Redefining the "Born Again" Stereotype

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
May 20, 2007

There are two kinds of Christians, those who are “born again” and those who aren't. “Born again” Christians can graphically recount their conversion story, are theologically conservative, and are likely members in good standing of the Republican Party. Everyone else falls into that second category of being “non-born again.” At least that's the stereotype.

Although stereotypes can be useful, they're also double-edged swords. They may contain a grain of truth, but they also distort the truth. While many people proudly wear the label “born again,” other Christians shy away from it because of its political and cultural connotations.

Despite the stereotypes and the expectations, it's too good a phrase to concede to one faction of the Christian community. It's like other words and phrases that are used in partisan fashion, such as evangelical, Catholic, progressive, conservative, or liberal. Using “born again” in a narrow, sectarian fashion does injustice to it, because according to the Scriptures that I read, every Christian, whether evangelical, mainline, Roman Catholic or Orthodox is “born again.” There can be no other kind of Christian.
“Born again” is a synonym for transformation. Christians are, the Gospel of John says, born of water and the Spirit (John 3:1-10). It's a promise of newness, reconciliation, and grace that should be welcomed by anyone who would follow Christ. It is a promise of transformation that holds out hope to anyone who has experienced brokenness and estrangement. It's something we all yearn for, and yet the common usage hinders our understanding.
Now, St. Paul does say it differently. He uses the imagery of death and resurrection, but I think he's saying the same thing. Like John he connects this change to baptism (Romans 6) and he offers the promise that what is old may become new (2 Corinthians 5).
The manner in which this change takes place can take on different forms, depending on the Christian tradition. For some it's instantaneous and for others it's gradual. Whatever the process, there's a recognition that we seek a way out of our experience of alienation - from God and from one another.
Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian biblical scholar, speaks of being “born again” in the context of our experience of a “separated self,” which leads to a pre-occupation with the self. To be “born again,” therefore, is to “recover our true self,” so we can live lives “centered in the Spirit, in Christ, in God” (The Heart of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco). Having this life-changing experience that refocuses our lives feels, John says, like re-emerging from our Mother's womb as a wholly new person. And the promise of starting over is a welcome one to all of us.

I'm writing this column because too often we let others define us and choose the terms that describe us. I must confess to doing this on occasion myself! Regarding this phrase, “born again,” I want to reclaim it for myself. I realize not everyone will accept me as such, but if you grant my definition, then you must allow me the self-designation. Yes, it may create some confusion and require some discussion about terminology, but is that all bad?

Some who read this may decide that I'm way too liberal to be “born again.” Of course, it's possible that others may decide that if I like this phrase, then I'm just a tad too conservative for their tastes. And, maybe that's a good place in which to be. Do we really want to fit the stereotype?
All I want to do is to faithfully live in a way that honors Jesus. Because I've experienced a life-changing encounter with God through Jesus and have been washed anew in the waters of baptism, I stand ready to serve the cause of God's reign in this world. And to me, that's what it means to be “born again.” I know there are other words and phrases that would tell the story with less confusion, but I just like this one too much to let it go. My quest then is to live my life in such a way that the presence of God will be seen within me. And for that to happen I must choose to live a life that is humble, compassionate, and life-affirming.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( He blogs at, and maybe contacted at or First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93105.May 20, 2007


DaNutz said…
Bob, I agree with your feelings about what this term means and your devotion to that meaning. I am also attached to the term even though I realize what it has come to mean for conservatives. The last time I heard Marcus Borg talk, I remember that he urged us to continue using these terms as well as the symbolic creeds and language of our faith. However, I still struggle to do it. I agree with Borg’s interpretation of the term, but I agree more with John Shelby Spong when he says that Christianity must change the terms it uses or it will die. Progressive Christianity has a compelling message that can change the world, but it will not be heard if its language keeps it shackled to the religious right.

The truth is that the meanings of terms change over time. For example, nobody uses the term “gay” in our current society to mean anything other than homosexuality. If you use the term in any other way, you are forced to explain your use of the term or carefully place it in clear context or risk a mistake. The point of language is to communicate meaning so we must consider how the terms are heard regardless of our desire to make them mean something else. If you would like to create a movement to reclaim the term then that is great and I will support it, but in the meantime, it is very important that progressive Christianity gets its message out without creating more ambiguity. If that means we use new terms, then the lets do it. The message is too valuable to be left ambiguous. One of the auxiliary benefits of changing our language is that the language itself is often what creates division. Synergy can be achieved when we let go of the terms. Are we willing to loose the message to save the language? I’m not sold on the idea that we can have our cake and eat it too.

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