I was at a small church recently and was slightly disturbed to hear one of the leaders announce to the congregation that he was not a “Christian.” Actually, he made this announcement for my benefit and that of the other visitors. He said this to help us understand that he was not a “Christian” like people who just go to church and engage in “Christian” rituals. Instead, he called himself a “disciple of Jesus.” Thus, he made a sharp distinction between being a “Christian” and being a “disciple.”
This disturbed me- not because I don’t think it’s important to define our terms- but because there are verses in the Bible where followers of Jesus are called “Christians.” And I think it’s perfectly acceptable to call oneself a Christian for those who have received the grace of God, put their faith in Jesus Christ, and are seeking to live upright lives. (For the record, I think it’s acceptable for someone to call himself a Disciple of Jesus for the same reason. I just do not think it wise to draw a sharp distinction between the two, because both are used in Scripture to identify the same individuals.)
Now, allow me to show you the three passages in which people are called “Christians” and explain why I think all three of these instances encourage me to call myself a Christian.
People in Antioch
In Acts 11:26b, we read, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In this chapter of Acts, we learn that the church, which began in Jerusalem, experienced persecution resulting in believers being scattered to places like, “Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (11:19). While these Jewish believers were in Antioch, they began sharing their faith with the locals. As a result, many Greeks believed and a local church formed there. It was here in Antioch that these “disciples” were first called “Christians.”
According to BDAG (a great Bible lexicon) the term “Christian” means, “one who is associated w. Christ.”1 This is beautiful! The disciples in Antioch were being recognized as those who were associated with Jesus, the Christ. This is how I want to be identified by those around me! (For the record, the word “Disciple” means, “one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views.”2 This is, essentially, the same thing as “Christian,” according to BDAG’s definition. The difference is that a “Christian” is an associate of Christ, whereas a “disciple” can, potentially, be associated with anyone. Thus, a “disciple of Jesus” is the same thing as a “Christian” and, therefore, these phrases can be used interchangeably.)
Now, let’s consider the second use of “Christian.” In Acts 26, Paul is on trial before King Agrippa. After Paul presented the gospel to the King, “Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily? ”” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa, accurately, saw the connection between Paul’s faith as the essence of what it means to “be a Christian.” Agrippa, unwilling to be converted and rejecting faith in Jesus Christ, objected to becoming a “Christian” so easily.
Looking at this situation from another angel, it is apparent that Paul was identified by Agrippa as a “Christian” because of Paul’s profession of faith in Jesus. I am happy to be associated with Paul on these charges. I am willing to carry the title of “Christian” to the extent that it means that I am associated with Jesus.
The Apostle Peter
Finally, we will see that the Apostle Peter uses the term “Christian” to identify a follower of Jesus. In his first letter, he says, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed but let him glorify God in having that name” (1 Peter 4:16). Just three verses before the one quoted above he says, “…rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ…” (4:13). The obvious connections between the two verses can be seen in the audience and the sufferings of Christ. In verse 13, Peter encourages his fellow believers to rejoice when they suffer like Jesus did. In verse 16, he seems to conclude that to “share in the sufferings of Christ” is to “suffer as a Christian.” To suffer in association with Christ is to suffer as an associate of Christ.
It is obvious that Peter had adopted the term “Christian” to mean “one who is associated with Christ by faith.” For this reason, too, I am comfortable carrying the title, “Christian.”
How about you? Do you think that the title “Christian” still accurately describes those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ and seek to be associated with him? Or has our culture corrupted it beyond recognition?