"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

What's in a Name?

I think I have said it myself.  I have heard it from others.  Perhaps you have said it yourself.  With some combination of amusment, bewilderment, and derision, someone has just asked, "So what religion are you?"  You reply, "It's more of a lifestyle than a religion; I'm a follower of Christ."  This need not be a undesirable statement, but let us consider it more closely.

The name “Christian” has been tainted by several unfortunate associations.  First, we see it appropriated by innumerable farcical “churches,” who have simply pinned Christ's name to their deity.  Second, it is claimed by anyone who attends either a genuine or cultish church, even if his or her profession of faith in "Chist" is as thin, and as transparent, as shrink wrap.  Tragically, the world is all too happy to affirm these definitions:  anyone who at least professes allegiance to Christ is a Christian, regardless of the truth of their devotion or the truth of their Christ.  

This does much to water down the term, to be sure.  However, I remain unconvinced that this forces us to the conclusion that the term is unsuitable.  To this end, I appeal to the historical nature of the term – not because traditions must be upheld, but because the past reminds us what it means to claim the title “Christian."

"Christian" (Χριστιανός) was the term given to believers in the cradle years of the church (Acts 11:26).  Not many years after this, having this title attributed to oneself was enough to earn persecution or martyrdom, even from the state.  "If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you...if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name." (1 Peter 4:14, 15b, emphasis added)

In other words, there is cause to glorify God in your label as a Christian, even if and when that moniker invites hardship.  There is every indication that the fledgling church took this to heart; our early brothers and sisters were often obliged to stand before their accusers and stare into the black face of martyrdom, and many said nothing but, "I am a Christian."  These few words assured dire recourse from their enemies, but they would say nothing else.  J. Spencer Northcote records that when they were pressed further, they would reply in this manner:  "I have already said that I am a Christian; and he who says that has thereby named his country, his family, his profession, and all things else besides." 1

Today, though, "Christian" has become the moral password which politicians whisper to quickly establish trust.  It is the card which cults lay down in their plays for legitimacy and trust.  It is the color which teenagers brush upon themselves to avoid close scrutiny in their lives.  How did this word lose its original force?  Why has the absolute truth behind it been displaced by ecumenical well-wishing and lies?  This can only be the result of a church which has become all but indiscernible against the backdrop of the world.

To be sure, there will always be those who desire to twist and steal the name and truth of Christ, because this remains a permanent feature of the demonic mission, but there is no sense in our adding fuel to this ancient fire.  We must stand distinct from the world, moving opposition to the world, and "preach[ing] Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness." (1 Cor. 1:23b) To unbelievers who know this sort of church, the word "Christian" is usually not one that they desire to place upon themselves, lest they be blighted with the shame that they themselves attribute to believers, or the anger that righteousness stirs within them, or the scorn that they share among their comrades. 

Our lesson is clear; it has been proven out by history as well as by scripture.  As we draw closer and more uncompromisingly toward Christ, we neutralize the perceived benefits of falsely claiming Christ until they cannot outweight the hardships which the world affords (and which are to us but jewels in the crown of joy).  This is our course and our directive if we are to remake our own name into something more worthy of the one true Christ.

I am a Christian.  I belong to a worldwide, a national, and yes, a local church that has not done all it could.  I have not done all that I could, but still I am a Christian.

1:  Northcote, J. Spencer.  Epitaphs of the Catacombs or Christian Inscriptions in Rome During the First Four Centuries.  London: Longman, Green, & Co., 1878; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007. p. 139.  Quoted from MacArthur, John.  Slave:  The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. p. 9.


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