In Acts 11 we find out the “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” What we don’t really know is when the term Christian was self-applied. In the three instances it shows up in the Scriptures we see it be attributed to a group of people. Other people who were not Christians would call them Christians and it would have been more of a derogatory term. John says in his gospel that others would know who Christ’s disciples are because of their love for one another.
It makes me wonder when the term Christian started taking on different meaning. Rather than being an insult, or a way to describe a group of people who were living counter to the surrounding empire it became a word to describe someone because they think certain things (usually highly unreasonable things) and they have a couple rituals (like not swearing and going to church). We use the term to create lines and boundaries for who is in and who is out. We use the term make us feel better about who we are dating or marrying. We use the term to describe the people that we don’t feel the need to convert (they already have the truth right?).
The essence of a term seems to change when you start to self apply it. Rather than being identified by someone else as a Christian we feel the need to identify ourselves as one. This comes with a list of problems I think. For starters this means that we allow the term to define us rather than our actions. We give ourselves the label as if it alone carries any weight for actually identifying who we are. But if we allow others to label us, then we are not at the mercy of trying to live up to a label, the label will be properly applied depending on what we have already lived up to. This will prevent hypocrisy being the Christian’s primary identification marker because the Christian no longer claims the title for themselves.
Earlier in the year we ran an event with Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. One of the things we asked Stanley is why he always says that he ‘doesn’t know if he’s a Christian or not.” I posted the video below. But what strikes me as interesting is that Stanley says he doesn’t trust his own subjectivity in calling himself a Christian, but he does acknowledge that his friends keep telling him he’s a Christian so that’s the best he can do.
So I wonder. What if we just all stopped with this whole identifying ourselves as something, especially to others that wouldn’t consider themselves Christians. For some reason I bet that we aren’t living lives that are worthy of the title and we make up for it by giving the title to ourselves. It makes us feel better and maybe we think we are going to heaven or something because we get the title. But if we just stop for a little bit, I wonder what it will do? Are we afraid that it will be a branding problem? People won’t hear about Jesus because we aren’t promoting him? I think it might go a long way for Christians to earn a label for once. It will be nice when you start to hear things like “oh him, he’s one of those Christian people who shares all his stuff and spends his time with the hurting and marginalized and is part of a community that stands up for injustice and I’ve never heard of him hating anyone ever.” Or something like that. Wouldn’t that be nice?