A prominent pastor asks, “Are we disciples? Or are we just ‘Christians?’ … Don’t settle for ‘Christian.’” Though I agree with his general point — that we should not rely upon labels, that we should be something, that our faith be active — I believe his overall argument misses the mark. The term Christian is both historically and theologically important, and we should not be quick to dismiss or diminish it. Further, simply calling ourselves something else won’t make us, well, better Christians.
The Christian Post reports that Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga, has preached a four-week series on the subject of being disciples of Christ. The article describes that Stanley regards “Christian” as an ambiguous term.
“Christians didn’t call themselves Christians,” he is quoted as saying. “They called themselves something far more terrifying, … far more defined, … far more convicting than ‘Christian.’” That term, Stanley proposes, is disciple.
In the series, Stanley notes that Christian is applied only three times in the New Testament (which is true: Acts 11:26, 26:28, 1 Pet. 4:16), but that disciple is used 89 times (also true). But his conclusions are erroneous. (By the way, Stanley is not the first to draw lessons from infrequency of the term Christian in the New Testament.)
Briefly, two myths are advanced about the term Christian.
First: “[The term] was a derogatory label created for Jesus’ followers by outsiders.” This has not been proven to be true, but is speculation advanced by some scholars. The general idea is that Christian was created to mock the followers of Cristos (Greek for the Hebrew word messiah). These scholars note that “Cristos” is very similar to a name given to slaves: Chrestus, which means good or useful. Thus, it possibly follows that being called a Christian was a taunt — you are, after all, the follower of a slave. This is interesting, but it hardly suggests that Chrestus gave rise to Cristos or that Chrestus influenced the creation of the term Christian. In fact, the very opposite is understood: Chrestus was applied (purposely or ignorantly) to Cristos, not the other way around. Cristos is the originating term.
One more note: No ancient pagan or Christian author understands Christian to be a pejorative term, nor does any suggest that Christian was created by outsiders.
Acts 11:28 merely notes that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, more than a dozen years after the founding of the faith. There is no suggestion that believers in Antioch experienced persecution; in fact, Jewish believers fled Jerusalem to Antioch to avoid persecution. The church in Antioch was a thriving, peaceful body. Nor does Luke, the author of Acts, say the term was applied negatively. Very simply, he notes that this is when Christians first became Christians.
In Acts 26:28, King Agrippa does object to Paul’s trying to make him a Christian — “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” However, Paul’s answer is affirmative: yes, I do hope to make you a Christian. Paul does not regard the term in a pejorative sense. Further, Agrippa’s outrage pertains to Paul’s challenge in the previous verse: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” In other words, Agrippa is astonished that Paul is placing him on trial; after all, Paul is the accused. One senses that Agrippa is extremely uncomfortable with Paul’s message, for it strikes close to the truth. Agrippa, Paul maintains, is very close to being a Christian!
Second: “One of the reasons that you can’t get five people to define ‘Christian’ the same way … is because ‘Christian’ is not defined in the New Testament.” This is fundamentally untrue, for the term is defined both historically and theologically in the New Testament.
That the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch is highly significant, for it marked a dramatic shift in the demographics of the church. Previously, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The followers were predominantly Jewish, and the few Gentile followers, e.g. Cornelius, were “God-fearers,” i.e. people who worshipped Yahweh. But in Antioch, there arose a new group: pagan followers of Christ (here, “pagan” simply indicates their former religious background). This group did not emerge as a separate body, distinct from the Jewish followers; they were fully incorporated into the Body of Christ. The Jewish believers and the (formerly) pagan believers were one.
Unsurprisingly, a new term arose from this occasion: Christian. That term should be derived from the Greek language, not the Hebrew language, is also significant. Though Christ is the equivalent of Messiah, the term Christian has no Hebrew equivalent. It is derived from the Greek language and from this historical moment, the point at which the church became more prominently polyglot.
Etymologically, Christian means “follower of Christ.” So, in Antioch, the disciples became followers of Christ. Not that they were not followers of Christ before, but now they were known as followers of Christ, not merely disciples of a Jewish sect. From this moment, the church would be changed, it would expand with astonishing rapidity into the whole world. To be a disciple now meant to identify oneself with Christ, regardless of one’s religious heritage — “neither Jew nor Greek.” The term became a point of identification, embraced by the disciples of Christ.
Peter defines the term theologically in his first letter. Here is the passage:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or fas a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. — 1 Peter 4:12-19
Here, to be a Christian is to bear the name of Christ, and, more importantly, to bear his sufferings. Christians are not to be identified as sinners, but as co-sufferers (cf. James 2:7). They are not to be ashamed of the name they bear, for it is their glory, their hope.
Theologically, a Christian is one who entrusts his or her soul to God, who is completely enveloped by God, who is completely submitted to God, that his or her life may be a testimony of the living Christ. This is the ultimate point of identification: we don’t merely become followers or disciples — we become Christ. This is far more frightening (and more glorious) notion.
Is it possible that Christian was created by outsiders to deride the disciples of Christ? If so, there is no hint of that idea in the New Testament, and for that matter in the writings of the early church. We may grow frustrated with the inertness of some Christians (perhaps even of our own inertness), but that is no reason to dimiss the term Christian as historically pejorative and theologically meaningless. It is anything but.
- Why I am a Christian
- What did Pliny know?
- When is a person not a Christian?
- Catholic America: Are Catholics Christians?
- Why I became a Christian