Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Okay, maybe this is another one that is really no big deal, and I will try not to make it a bigger deal than it is. But I think this issue has greatly affected the world's view of us as followers of Christ, and that does matter.

I don't want to call myself a Christian anymore. If someone calls me a "Christian," I'll take it - like he's called me a "kraut" or a "nerd" or "marbletop." But I don't have to like it. Let me explain.

Although the New Living Translation and the Message use the word "Christian" extensively (38 and 28 times respectively, usually as a substitution for "believer"), it is found in the Greek in only three places:
  • Acts 11:25-27 - "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." Was it descriptive, affectionate or derogatory? Hard to tell. The word itself indicates little: the suffix (“ianos” in Greek) was widely used as the termination of the name of a person belonging as a slave to the household of that name.
  • Acts 26:27-29 - Here Agrippa asks Paul if in so short a time he could persuade him to become a Christian - again, hard to tell his attitude toward the word, but the term is definitely not on friendly lips.
  • 1 Peter 4:15-17 - "If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." Here it sounds as if the appellation is something one might be ashamed of, but can be borne with pride because we really are slaves of Christ.
  • Tacitus - "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators..." Note: he says that the public called them Christians, not that the believers called themselves Christians. However, it does seem that within a couple hundred years they did start to do so.
So the word "Christian" is at best an affectionate nickname, though it seems more likely a derogatory one. What have we done to the word? Turned it into an adjective to paint everything that is in our frame of reference: Christian music, Christian schools, Christian t-shirts. Many followers of Christ are not interested in anything unless it is patently "Christian." "I only listen to the Christian radio station; I only read Christian books."

Is this a big deal? First, the term "Christian" serves to distance us from the world and distinguishes everything about us as distinctly different. Is this isolation what it means to be "in the world but not of it?" Isolation didn't work so well for the early believers, who (Tacitus continues) were charged with the crime "hatred of mankind."

Second, the world still thinks of the term "Christian" as a derogatory word. Ask the average person what they think of when you say "Christian" and they will use words like "intolerant, hypocritical, self-righteous." Ask what they think of when you say "Jesus" and they will describe him as "merciful, authentic, humble." I'm not Jesus, but I am also reluctant to use of myself a term that raises the hackles of the average Joe.

Ironically, I am the author of a book entitled, “The Christian Camp Counselor.” Maybe this will encourage me to do the much-needed re-write, and along with a new title.

So, what am I? The term most often used in the Gospels and Acts is “disciple,” and in the rest of the NT “believer.” I am a follower of Jesus, a believer, a chosen one, a member of the Way, one set apart, a brother. You can call me that. Call me a Christian and I should give you a wry smile and inwardly forgive you.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Well written Jim!

I too have had an inward dislike of the word "Christian" for quite awhile now. Not because I am ashamed of my faith or my belief in Christ, but because it truly does set us within a stereotyped group that carries with it the prejudices of today's society, both the good and bad.

Humans look for similarities within each other because they are searching for relationship. In doing so they categorize large sums of people. History proves that it is habitual of society to resort to such means. If you live over there you are called an "overtherean", if you are purple you will be called "a purple dude" and if you believe in the "Force" you shall be called "A huge Star Wars Geek!" Therefore, it seems inevitable that those who follow the teachings of Christ will be labeled with some broad, somewhat informative, probably discriminating term of some name or another. If not "Christian," than something very similar. If we were to perform a seperation of the modern protestant church, denominations not included, the likes of which Luther performed in the past, than perhaps we might find ourselves being labeled and judged according to a more specific title such as the "Catholics" or "Mormons" have found themselves. However, in doing so we lose the history and familiarity of our current prejudiced labeling. I am quite content at present with opening up conversation about Christ by taking minor offence to a persons labeling of me as a "Christian" and recomending in-turn that they call me a "Christ Follower." This seems to be a good evangelism ploy. Afterall, there is no way that I am an authentic miniature or "mini me" version of Christ, which the labeling of "Christian" implies.