What’s in a name?

Posted by on Aug 10, 2017
What’s in a name?

I’ve had several conversations about what we should call ourselves? Are we Christians or Followers of Christ or Believers in Jesus or Disciples or Learners or several other suggested monikers?

My earliest discussions came as a new believer. I had to figure out how to tell my Jewish relatives that I believed Jesus was the Messiah. Since the term “Christ” rings in Jewish ears with hateful tones (We’ve been called “Christ-killers” for a long time), I was urged to use the word “Messiah” instead of “Christ” and “Believer in Jesus” instead of “Christian.” This served me well. But, often, it came with the need to explain what I mean and prepare for pushback.

More recently, I’ve been urged to avoid the word “Christian” because it’s vague. Instead, we should call ourselves “Christ followers” or “Followers of Jesus.” This served me well for a while. But I now wonder if that term has morphed and needs replacement.

I first suspected a problem when I was invited to speak to a group of men described by the leader as “seriously devoted followers of Jesus.” My topic was evangelism. In the course of our two hours together it became obvious that “follower of Jesus” meant something different to one man than it did to the rest of us.

His questions revolved around why we would feel the need to tell others about “divisive things” like sin, the cross, Jesus’ death, the resurrection, heaven, and – most emphatically – hell. We should tell people about “following Jesus.” He clarified that he “followed Jesus” by running a homeless shelter and feeding hungry people. “That’s what it means to follow Jesus,” he said, “not all this other stuff.”

In all my prep for a session on evangelism, I had not considered that the time together would be an opportunity to evangelize! After reflection, I realized the term “follower of Jesus” isn’t as clear as some promoters claim. They warn that the term “Christian” is vague and needs clarification. Apparently, so does “follower of Jesus.”

My concerns about the use of “follower of Jesus” got reinforced when I saw a book in the “New Titles” section of my library – Tom Krattenmaker’s Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those who Don’t Believe.”

In the introduction, the author tells us: “I have a thing about Jesus. I have practically always had a fascination with him. From Jesus, I have long drawn inspiration and a deep, albeit fleeting, sense of how to live and how to treat others.” In the next paragraph, he adds, “But here is the complication: I am, in every significant way, a secular person – secular in the colloquial sense of the word, as in ‘not religious.’ I belong to no church.”

Much can be said about his dogmatic way of telling us we shouldn’t be dogmatic. But I’ll save that for others or for another blog.

For here, I want to draw two lessons:

First, no name will communicate all that we want. We’ll need to explain, elaborate, define, clarify, and distinguish what we mean in contrast with others who use the same word. That’s not so bad. We should see it as a time to proclaim the gospel. When asked about our faith, I wonder if we should say, “I’m a Christian – but I realize that needs some explanation, doesn’t it?”

Second, no name will eliminate persecution. No matter how we word it, sooner or later, people will (or, at least, should!) hear that we believe Jesus is the only way, that we’re all helpless and hopeless without his salvation, and that some will be saved and some won’t. When “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26), it was most certainly a derogative term.

What’s in a name? A lot. What a wonderful opportunity!


  1. Ken Elzinga
    August 10, 2017

    Vintage Randy Newman: very thoughtful. Reminds me anew that taxonomy is important and that being commited to the things of Christ, whatever moniker we adopt, will have consequences..

  2. Vera Likhonin
    August 10, 2017

    Thank you for sharing! I’ve wondered what I should call myself, as a Christian, on many occasions. This is helpful.
    Be blessed!

  3. Rabbi Eukel
    August 10, 2017

    Shalom, Randy Newman ~
    You have asked the “right” question, “What’s IN a Name?” Perhaps an additional question needs to follow: “Is The NAME IN you?” You and perhaps many of your readers are aware of Biblical names carrying The Name within their inspired naming and often reflecting their character. This is not the space to give many examples, but one Name example is important. GOD Named Himself, translated to English, “GOD’s Salvation / Salvation of GOD” in the Hebrew Y’SHUA [ayin-vav-shin-yud <=]. That is the Name He was given while on earth traveling Isra'el. Only seeds of replacement theology changed the name to "Jesus" which is a transliteration to Greek-Latin-English. So, "What's IN a Name?" of our Master Messiah Y'SHUA's talmidim of The Way? If Y'SHUA is IN you, HaShem's Signs & Wonders follow our declarations of "Love GOD, Love others, on purpose." Everything else is commentary.

  4. john
    August 10, 2017

    So, that guy was running a shelter and feeding hungry people. One might even say he is engaged in being the “hands and feet of Jesus.” And perhaps more so than many “Christians” in the American church. Can we presume that his motive is a genuine caring for others and desire to be helpful to his fellow man and society?

    So why should this man believe he’s a sinner? How would it ever be rational to him that his (genuine) good works are filthy rags and woefully inadequate to restore his broken relationship with God.Especially a God who’s followers appear to be bigoted, self righteous and elitist?

    It seems a difficult sell. And I think there are a lot of folks in his category, especially <40 years old.

    (love the blog, BTW 😉

    • Dave
      August 12, 2017

      John — The process of becoming a Christian is not rational; it is a mysterious calling by God the Holy Spirit that convicts of sin, reveals the sinner’s need of rescue through the substitutionary death of dying of God the Son on a cross, and imparts faith in God the Father through this work of the Son. (See, for instance, Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s gospel.)

      I’m sorry you have such a terrible impression of Christians. Perhaps you’ve had bad experiences with believers — I wouldn’t be surprised. We’re often the most sickly of sinners — which is why we’re often drawn to the hospital for sinners, the church, and to Jesus, our only hope. We admittedly do a poor job of representing our Savior; and if it were purely up to us to draw people to Christ, very few (actually none) would ever be saved. Fortunately, though, the drawing and saving is God’s work alone, though He does graciously allow His people to serve as messengers.

      I do find your take on Christians to be a bit of a generalization, and in my experience at least, not true of most believers. Which makes we wonder if perhaps it is the message of the gospel, rather than its messengers, that is offending you. The bible is radically at odds with the reigning values of our culture, and so proponents of the bible’s authority and relevance are often perceived as elitist, bigoted, and self-righteous, because that’s how they perceive the bible’s condemnation of certain sins.

      One of the clearest messages in the bible is that we are all sinners deserving of God’s wrath, and yes, eternal punishment. Jesus did not hesitate to call even his closest friends, “evil.” (“Though you are evil, you know how to give good gifts to your children . . .”) So it’s really not surprising that people are offended by Jesus and the bible. And quite frankly, the teachings in the bible I find most difficult to accept are often those very teachings that tell me not to do something I want to do, or to do something I don’t want to do. In short, many of my objections to scripture are self-serving.

      I guess my point in sharing this is that it actually requires tremendous humility to really submit to the teachings of scripture, because much of those teachings are tremendously difficult and demanding, contrary to our felt needs, and continually reminding us of how short we fall in obeying them. Especially me. But that’s why the message of the forgiveness of God through the Cross is so meaningful and hopeful to believers in Christ.

      My best wishes to you, John.


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