Is It Time to Change the Label?


People use labels to identify themselves all the time.  Conservative.  Liberal.  Gay.  Straight.  Canadian.  American.  The list is endless.  Every time we hear one of those labels, it evokes an image in our minds based on what we know (or think we know) of people who bear them.  The image can be positive or negative, based on our opinion or experience.  I wonder what comes to mind when someone labels themselves a Christian?

What Comes to Mind

What comes to mind when someone hears the term Christian depends, of course, on their experience and understanding.  If someone wears that label themselves, they likely have a variety of positive images that come to mind.  Those who do not claim that designation may think of someone they know or are related to that they consider to be a Christian.  Others may think of people who go to church.  There are others, however, that may have very different images that come to mind.

It is unfortunate that in our day the term Christian has taken on some very negative connotations.  Words like haters, aloof, exclusive, bigots, homophobes, judgmental, hypocrites, cheap, stingy, and heartless often come to people’s minds with the accompanying images.  Were these the images that the term Christian was originally meant to call to mind?  Not at all.   It’s obvious we have lost something somewhere along the road.

The Origin

The origin of the term Christian is found in Acts 11:25 – 26.

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 great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.  ESV

The Greek word here is christianos from christos-Christ, the Anointed One.  So the original word meant “like the Anointed One,” or, perhaps, “little Anointed One.”

Please notice that the disciples did not ascribe this name to themselves.  The title was given to them by those who were observing them from the outside.  The label was applied when they saw how the early disciples centred their lives around Jesus Christ.  What may have originally been meant as a slur was taken up as a badge of honour by those to whom it was ascribed.

Unfortunately, throughout the centuries the title has lost its original force.  When the church became a rich and powerful institution that condemned, persecuted, and slaughtered anyone who was not part of the fold, the term Christian no longer meant Christ-like.  It simply meant someone who was affiliated with the institution.  Equally unfortunate is the fact that centuries later the practices of the church haven’t changed much, although the church typically uses little more than its tongue to slaughter its enemies.  Therefore the term Christian still largely refers to one affiliated with an institution that is quickly being viewed as archaic and irrelevant.

A New Tribe

I do see a change on the horizon, however.  All over the world there is a tribe of people arising who are turning away from the institution and turning back the Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They are the ones who take the words in their Bibles, written in red, seriously, as though Jesus actually meant what He said.  A new breed of disciple is arising, and we must have a new label for this new tribe.

Try This On for Size

Some time back I attended a Leadership Conference where Dr. Stuart Murray (author of The Naked Anabaptist) was speaking.  The term he suggested we use in this post-Christendom age is follower of Jesus.  I like it!  Why?  Think about it.  A follower of Jesus describes one who has fully surrendered the direction of their life to the King.  They have set their sights on Him and are fully intent on going where He goes, doing what He is doing, saying what He is saying, etc.  They are consistently being transformed into the likeness of the One they are following, which, of course, is in harmony with our original calling (see Romans 8:28 – 30).

Validating the Label

But let’s be honest:  a new label is only valid if it truly testifies to the lifestyle of the one who wears it.  A follower of Jesus must actually follow Jesus.  That means the only way we can legitimately wear this label is by fully and faithfully living in the Reign.


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