The latest instalment of The Church Newspaper Zambia features a quirky letter to the editor by a perplexed congregant, ranting about why he thinks that the prevailing trend of changing birth names by a crop of sprouting charismatic clerics is, in fact, an abuse of the biblical custom.
Reads the letter:
I want to comment on something which I have noticed is trending quite a lot these days. It’s been going on for a long time though.
From the time a popular Zimbabwean preacher changed his name to Uebert Angel, many prophets in Zambia have equally changed their names. You will find Mayanko Phiri calling himself Prophet Quints Roberts. Some of them even take up the surnames of their spiritual fathers.
From the look of things, it’s like this change of names is motivated by inferiority complex. This is because the majority of prophets switch to English names while abandoning their African names. I am yet to see a Prophet who switched to up African names.
I do understand that in the Bible Saul changed his name to Paul after repenting. But I feel that the change of names these days is being abused.
A fair number of modern day clerics in Africa have purportedly changed their birth names, assuming new ones, a process they say registers a change from an old, unrepentant-self.
Not so long ago, popular Twitter parody account Man’s Not Barry Roux (@AdvBarryRoux) divided its followers when it revealed that the man people recognise as Prophet Shepherd Bushiri was manoeuvring with an assumed name as his real name is Chipiliro Gama.
The change came partly because he allegedly had some life-changing experiences, and partly in hopes that the new name will create a brand for him.
Though some on social media said it was bizarre that his followers did not know his apparent real name, most of them said there was nothing untoward about changing a name, and used Saul, whose name changed to Paul in the Bible after he saw the light.
“When Saul was recruited by God himself to do the work of leading people to light… he was given a new name and thus changed to Paulos. When Jacob was also chosen by god his name changed to Israel. So there’s nothing that should surprise you by a change of name of our Papa,” said Ncumisa Garishe.
Another, Prudence ZeeLady Mudau said there was nothing wrong with giving yourself other names.
“What if your mother gives you the name that you hate? You just change it sana. How many people are using unreal names even on social media?”
Very often the first piece of information we have about a person is their name. It’s often the first thing you learn about someone and we form judgments about people very rapidly. And those judgments accumulate, so the first piece of information is especially important. It can lean you in a positive direction or a negative direction. And those first impressions can set the stage for future interactions.
Interesting to note about most of the cases in which preachers change their names is that they base it on Paul’s dramatic conversion experience and how it came with the name change.
According to a narrative in the book the Acts of the Apostles, it has been popularly assumed that Saul of Tarsus’ name was changed to Paul when he became a follower of Jesus Christ.
Some schools of thought have since argued that the apostle did undergo a dramatic conversion experience, but there’s no reason to think it came with a name change.
As the Gospel Coalition notes, one interpretation of why Saul/Paul goes by two different names throughout Scripture is because the New Testament uses different languages. Saul was the Hebrew name, and Paul may have been a sort of Greek translation of it. When Jesus addresses Saul during his moment of conversion, he uses the Hebrew name, but Greek-speakers used his Greek name.
None of this makes Saul’s story any less powerful, but, referring to a “Saul to Paul” transformation isn’t actually accurate.
But why does clarity on this issue matter? Why would someone rain on the parade of someone for whom a divine name change from Saul (bad guy) to Paul (good guy) is a cherished illustration of God’s grace?
Theological ideas, not rooted in God’s Word—even if attractive and useful—are ultimately unwarranted. We can imagine how easy it is to draw powerful applications from the notion that Saul the persecutor met the risen Jesus and was so transformed that Jesus gave him a new name. That will preach, especially given how closely connected naming and identity are in Scripture.
Nevertheless, without biblical evidence for such an idea, we should not use it. Even if it spoils the fun.
This principle applies well beyond this situation, of course. Another common error is the conflation of the magi with the shepherds at the manger. The magi were not there at the same time; they found Jesus months later. We can derive the right doctrine from the wrong text, and we can derive the wrong doctrine from the right text.
As God’s people, we should endeavour to read God’s Word closely and be as faithful to it as possible, in every area. Application that appears to draw on Scripture, but isn’t actually scriptural—even if it’s “useful” or “cool”—can easily undermine someone’s faith once they realise they’ve been misled all along.
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