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Is Christian Our Name?
by Cecil Hook
Although written primarily to members of the "non"-denominational Church of Christ, of which Cecil Hook was a minister, this article is of interest to all generic Christians regardless of the labels they wear. It is used by permission from the book Free To Speak by Cecil Hook.
A person may be known by character or by name, or by both. Jesus wants us to be recognized by character with love being the identifying trait. Since he did not give us a name as a mark of identity, we should not invent this easy route to recognition. It is much more convenient to tell people that we are Christians, to wear a button, or to display a bumper sticker proclaiming our discipleship than to be known by our fruits. The disciples are given no proper name to wear, either individually or collectively.
My reaching the conclusion that Jesus gave us no name to wear has ruined some of my once-favored lessons concerning our new name "which the mouth of Jehovah shall name" (See Isaiah 62:1-5; 56:5). I interpreted those passages to be prophecies of the name Christian. To support such a contention, they must be taken out of their context. In fact, in the first reference, the very text tells that the new name would be Hephzibah! The latter reference promises that their name, or heritage, would not be cut off.
The very fact that Christian is used only three times in the Scriptures should be enough to arouse some skepticism about it being a new, God-given, proper name for God's people. Also, it was about ten years after the beginning of the church before anyone was ever called a Christian. Furthermore, there is no record of any disciple calling another believer a Christian or of applying that designation to himself. Luke writes that "the disciples were called Christians," not "the disciples called themselves Christians."
The first appearance of the word Christian is in Acts 11:25-26 where Luke informs us, "So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians." In Antioch they were disciples who were called Christians. Disciples is what they were; Christians is what somebody began to call them. From this point in historical record, Luke did not begin to refer to them as Christians, but he continued to refer to them as disciples.
Matthew uses disciples 72 times, Mark 44 times, Luke in his Gospel 38 times, John 77 times, and Luke in Acts 30 times. However, in the remaining 22 portions of the New Testament writings, the word is not used at all, which would indicate that disciple was no proper name either. The self-designations used by inspired writers were believers (or those that believe, etc.); brothers, 132 times; saints, 50 times; church, 85 times; and other such designations as elect, servants, and those "that call upon the name of the Lord." There is no indication, however, that any of these self-designations were to be considered as a proper name for Jesus' followers.
From the writings of those times, it is seen that the adjectival ending -ianos denoted the adherents of an individual or party. So, adherents to the Christ were called Christianos, Christians. It is a Roman ending which would not likely originate among the Jews, especially in Judea. It is evident that the name did not originate with the disciples themselves, but it was applied by those outside their community, either in derision or as a sort of nickname, a common folk designation. Certainly, the unbelieving Jews would not use the name of their Messiah to apply to those whom they considered as adherents to a false messiah. So, we had to wait about ten years for the church to spread among the pagan Gentiles for such a popular designation to come into use. Among the unbelieving Jews, disciples were scorned as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5).
No doubt, the pagans of Antioch were familiar with the Jewish religion in the local synagogues. Now, a new religion had separated itself from the synagogue proclaiming salvation through one Jesus, the Christ. So, the people began to distinguish them from the Jews as adherents of Christ -- Christianos, Christians. Groups may protest a designation given by outsiders but later accept it, as was the case with Lutherans, Protestants, and Mormons. Secular history reveals that the disciples later gave universal acceptance to this name since it honors Christ. Like the cross of shame, which became a venerated symbol of God's love, this name rose from its unlikely beginning to the highest place of honor.
Let us consider the three mentions of Christian in the Scriptures. In Acts 11:26, as we have noted already, the first use of the designation was evidently by the pagan populace of Antioch in Syria rather than by the disciples themselves.
In its second mention, we hear the time-honored exclamation of King Agrippa in King James Version language, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28). This has been interpreted by common people as a sincere admission by Agrippa. But if he were so sincere, why did he break off Paul's discourse? Being king, he could call for, as a command performance, the continuation of Paul's speech. Evidently, he was making no admission of being almost converted to Jesus.
Instead of seeing a convicted king, we see a man who is being put on the spot by a religious zealot. His dignity is being insulted; so he scoffs at Paul, "In a short time you think to make me a Christian!" (RSV). In other words, Agrippa was saying, "Paul, you think that in one short presentation of your fanatical claims you can make a Christian of me," and the inflection of his voice as he sneered the word Christian must have been insulting. Notice, too, that Paul avoided using the name as applying to himself in his reply to Agrippa.
For the third use of Christian, we look to I Peter 4:16, but the entire chapter serves as a context. Believers were suffering fiery ordeals of persecution for Christ. They were being accused of various wrong-doings, and listed among them was that of being a Christian. To encourage these persecuted saints, Peter wrote, "But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God." Being called Christians in a derogatory manner was a part of the reproach heaped upon them. Peter urged that they glorify God under that name of reproach which they had not chosen. Righteous persons have always received taunting and derisive appellations from those who oppose them. Their worth is proved by being unashamed to wear those disparaging names.
In spite of all of this which I have brought to your attention, I do not object to being called a Christian, for I am an adherent of Christ. I just refuse to accept it as a proper name given for us to wear to distinguish us in our religion. And, by the way, I do object to deliberate failure to capitalize Christian. Adjectives formed from proper nouns should be capitalized in correct grammar. Christ is a proper noun; hence, Christian should not be written as christian.
Now, I come to a more important point of this treatise. This name Christian has become a mental and emotional block to prevent our acceptance of others who follow Christ.
We define who is a Christian and how to become a Christian, but the Scriptures do not accommodate our definitions. In telling how to become a Christian, we use the examples of the conversion of those on Pentecost, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian treasurer, Cornelius, and Saul. Their acceptance of Jesus made them believers and disciples, but not Christians, for no one had ever been called a Christian at the time of their conversion.
After defining a Christian as one who hears, believes, repents, confesses faith, and is baptized, we have consistently refused any acceptance of, or fellowship with, any who have not measured up to our scruples about those actions of obedience. We have drawn a convenient line there that excludes most of the Christian world as being unbelievers and non-Christians.
When we think of a person as a believer or disciple, that convenient sectarian line disappears. While a believer/disciple will obey the "five steps" as he learns and is convinced of the need, he will also continue to learn and obey all the Scriptural directives for his discipleship as long as he lives. He will never cross the line into the ultimate. At what point can we say that he became a believer/disciple whom we may accept? Is it not when his faith is initiated causing him to take his first feeble steps to follow? He is then a believer and follower and, hopefully, he will continue to grow and advance in his relationship with Christ. I can accept him as a believer/disciple even though I might consider him to be at a less advanced stage than I enjoy. We can grow together. I am not to become his judge, especially to judge him by the artificial standard that I have made by defining when a person becomes a Christian. He is a believer and disciple-learner, follower, adherent -- at every point on the road of his spiritual progress. The concept that I am rejecting is that he becomes a Christian, whom I can accept only at one point in his spiritual journey, and that, thereafter, he is a Christian whether he progresses as a learner and follower or not.
Jesus told us to make disciples, not Christians. There may be no difference in the two, but we have made one to accommodate our sectarian distinctions.
References: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p.621f; Commentary on Acts by Coffman, p.232f; Restoration Review, Vol. 25, No. 9, p.166; An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W. E. Vine, p.191.
This page Copyright © 2003 Peter Wade. The Bible text in this publication, except where otherwise indicated, is from the King James Version. This article appears on the site: http://www.peterwade.com/.
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