The name “Christian” has fallen on hard times. Among members of my generation, “Christian” is no longer a title by which many young Christians would like to be known. From their point of view, the name “Christian” has now become associated with bigotry, hypocrisy, and the Republican Party, and they therefore do not want their faith (which supposedly is none of these things) to be seen through those lenses. Or perhaps the reason is more docile. Perhaps we feel that simply labeling ourselves “Christian” doesn’t quite have enough pizzazz, so we need to dress up our faith a bit to make it a bit more engaging to a seeking world. A quick glance through some of the “religion” descriptions on some of my friends’ Facebook pages will bear this out. Several style themselves “Christ followers” (sometimes with, sometimes without a hyphen). One describes himself as “Christo-centric.” My personal favorite really hits the pizzazz button hard: “follower of a first century Jewish revolutionary.” Even my own status can be construed as an attempt to avoid the title “Christian”: I belong to Jesus, particularly Jesus’ Anglican side.
The trend I see in this avoidance of the title “Christian” is not altogether a positive one. In our efforts to unload some of the baggage we associate with that ancient title, or in our well-intentioned desire to communicate more to our peers what it is we believe, we have overlooked a fundamental reality. The title “Christian” is almost as ancient as our Lord himself. It was a title the disciples themselves consciously bore. It has now survived two millennia of history, and is now as associated with the faith we practice as with the Lord we exalt. We have, in short, trampled down one of the finest specimens of our tradition as a people for the sake of modern convenience. This, I suggest, we must not do. I do not make such an admonition out of some veiled love of tradition for tradition’s sake. I feel that our claim to the title “Christian” has far more going for it that we allow ourselves to realize when we pander to purely contemporary concerns.
First of all, the title is biblical. Beyond the fact that title “Christian” goes back nearly to Jesus himself, which is no small fact in its own right, we have solid evidence that the Apostles themselves knew of it, and appropriated it for themselves. Further, some of the Apostles were inspired to use the term for the future benefit of Christians yet unborn. We are told that King Agrippa asked if Paul was trying to make a Christian out of him in Acts 26:28. The Apostle Peters exhorts his readers to bear the title “Christian” proudly when they suffer for it in 1 Peter 4:16. In this passage, we see Peter associating the content of the Christian message with the title “Christian” itself, since it is Peter speaks concerning suffering on account of the title itself. We are even told the history of the title in Acts 11:26. Clearly the author in that context wanted his readers, who by the very inclusion of the story had to have known the title, to know from where the word had come. In all of these instances, we see the Holy Spirit affirming through the inscripturation process the validity of the title “Christian” for all who publically claim to follow Jesus. Do we truly believe that we have done the Holy Spirit a favor by “recontextualizing” our faith with titles other than the one He himself has hallowed and sanctified? What more could we possible wish to add to so glorious an endorsement?
Second, the title has been defended with blood. By this I do not mean the Blood of the Blessed Cross, though that is certainly a reasonable extension of the Holy Spirit’s approval of the term discussed above. No, I am speaking of those endless multitudes who have sacrificed their lives rather than renounce the name from the days of the Apostles to our own. Every scrap of extra-biblical evidence we possess—from letters between the Emperor Trajan and a regional governor, to the cynical musings of Tacitus the ever-jaded Roman historian, from the accounts of the martyrdom of aged Christian bishops in the arena, to the mad ravings of Emperor Nero—resoundingly affirms that the early church went by no other name but “Christian” and that further, it was by that name that they were despised, persecuted, and murdered. Moreover, we have no scrap of evidence that the early church wanted to go by any other title, or that further, they were willing to be killed for any other title. They seemed to wear their being “Christian” with specific and self-conscious pride. And they have subsequently inspired generations of other disciples who would not be killed for anything less than the right to bear the name of their Lord with freedom. There are Christians who even today face mobs of Muslim extremists, Hindi fear-mongers, and Communist oppressors because they would go by that title for which countless Christians have modeled a willingness to die. And why are we not willing to use it? Because it has been associated with hypocrisy? Did not Tacitus accuse Christians of being “haters of the human race”? Indeed, nothing has changed from his day to ours, and if the Christians of his day did not shed the stigma of the title by shedding the title, we are apt to retain the same.
Third, it has been tested in the fires of time, and has not been found wanting. As we have already had cause to mention twice, the earliest Christians joyfully appropriated it to themselves. Further, even the disciples of the Lord Jesus himself gladly took the title to their own deaths. For indeed, the title itself sums up the greatness of the message we proclaim to the world. We are Christians, “little Christs” who emulate and follow our Lord Christ as he commanded us. We are citizens of his Kingdom, and so as citizens of America go by the title “American,” we go by the title “Christian” as a denominator of our very nationality. The church has thus seen fit to baptize the title for wide usage in every corner of the world where Christ’s name is preached. There is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and that church has gone, is going, and will go indefinitely, by the name “Christian.” After all the fads and vicissitudes of culture ebb and flow away, one title will avowedly remain the same, that title which all the ages of our history—ancient, medieval, reformation, modern—and all the cultures who have heard the Good News—Egyptian, Chinese, English, Nigerian—have worn with boldness. Are we so wise in our modern age to reinvent the very name our forebears have chosen for themselves from every generation from the Apostles to ours? Do we have a better sense for what does and does not have a staying power in our current world? Do we really believe that with a history of witnesses as rich as we possess that the title “Christian” simply does not convey enough of what we mean when we tell the world of the hope we have? I hardly think so.
Finally, there is nothing which has taken from the title Christian which is not more than made up for by the proud heritage we possess. Has the Christian name been slandered by those who would claim to bear the banner of Christ, and yet only follow the ethics of this world? There is hardly any believer out there who cannot answer this question, with tears of pain, anger, and repentance, in the positive. Have Christians, often acting in good faith we concede, occasionally done things which have brought ill-repute on the blessed name of our Savior? Unfortunately, we must answer again in the positive. But far from being thus encouraged to abandon the title to those who would misappropriate and abuse it, we are apt to reclaim it for all its glory. Rather than let two thousand years of self-titled “Christians” be suddenly deemed irrelevant by a new title we coin for ourselves, let us honor their witness, even unto death, by both proudly bearing the name Christian as well as living out in our lives all that such a title suggests. Let us be “little Christs” who walk this world as he did spreading the Good News of the Kingdom in word and deed. That is the task to which we are called when we call ourselves Christians, and his is the example our name compels us to emulate. After all is said and done, Christians are what we are, and Christians are what we are to be called. It is therefore finally my own sister’s “religion” on her Facebook that deserves to be used by all: “I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.”