While it’s not overwhelming or huge, there seems to be a bit of a trend to refer to unbelievers as “pre-Christians.” A parishioner attended another church in our state recently and came across this way of speaking and asked me about it. Is it acceptable to substitute “pre-Christian” for “non-Christian” or “unbeliever”?
If we turn to Scripture, the word “unbeliever” is used 14 times in the New Testament. It’s used to translate the Greek word apistos. Sometimes the word “Gentile” (Gr. ethnos) is used to refer to those who aren’t Christians, extending the Old Testament idea of the pagan nations surrounding Israel. In Ephesians 2:3, non-Christians are referred to as “children of wrath.” Later in the same chapter, they are “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) and “aliens” (2:19). However, the standard word in Scripture is simply “unbeliever.” The word “pre-Christian” is not used at all.
Nevertheless, there is no issue with using a non-scriptural word if it captures a biblical concept. The classic example is the word “Trinity” – it’s not used in the Bible, but the concept is definitely there. So, can a biblical case be made for referring to unbelievers as “pre-Christians”?
I can appreciate the positive attitude this term is meant to convey. When we give a Christian witness to someone, we certainly hope that the Holy Spirit will use our witness to bring someone to faith in Christ. We pray in that way and perhaps we should pray more expectantly than we often do.
Yet the fact of the matter is that we don’t know God’s plans for the salvation of any given person. Scripture reveals a doctrine of election: God has chosen some to eternal life before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). But we don’t know who they are and neither should we presume to know. Instead, we address each person with the thought that only God knows whether or not that person is going to be a Christian. Our calling is not to guess or assume an outcome, but simply to present the gospel.
There is another aspect to this. From the point of view of a non-Christian, adopting the language “pre-Christian” could also be offensive. When I was in seminary, I attended a book club once or twice. Some of the other attendees were Reformed Baptists. One of them jokingly referred to me as a “Reformed-Baptist-in-training.” I knew he was just kidding around and so it didn’t bother me. Friends can banter like that. But couldn’t this language of “pre-Christian” be unnecessarily offensive to an unbeliever just off the street? If I put myself in those shoes, I would think: “What arrogance! They think they’re definitely going to make me a Christian.” The gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to add offense with unnecessary and presumptuous terminology.
So in the interests of humble modesty about God’s plans, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary offense in our witness, it’s best just to use the standard biblical terminology. If someone isn’t a Christian, then we ought to just say they’re an unbeliever or a non-Christian. Keep it simple.