What’s in a Name
When my siblings and I were growing up, our dad often tried to teach us life lessons that would build our character and make us better people. It was important to him that we learn to conduct ourselves in an honorable way. One thing he used to say was, “You have a good name; now live up to it.” By that, he meant that our family name, Hartwell, had been held by many others whom he respected, and he wanted us to follow in their footsteps. He exhorted us to live up to the reputation earned by others bearing our name.
As believers in Christ, we bear the name “Christian,” meaning “Christ follower,” but in the years right after Jesus’s death, people who embraced the gospel were known instead as “followers of the Way” (see Acts 9 and 19). The term “Christian” was not used until about 37 A.D., when the believers in Antioch were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). In those days, “Christian” was not a name Christ followers assumed themselves; rather, it was a derogatory term ascribed to them because of their allegiance to the crucified “false Messiah.” Soon, the name “Christian” came to be closely associated with persecution and suffering, as believers were targeted by both Jews and Romans for their nonconformist beliefs.
In today’s culture, the term “Christian” has again taken on negative connotations for some people—even for some within the faith who prefer to be known instead as “Jesus followers.” Such believers seek to distance themselves from the cultural narrative that says Christians are intolerant, exclusive, and offensive. Personally, I embrace the mixed bag represented by the label “Christian,” because I accept that it encompasses the complexity of what it means to follow Jesus. I am both a selfish sinner and a redeemed child of God. I do good sometimes and I fail to do good other times. I live in a fallen world and I long for heaven. John Calvin said it well as to why we should relish the name “Christian”:
And what is it else to be a disciple of Christ but to be a Christian? But when [believers] began plainly to be called that which they were, the use of the name served greatly to set forth the glory of Christ, because by this means they referred all their religion unto Christ alone. . . Christ brought forth his name thence like a standard, whereby it might be made known to all the world that there [were] some people whose captain was Christ, and which did glory in his name.
Christians, let’s live up to the good name that became ours when we first believed. Even when our culture discounts, disparages, and discards us, remember this: “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name”! (1 Peter 4: 16).
By Sue Bradley, Hope member