two, that Martin Luther used evangelische Kirche ‘evangelical church’ to distinguish Protestants from Catholics, a usage that continues in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark, especially among Lutherans and can be seen in the names of some Lutheran denominations, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

Back to Christianity and homosexuality. The basis for the belief (held generally by B-A’s and by many other Christians, in a wider sense) that these two things are incompatible lies in the second tenet of evangelicalism listed earlier, the authority of the Bible. Though Jesus never pronounced on sexual orientation or on same-sex sex acts, there are Old Testament passages and passages in the New Testament books attributed to St. Paul (Romans and Corinthians, in particular) that have been interpreted as condemning homosexuality. Then, if you hold that all of the Bible is the Word of God, you believe that God condemns homosexuality, and you will probably object to same-sex civil marriage (as evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and Mormons all did in the campaign that passed Proposition 8 in California), to the decriminalization of homosexual acts, and so on. You’re just expressing your Christian beliefs, you’ll say, and you’ll see those who advocate for gay rights as attacking Christianity (for some value of Christianity.)

10 Responses to “Christians”

  1. Jenny Says:

    I love the post, and it gives me some deep things to ponder today.

    But as a Unitarian Universalist, I would point out that not all UUs consider themselves Christian. Of course, many are Christian, but it is also possible to be a Jewish UU, Atheist UU, Hindu UU, Pagan UU, etc. You are right that UUs wouldn’t be welcome at that singles’ site, though – we don’t believe homosexuality is a sin.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, I understand that UUs aren’t necessarily Christians.

      The whole topic of religious affiliations is a terminological morass, a fact that makes posting on it incredibly difficult. UUs fall into a set of what I sometimes call “Christian offshoot” groups — some of which don’t think of themselves as necessarily Christians (though they have histories that link them to Christianity), some of which identify as Christians (though other Christians sometimes deny that they are).

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    Earlier this month I saw a play “The Leak Phase” written and directed by one of my children’s friends. Occasionally two of the characters get asked how they met, and give a different outrageous explanation each time — “Christian Mingle” was one of these.

    Here in Santa Cruz I get very used to many of the local Christian churches (and of course local non-Christian religious/spiritual organizations as well) marching in the Pride Parade, making a point of having LGBT-welcoming/inclusive statements on their web sites, and hosting things like PFLAG meetings and SF Gay Men’s Chorus concerts and meetings for my (sadly defunct in both cases) LGBT chorus and LGBT square-dancing group. Not that this has much effect on all the extreme fundamentalists on the rampage all over the country these days. 🙁

  3. Victor Steinbok Says:

    There is an added irony to used to be run–from what I’ve been told–by a Mormon group that owned a whole bunch of “Mingles”. It was later sold to Interestingly, there were quite a few Evangelicals on JewishMingle as well and they were not looking for each other.

  4. Julian Lander Says:

    And there’s a whole other linguistic issue here on the meaning of the term “orthodox Christian.” To me, it means a member of the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches, and possibly some others (I’m not sure what defines “orthodox” in this sense, so I accept self-description), but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Oran Smith, quoted in your quotation from the New York TImes about MItt Romney and Mormonism, meant.

  5. mollymooly Says:

    I guess you intended the parenthetical “Roman Catholics or Orthodox Catholics” as a gloss merely for that instance of “Catholic”, a word which is of course also contentious (as is “Roman Catholic”).

    The Wikipedia page “Church of Christ” has an impressive list of different bodies,many Mormon, of that name.

  6. Rebecca Says:

    Very interesting article. Fascinating discussion of fine grained distinctions of the term “Christianity”.
    Well done on mentioning that Evangelicals have a high regard for biblical authority, and pointing out that this means treating the Bible as the Word of God.
    I would just like to gently point out that “A high regard for biblical authority” is not identical with “interpreting [the Bible] “literally””. The Bible contains a wide variety of literary formats, such as poems, narratives, exhortations, letters and so on. Not all of them should be interpreted as prescriptive ways of living.

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