I wonder what it was like the first time someone called the early Christians a 'Christos'?(Greek word for 'Christian') What was it like to have the people of Antioch suddenly remind you, as a new member of this growing religious sect, that the person you worshiped was nothing more than a meddling rabble-rouser who had been crucified fifteen years earlier? Only the infinitely stupid would follow someone like that. Yeshua was not a distinguished Rabbi, but a poor carpenter who became an overnight sensation with his populist, ambiguous moral pap. (Your neighbour is a Samaritan? Women support your ministry? We are all sinners?) At least the Zealots made sense. At least they stood for something. Following a mob leader was one thing, but following a crucified criminal and passing it off as serious religion -- AND claiming he was God -- was disgusting.
It's hard to imagine, of course, because the word 'Christian' has been sullied and dirtied through the past two thousand years to mean something far different from what those first followers of Jesus experienced. From about the time of the church's marriage to Rome, through a thousand years of Christendom and even through the Reformation, being called a Christian, or naming oneself as a Christian, has meant something altogether different.
Today, the word has different implications in different cultures. There are still countries where Christians get a taste of what the early followers experienced, places where the word implies shame, and sometimes, danger. In those places, the word is sacrosanct, as it should be, and it carries both meaning and depth. To be a Christian, to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus, can be a matter of life or death. For most of the world, however, the word is associated with 'white' and 'colonization' and 'prejudiced.' In fact, the word has been so bastardized it is no longer a noun, but also an adjective. Here in North America, we are especially guilty. We have changed the word, and in so doing, changed the nature of how we approach both the world around us and our own faith.
This is not a happy story.
In Roman times, Antioch was a unique place. The Roman emperors favoured the city from the first, seeing it as a more suitable capital for the eastern part of the empire than Alexandria could be, because of the isolated position of Egypt. To a certain extent they tried to make it an eastern Rome. Antioch was the chief center for early Christianity due to its large Jewish population, and so was a chief target for early missionaries, including the Apostle Peter and later Paul and Timothy. Despite its Jewish influence, Antioch was a learned and educated city, know for its styles and fashions and hedonism, comparable to today's Hollywood in its influence and culture.
When it was first used around 47 A.D., being called a Christian was derogatory, especially since many of the Romans did not understand the nature of certain terms that these people used in their Jewish sect, like breaking the "body and blood of Christ". That said, it wasn't dangerous to be a Jesus follower until Caligula came to power in 54 A.D. (And would later become a terrifying decision under the emperors Nero and Domitian.)
It is difficult to find evidence when Christians first started to refer to themselves by the very name used against them, but it makes one wonder what an early believer would think of the word's use today, in how we have 'Christian' organizations and 'Christian' music and 'Christian' books.
This is all ridiculous, of course, because it is impossible for an organization to be Christian. An organization cannot follow Christ. Last I checked, organizations can't have relationships with the family dog, let alone a supernatural God. Strangely, whenever this is brought up in discussion, it is often waved away. "You know what I mean, Steve, we stand for Christian things. Christian ideals."
Unfortunately, what is missed is that there is both an exclusivity and buffer for people who work for these so-called Christian organizations. There is an implication that the organization is especially 'blessed' or made 'holy' because of their associations. If an organization is holy, people don't have to be. Why do you think some of the nastiest Christians in the world are the ones who go to hyper conservative churches or work in 'Christian' companies? People become excused from their behaviour with the outside world, and within the 'Christian' organization, which is inherently self-ruling, it becomes a place of both piety and hypocrisy. The greatest example of this is a Bible College or an organization like World Vision, who recently took down their 'Christian' label. (And rightly so. World Vision is a political organization and does far more harm than good in Africa. Don't believe the infomercials.)
'Christian' organizations exist only to preserve their own hegemony, so convinced are they of their God given right to rule. As well they should be. If you believe your organization is in place as a direct result of its relationship to God, then you will work to preserve it, regardless of culture or human concerns, because your organization has been touched by the divine. For example, examine the many missionary organizations that still operate under white control in Africa. Why are they there? To help? Haven't we done enough through hundreds of years of pillaging and raping the continent? In most 'Christian' organizations, especially missionary ones, there are a number of rules that reflect profound class-ism and racism, not to mention misogyny. There are strict rules about inter-cultural marriage. There are rules about white control that reverberate through the suburban churches in North America. "We can do it better. We'll give the money, but we need one of 'us' putting in our plan of action."
To be part of a 'Christian organization' is to be different. Better. Oh, that won't be said, but if you listen closely, you can hear it in the tones of many of its adherents. In essence, it is Christendom all over again. Except this time, the marriage is to companies and corporations, not the crown. Ironically, the Protestant reformation was started by a monk who felt there was too close a connection between dollars (indulgences) and the church. How is it that we now use the word 'Christian' to squeeze the pockets so we can build our own utopias?
Isn't it about time we went back to the origin of the word? Isn't it time Christians stopped pilfering money from other Christians to build bigger barns with the word Jesus painted on the side, and give it to those who truly need it? To be a 'Christian' is to follow Jesus. It is to follow a populist Rabbi crucified as a common criminal. And its time we stopped using the word to spice up our next commercial, capital venture or campaign stop, and remember who we are and where we come from.
Authour's Note: (This is a systemic issue, not an individual one. There are a number of wonderful people who work in these organizations and have done so from the heart.)