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!