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“Christian” is Not a Bad Word

September 13, 2012
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Sometimes I like to comment on the deeper theological issues and sometimes I like to touch on things that impact the Christian life. At other times I feel compelled to comment on things I observe in the church at large. This is one of those times.

I have been noticing a trend over the last several years in the church here in America (speaking generally here.) This trend is interesting in that it seems to cross denominational and cultural boundaries. I have no idea where this started but it seems to be everywhere. This trend is the apparent avoidance of using the term “Christian.” Instead, it seems that people prefer to substitute “Follower of Christ,” or “Christ-Follower,” or even “Disciple of Christ.” It seems that you do not hear the term “Christian” used to describe those who have been redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The question is, why?

Do not misunderstand. I am not against the alternative terms I mentioned. These are acceptable, adequate, and fairly descriptive. While I do not find the term “Christ Follower” to be fully comprehensive it is ok in general but lacks a depth to indicate our direct association with Christ. I also think that our culture does not comprehend what it meant to be a follower in the first century. This was a very literal term back then. It meant that you followed the rabbi wherever he went, saw to his needs, and learned from his teaching. To our modern ears the term “follower” simply refers to someone who agrees with the statements and teachings of another. A charismatic leader or a sports figure can have many followers but I doubt they would seek to learn from them as the disciples in the first century would. Still, in the proper context, this is not a bad word for those who are in Christ. It may be lacking in depth as it speaks nothing to the redemption or the identification we have with Him but it is not wrong. The real question is, why is the historic term “Christian” avoided so often?

Before we look at what I believe the reasons for that are, I think we need to better understand where the term “Christian” came from…
19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the ā€† Greeks also, ā€† preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:19-26 NASB)

That’s right, the term is Biblical! That means the argument is over, right? Not exactly. The term we use for Christian is actually a transliteration of the Greek term used in this passage. Strictly speaking it does mean “Follower of Christ” and as I explained earlier this was originally a very accurate term and is still valid if understood in the proper context. Christians have called themselves Christian for centuries from this origin right here. It is a valid and accurate term for those who believe in Christ. It has come to mean one who has been redeemed by Christ and who follows Him in his everyday life. Taken in that context, there is no reason we wouldn’t call ourselves Christians.

By big issue with most people who avoid the term Christian is the implied reason why they do so. There are a few options to look at:

1. “The name Christian has lost its meaning because there are so many who call themselves Christian but are not.”
This seems to be rather common and the same logic is used to justify changing the name of many things. My response to this is, so what? There will always be people who name Christ but are not truly believers. This is not new and is not going away anytime soon so why give up the name now only to give up the new name in another 20 years for the same reason. It is a concern but does not justify the change.

2. “The unchurched people do not understand what the term Christian means.”
We have spent far too much time as a church being concerned with what the unchurched think. We need to be more focused on how God sees us not how the world does. The rest will deal with itself. How long does it really take to explain what being a Christian means? You can do it with the character limits on Twitter. There is no reason to abandon the name because of this. Frequently, this just means we are too lazy to make an explanation.

3.”Christians have done horrible things in history (crusades, inquisition, etc.) and we do not want to be identified with that.”
I can be somewhat sympathetic to this since the church and individuals calling themselves Christian have committed grievous sins. But it is a double standard. Many people of many faiths throughout the ages have done horrible things and we are told not to characterize a group for the actions of some. The same should apply to us. Why do we have to abandon our identification just because some have abused it. In many ways this is no different that the response to the first argument. Why not redeem the name instead of abandoning it?

“Christian” is not a bad word. We should stop treating it like it is and stop avoiding it for the wrong reasons. It is fine if you prefer to call yourself a follower of Christ. Just be aware of why you avoid the name Christian and don’t do it for the wrong reasons.

God bless.

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