≡ Menu

What’s In a Name?

We named our kids because of the meanings of the names we had chosen. Word meanings are a basic root of communication. However, as we all know, words change their definitions during their history. Recently, I was thinking about “what’s in a name.” It reminded me of something that I wrote a while back. Here it is:

How many times a day do you use the word Christian? Do you know what you mean when you use it? Does your meaning match up with historic Christianity or is it a purely popularized meaning? When was the last time you were insulted with this term? Was the insult from a Jesus follower or one who does not follow Jesus?

What's In A Name?One of the popular usages of the word Christian is to signify conformity to an ethical standard and social attitude that is often cultural and has nothing to do with being a follower of Jesus. Today, it is often mixed up with a particular political allegiance that alleges to reflect the spirit of a basic Christianity. Even the Jehovah Witnesses have introduced themselves as Jehovah Christian Witnesses. Some Americans believe they are Christians because they live in America. For them the Christian is synonymous with American. In the church, it is worse. America has become a god to Christians. Christians have co-opted God into their own particular brand of politics.

Lots of folks use the word Christian as synonymous with perfect. To be a Christian in some people’s mind means that the person professing to be a Christian is perfect. The folks say things like “You mean you can say that word and you are a Christian,” or “You’re drinking a glass of wine and you think you are a Christian,” or “You smoke and you are a Christian,” or “You go to movies and you are a Christian,” or You believe that and you are a Christian,” or You voted for him and you call yourself a Christian.” Others have made up their own criteria as to what a Christian is and they wish to impose it on anyone who is a Christian. The popular definition of Christian even by Christians is to be Christlike. It only follows that since Christ was perfect to be like him means that Christians are perfect. Scripture does not use the word in such a way. This idea of perfection is simply a popularization of the word in the culture of the day.

The original word in Greek is christianos. It appears only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11.26; 26.28; 1 Peter 4.16). That’s the sum total of its usage. Chrio is the root word from whence christos and then christianos comes. The word is found in Homer and defined as to bathe and to caress with oils. Other usages are: the oiling of weapons, the smearing of poison on weapons, whitewashing or painting, rubbing with a garment, anointing after bathing. Christos is defined as to smear on to anoint and as a noun it is defined as ointment. It never relates to a person outside of Scripture.

It was naturally in Gentile circles (Acts 11.26 can be dated by occurrence at around A.D. 40-44 in Antioch) that christos first came to be used as a personal name rather than as a title. The populous of Antioch, hearing the disciples use this name frequently, added a colloquial suffix (originally Latin) to christos, and called those who so often name the name of Christ, Christians. Cristos meant nothing to the unbelieving Gentiles who confused it with the identically pronounced chrestos defined as “kindly, useful.” The word Christian means to be an adherent to Christ, one who becomes a follower of Christ and bonds him or herself to Christ. In historical writings in classical times, it was used to define a group in terms of its allegiance, (fidelity, loyalty, faithfulness). It was not a sarcastic term! Caesar’s opponent Pompey had troops who were called Pomperians.

Fifteen (15) years later, Herod Agrippa II, after listening to Paul, remarked ironically: “In a short time you think to make me a Christian” (Acts 26.28: the language of accusation). The old King James Version leaves us with a misunderstanding of this passage with its translation “Almost thou hast persuadest me to become a Christian,” inferring that Paul did not quite have what it took to convince Agrippa of becoming a Christian. In fact, Agrippa was telling Paul that he needed time to make up his mind on such an important issue. The usage of the word, however, was not in the mouth of the believer, Paul, but in the mouth of the unbeliever, Agrippa.

Approximately five years later with the Neroian persecution a near or present reality, Peter writing from Rome, instructed those who were in the church in certain eastern provinces not be ashamed if called to suffer as a Christian (1 Peter 4.16). This again represents the language of accusation and demonstrates that the early church had to contend with the same idea that today’s church does—being perfect. By Peter’s time, it became the name for which the followers of Jesus were persecuted.

Three Roman writers (Tactius, Suetonius, and Pliny) suggest that the word Christian was in common use among the citizenry of Rome by the reign of Nero and elsewhere in the empire by the end of the first century. Ignatius, also from Antioch, is the only one of the Apostolic Fathers to employ the term. By the end of the second century the word was well established in the church. It was to fitting not to use (…you belong to Christ… Mark 9.41).

The early believers did not originate the word Christian or call themselves by this name. Pagans originated it. It was not pejorative, only descriptive. As far as the evidence in the New Testament, the usages are uniformly set in the context of the persecution of Christians.

Other names for Christians in Acts are:

  • Acts 2.47: the being saved ones (hoi swzomenoi)
  • Acts 6.1: the disciples (mathetai)
  • Acts 9.13: the saints (abioi)
  • Acts 9.30: the brothers [translated “believers” in NIV:2011] (adelphoi)
  • Acts 10.45: the faithful [translated “believers” in ESV] (circumcised believers) (pistos)
  • Acts 24.5: the Nazarene sect (nazwraoio)

So what’s in a name? To be a Christian means to be bonding with Jesus (a lifelong journey). Christians are not perfect people. The goal of a Christian is to have a relationship with the one whom they are following. Becoming like the one they are following is secondary to having relationship with him. To be a Christian in the ancient world was to be persecuted. Time has changed its meaning, but I wonder if God has changed his thoughts.

Just a few musings…