What’s in a name?

It probably wasn’t original with him, but I remember laughing when I once heard Hank Hanegraaf say that attending a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. Aside from the obvious meaning of the joke, it made me laugh for a second reason: why would anyone who wasn’t a car want to sleep in a garage, and why would anyone who wasn’t a Christian want to be attending a church?

Most of us probably know people who call themselves Christian and would be quite upset if you suggested otherwise, even though they show no evidence of being one. Often I torture my family with an old riddle. Q: If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a donkey have? A: Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. Similarly, calling yourself a Christian doesn’t make you one. But why would someone who wasn’t a Christian want to call themselves one? It’s not likely to boost your social status or open any doors for you.

Years back I spent a summer being visited by Mormon missionaries. One thing that surprised me was that they were very insistent on referring to themselves as Christians, since they clearly weren’t Christian in any sense that I understood the word, and they definitely agreed that they weren’t the same kind of Christian I was. This came up early in our talks, and the first thing they did was point to their badges, which underneath their names read “The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints”, with “JESUS CHRIST” in much larger letters than the rest. They insisted that anyone belonging to a church with “JESUS CHRIST” in the name was entitled to be called a Christian.

Eventually we settled on calling my kind of Christianity historical protestantism, just to have some essential vocabulary for continuing our discussions. Later as I did some research I discovered that Mormons had proudly insisted that they were not Christians until the early 1960s, and there were many writings by apostles which dwelled on the distinction. The only explanation I could find for the change was that the church had found it expedient to begin calling itself Christian, finding that it reduced resistance to the rest of their pitch. But it’s not a very satisfying explanation.

Last night while preaching about churches that name the name of Christ but seem to have had their candlestick removed, our pastor Mike Slone mentioned this passage:

And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach. (Isaiah 4:1)

Interesting thought: let us eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, i.e. do things our own way, but still let us be named as one of you so as to avoid disgrace. Sometimes I think the power of disgrace is weakening as the culture is coarsening, and then I look around and see that churches (or at least outfits that call themselves churches) are still packing them in, bestowing the name of Christian on anyone who asks.

Still, it’s only a name, not an especially complimentary one, a name that believers picked up in Antioch, and I wonder if we aren’t fighting the wrong battle when we try to proclaim who is or isn’t entitled to be called a Christian. Perhaps believers could save some time and animosity, and be able to move on to more important things, if we just ceded the name to anyone who wanted it and called ourselves something else. Brother Dave Black says that he only introduces himself as a follower of Jesus anymore, and that simple phrase gets right to the heart of what I think of as the Christian life.

I’m looking for other words that followers of Jesus might be better off donating to the unbelieving culture. “Marriage” is one possibility.


3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. You wrote, “… Later as I did some research I discovered that Mormons had proudly insisted that they were not Christians until the early 1960s…..”

    Convince me of this by backing it up with something solid and reputable.

  2. Anonymous,

    I have no idea what you will consider soild and reputable, but five minutes with Google turned up this from a fellow who grew up Mormon but left the faith (for atheism, not Christianity).

    It is an ironic fact of Mormon history that when I was growing up Mormon in the 1940s, we Mormons were quite proud of the fact that we weren’t “Christian,” but rather “Mormon.”   At that time we Mormons understood that to be Christian was to subscribe to all the false doctrines of the Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, and other false churches.   It is only in the last few decades that the Mormon church has changed its attitude, and now wants desperately to be considered among the “Christian” churches, probably because they consider that by accepting the label “Christian” they will not appear so unusual in the eyes of unaware prospective converts, who only find out later that the Mormons have quite different definitions of “Christian,” “God,” and hundreds of other terms used by traditional denominations.

  3. I prefer “Holy Matrimony” myself. I also think we ought to quit getting marriage licenses from the state. Marriage belongs to the family.

    [L]et us eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, i.e. do things our own way…

    I think that means that the women would provide for their own needs — it wouldn’t cost the man anything to marry them. But your point still stands.

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