Outside of arcane discussions in medieval philosophy, nominalism is the possession of a baseless name, title, or description. A nominal presidency, for example, is one in which the president is nothing more than a figurehead. A nominal vacation is one in which the vacationers must still work. Nominalism has to do with empty formalities, things so-called, and meaningless labels.
Nominalism exists in religious circles. Nominal Christians are church-goers or otherwise religious people whose “faith” does not go beyond being identified with a church, Christian group, or denomination. They are Christians in name only; Christ has no bearing in their lives. Nominal Christians may attend church and Christian functions, and they self-identify as “Christians,” but it is just a label. They view religion primarily as a social construct, and they do not allow it to require much of them in terms of morality or responsibility. Nominalists take a minimalist approach to their faith.
Nominalism is of concern to many pastors, preachers, and Christian theologians, as it appears to be on the rise today. Many identify themselves as Christians, but the overall impact of Christianity in the West is not what it once was. But what causes nominalism? Why do people prefer a nominal or in-name-only type of Christianity? One possible reason is that nominal religion is easy. It does not require a changed life. A nominal Christian can point to membership in a church as evidence of his salvation. Church attendance and participation in routines, activities, and programs become the measuring stick rather than a changed life, a new heart, a love for God, and obedience to the Word (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; John 14:23).
Another cause of nominal Christianity is the habit of declaring oneself a Christian because of custom or culture. Whole countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, and England, have a form of Christianity as the official state religion. This allows a Norwegian, for example, to culturally identify as a Christian—he is a member of the Church of Norway by default, having been registered in infancy when he was baptized. Even in countries with no state religion, such as the United States, cultural Christianity can lead to nominalism. Someone who was reared in a Christian family, attended church all his life, was baptized, lives in the Bible Belt, etc., often claims allegiance to the Christian faith, in spite of evidence in his life to the contrary.
Another cause of nominalism within the church is legalism, the attempt to transform oneself (or others) inwardly by working on the outward behavior. Some people, especially those raised in the church, conform to standards imposed upon them by parents, other Christians, or the church hierarchy without the inner transformation that can only be produced by the Spirit through the Word (Galatians 6:15). Legalists substitute good deeds for saving faith and compliance for conversion. This naturally leads to nominal Christianity, as church-goers and rule-keepers claim the label “Christian” but have no relationship with Christ.
Jesus dealt with nominal Christianity in one of His letters to the churches. The church in Sardis wore a Christian label, but Jesus saw the truth behind the label: “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Or, as the KJV says, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” God is not interested in the labels we tag ourselves with. Having a “name” that we belong to Christ is not enough. Nominal faith is not faith.