Over the past year it has become increasingly embarrassing for followers of Christ who try to promote social justice to call themselves Christian. Christianity is becoming synonymous with exclusionary doctrines and the support of outrageously anti-Christian figures like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Many who try to follow Jesus’ instructions about radically inclusive love are abandoning the name altogether, out of a disgusted desire to maintain distance between their own faith and that of extremist-white-Anglo-evangelical Christianity.
It’s not a new phenomenon, this shifting of meaning in names. The term “Pharisee” in the gospels has come to be associated with hypocritical, nit-picking legalism, even though many Pharisees did not have those faults. The terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have both transformed into ideographs representing ideological extremes which no longer reflect the core tenets upon which the platforms were originally based. Many voters are so disgusted with these caricaturish extremes and hunger for a middle way, something reasonable and moderate.
When negative cultural shifts happen, nomenclature associated with those shifts cause people to be repelled; to curl their lips in disdain and distrust. And that’s what’s happening with “Christianity.”
As synchronicity would have it, my wife and I have been leading a Bible study on the book of Acts, which chronicles the early days of Christianity. In doing so, we read about how news of Jesus spread throughout Israel, Greece, and Turkey. During that era, new Christians called each other “brethren,” “believers,” “disciples,” or “followers of the Way.” Nonbelievers referred to them as “Galileans” or “Nazarenes.” But when the gospel reached Antioch, the local Greeks first applied the term “Christian” (Acts 11:26).
The appellation was convenient because it included the Greek “Christos,” meaning anointed one, but was also a play on “chréstos,” a word meaning goodness and morality. Doing so offered the ironic implication that followers of Jesus were “goody goodies.” This was so widely understood that around 200 AD, Tertullian—known as the “Father of Latin Christianity—wrote “But Christian, so far as the meaning of the word is concerned, is derived from anointing. Yes, and even when it is wrongly pronounced by you ‘Chrestianus’ (for you do not even know accurately the name you hate), it comes from sweetness and benignity.”
“Christian” can be broken down into “Christ” and “-ian.” The suffix “ian” means relating to or belonging to. Christians are supposed to relate to, belong to, reflect, and imitate Christ. Unfortunately, today’s universal church includes millions of Bible-hammerers who consider themselves “chréstos,” considering their own concept of rigid moral goodness as more important than Jesus’ call to love. This group purports to be followers of the Way, and yet practice what the hypocritical Pharisees preached rather than what Jesus demonstrated. They are “Chrestianus” rather than “Christian.”
Perhaps the term “Christian” originally blossomed from sweetness and benignity as Tertullian claimed. But the label has been destroyed by the blood of murdered trans women, the cries of maligned Muslims, the sorrow of Dreamers threatened with deportation, and the shame of sexually assaulted women and children who are not defended by the followers of Christ.
Jesus would chastise these “Christians” the way he did the religious law-wielders of his day; calling them hypocrites and the children of vipers. He would point out that people should be able to recognize his followers by their love. But the “love” they pour out is like the strangling and beating of an abusive parent.
The next time someone asks me if I’m Christian, I’m not sure what I’ll answer.
It’s time for a new name.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Where True Love Is: An Affirming Devotional for LGBTQI+ Individuals and Their Allies. She also wrote the Rumplepimple books; hilarious illustrated stories featuring a misunderstood doggy hero, his tutu-wearing sidekick cat named Mr. Noodles, and his two moms.