What’s In A Name?

“Jesus follower.” 

I remember seeing this phrase on a friend’s Facebook profile under religious views. She didn’t want to identify herself as Christian. I scoffed a little, thinking judgementally that her label was the very definition of Christian. It would be like listing my favourite food as “melted cheese and tomato sauce on bread” instead of simply stating “pizza.” Do we always have to complicate things? What difference did it make, really? 

But my friend’s brief statement years ago keeps coming back to me, and I find myself wondering what the term “Christian” means to those observing us, especially as more churches and organizations are removing the word from their titles. The Greek word Χριστιανός (Christianos), only used three times in the Bible, means “follower of Christ,” and is derived from a word meaning “anointed one” that has been modified to imply belonging to, as in slave ownership. But does the world see Christians this way? Do we even see ourselves this way? When is the last time you thought of yourself as a slave? I’ll admit it’s with a little more pride that I call myself a Christian. And yet I’m not sure that others view our title with much admiration. 

Identity crisis?
Some scholars speculate that the original use of the word in the Bible was not simply for identification; it was used derisively to mock or cut down early believers for their lack of allegiance to the Emperor. In our highly branded, market-focused world, where making a name for yourself is a key component to achieving success, Christians have made a name for themselves – but perhaps it doesn’t match those early references. If “Christian” is becoming an identity we aren’t proud of, can we blame some people for claiming a more authentic title? Or maybe desiring to explain more clearly who they are?

The truth is we do associate some names with identifiable traits. When any of my children over-exaggerates a detail while telling a story, I might respond with, “Oh, you are such a deRegt!”  Canadians are known for our tendency to apologize too much. But our world is changing. Even the idea of “identity” is shifting to become something we choose instead of something that that we receive or earn. Numerous towns and parks across Canada are getting re-named using First Nations languages to reflect a heritage that goes much further back than colonialism. Maybe some well-intentioned Christians likewise want to portray a different image to the world than the unfortunate picture that has been painted by centuries of misguided actions by so-called Christians. But can we simply change our identity, or our past, by changing our name? 

Actions speak louder
According to David Kinnaman, author of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why it Matters, fewer than half of churchgoers, including born-again Christians, felt strongly that their church demonstrates unconditional love. Fewer than half? One would think unconditional love would be a dominant trait of a group of “Christ-followers.” This sounds like an identity crisis. 

Maybe it is time to take a good hard look at how we are living out the meaning of the word Christian. But instead of changing our name, we might need to begin the much harder work of changing our actions and our words so that the world will see what matters to us is not what we are called, but who we are and who we follow.


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