Saturday, April 22, 2017

Christian Name Calling: Don't Use This One Word

The list of widely used derogatory names for followers of Jesus Christ is actually quite short: Jesus Freaks, True Believers, Holy Rollers, and Bible Thumpers is about it. Those wishing to insult or demean Christ's adherents have pretty much given up the hunt for a concise pejorative. They just cite the most ancient moniker: Christians. Once it is clear who they're talking about, the descriptors flow freely—as in "Christians are . . . hypocrites, judgmental, superstitious, anti-science, bigots, haters." And the list goes on.

But that's not what this post is about. I wanna talk about what followers of Jesus Christ call themselves and one another. Most importantly what we should never call ourselves or each other.
The Stereotypical Christian?

First some demythologizing. The word "Christian" appears in scripture three times. There's approximately zero direct evidence that pagans in Antioch invented the word as an insult, as goes the old chestnut. Please read Acts 11:26 again and remind me about the infinitive aorist tense in New Testament Greek (ie: on-going & passive). Let's go to the NASB: "...the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." Who was doing the "calling?" It doesn't say. Might've been the locals, might've been The Disciples themselves. Was the word meant to impugn? It doesn't say. There's no hint of persecution, hostility, or opposition in Antioch at all—to the contrary, Luke tells us "the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord." The main headline about the church in Antioch is the success of the gospel among Gentiles before the Apostle Paul had ever visited.

Some point to King Agrippa using the word in disgust after hearing Paul's speech (Acts 26). But how, exactly, do we know the King spoke it in disgust? The word was apparently in widespread use by that time. Agrippa had never heard a real, live leader of The Way present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so he was pleased to have Paul deliver a sermon to the king's court. The result? Agrippa's famed exclamation that he was "almost persuaded" to become a Christian.

Yes, many newer Bible translations cast Agrippa's words as a question, along the lines of "Do you think you can so quickly persuade me to be a Christian?" I'm not convinced he was asking a question, but what if he was? If Aggy was asking a rhetorical question—and even if that question's intent was to assure his courtly audience that he would not convert to Christ—it still doesn't mean the word "Christian" was itself a slur. In fact, Agrippa could've been giving Paul a mock-compliment—sort of a boast for being strong in his own Pagan faith. He acknowledges Paul's masterful presentation, admires the prisoner's moxie, and spins it to his posse as "I just took the strongest punch any preacher could ever give—and it didn't even faze me. I'm still a great Pagan. Probably the best Pagan ever."

Not to mention that you can insult a person using purely "acceptable" words. In fact, the best insults masquerade as compliments (ie: damning with faint praise). No, we can't use Agrippa to seal the deal for "Christian" being a word of derision. And don't skip past the fact that one of the three mentions of this word in scripture comes out of the mouth of a King—in front of witnesses. Including the Apostle Paul.

And a historical note. It's hard to imagine any early disciple of Jesus being offended by the label "Christ." But what about the suffix "-ian?" What does this modifier do to the word? Roman soldiers of the era serving under a particular general would add "-iani" (Latin) or "-ianos" (Greek) to the end of their general's name, denoting their allegiance to him. Caesar's soldiers were called "Caesariani." Therefore this construct quite literally means "Christ-follower."

Others argue that the author of Acts himself (Luke) persisted in calling the new religionists "disciples," and not "Christians." True. Luke continued to use the same word he'd used dozens of times in his Gospel. So riddle me this: after Acts 21 Luke stopped using the word "disciple." Seriously. The word never again appears in the rest of the New Testament. I mean, over 250 uses in the four Gospels and Acts, then—whoosh!—the word vanishes faster than Lazarus from the pages of scripture.

Look, all the arguments that the word "Christian" was an insult rely on inference. People have assumed the pagan populace of Antioch came up with the name. No evidence, Biblical or historical, supports this. On top of which they assume that because Antioch was pagan the word just had to be a hostile nickname. Again, no evidence in or out of scripture for it being derogatory. Then they pile on another assumption that Agrippa was echoing a vernacular slight. Maybe. Possibly. Assuming the first two assumptions were correct. But what saith the scripture?

Take the passage where Peter is intentionally specific and sober in using the word "Christian" (1 Peter 4:16), which is its third-and-final appearance in the Bible. Peter's letter utterly debunks the modern meme that "the believers never called each other Christians." Hello? Here's the Apostle who was given the keys to the kingdom urging his flock to endure suffering "as a Christian."

Every Junior High Sunday School student knows that first-use is a big deal in the Bible. Let's go back to the first-use of "Christian" in Acts 11:26 and the focus on the words "first called." Both of those words are yuge in scripture, and loaded with meaning. Firstborn. First fruits. First day of the week. First to believe. First commandment. First Adam. And don't ignore the connection between "first" and the number one. To wit: "one and only Son," "the Lord our God is one," "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father." So having this news item highlighted in scripture as a "first" tells us to stop and consider.

I consider the word "called" to be the clincher for "Christian" being a very good name indeed. The Greek word used here for "called" isn't the common word found in "they shall be called the children of God," or "the one called Peter," or even "thou shalt call his name Jesus." No, this is a rarely-used mystical word, the Greek word "chrematizo." It appears nine times in scripture, seven of which explicitly indicate that an Angel, the Holy Spirit, or God himself is giving an instruction (Strong's 5537). Acts 11:26 is one of two times where it's not explicit that God is speaking. Still, if the statement "first called Christians" were a mere aside, why use such a highly-freighted word? Answer: it's not an aside.

Luke's brief notation, validated by King Agrippa's words to Paul, and sealed with Peter's charge to all who name the Name of Christ, is not a pagan invention. It is a prophecy fulfilled. How could such an innocuous expression as "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" actually be a chrematizo—a legitimate oracle? Is there a prophecy foretelling this new name? Yes. Yes there is.

The nations will see your righteousness,
And all kings your glory;
And you will be called by a new name
Which the mouth of the Lord will designate.
— Isaiah 62:2 (NASB)

First called by whom? Well there's your chrematizo: the name was designated in advance and came from the mouth of the Lord. I'm gonna guess the Antioch disciples themselves came up with the name. But if not, this wouldn't be the first time God used pagans or foreign Kings to fulfill his promises to his own people. I am happy to be called a Christian, seeking daily to live up to my master's example.

So, what about the other Biblical names Christians were called? These are names which we may call ourselves and one another. Just a partial list: brethren, the elect, servants, believers, dear children, little flock, sheep, followers, the faithful, the redeemed of the Lord, saints, the righteous, a holy nation, and even bondservants of Christ.

But there's one name from scripture (not in the list above) which I hear repeatedly used by Christians of themselves. It's even sometimes used of other—even all—believers. It is a tag that no Christian should ever place on themselves. That one word will be the subject of Part Two of this post.