What is a "Christian"?

"So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31-32)"

How easily the traditions of men bind us and make us either less useful or useless to God the Father...

If you take a survey and ask one thousand people who live in the united states of america the following question, "are you a christian?" - one doesn't need to be a prophet to know that the vast majority of people will answer, "yes".  A significant number will answer something to the effect of, "oh, well I guess, but I prefer the term 'whatever-religious-sect-I-am-a-member-of'", like protestant or roman catholic or evangelical or mormon or mennonite or pentacostal et al.  So, while some will not feel comfortable with the label "christian" as their first religious label due to a high allegiance to their particular religious sect's name (e.g. baptist, catholic, methodist, lutheran, mormon, etc.), the vast majority would accede that the label "christian" is a label they would take to themselves to describe themselves.

If you were then to ask those folks who accept the label "christian" this follow up question, "what does being a christian mean to you?", again, the vast majority would answer something to the effect of, "it is my religion".  And what they mean by "religion" is that it is the label passed to them by their parents - it is the religious organization which they or their parents where married in or baptized in or whose buildings they 'attended service' on some frequency (please see the article, What is Religion?).  Other possible answers include things like, "it is what I want to be" or "it is a way of living", or for the more intellectually oriented, "it is my moral framework" or "it is my ethical belief structure".  Very, very few will actually attempt to define the term "christian" which means 'christ-like'.  Even fewer still, probably in the neighborhood of less than 2% would answer that follow-up question with an answer like, "it describes my faith in christ" or, "it means I should be christ-like". 

If the reader doubts what I say here, then please, go out and take a survey and find out for yourself.

For the very few who have some biblical knowledge and are sincere in their attempts to "be a christian", I have an important question for you.  Does Jesus of Nazareth ever use the term "christian" to describe those who trust in him for who he is as he describes himself in the gospels in the first part of the new testament?  Perhaps many would be surprised that the answer to that question is "no".  Furthermore, does Jesus of Nazareth use terms to describe those people who have trusted in him and thus follow him?  The answer to that is clearly "yes".  So, if we claim to trust in or be following Jesus of Nazareth, wouldn't we take the name or names that he gives to those who trust in and follow him?

It would seem to be a good idea for those who trust in Jesus to go to Jesus to answer these questions, for his Words in the gospels should serve as our source of knowing spiritual reality and those things which have a bearing on our eternal destiny. Therefore, let us examine what Jesus (and for those who pay heed, the rest of the new testament) has to say about terms for describing a follower of Messiah Jesus.

The most common terms are, "disciple(s)" and "believers". The term "disciple(s)" is used approximately 250 times in the New Testament to describe those who trust in Jesus.  Jesus uses the term 14 times to describe those who were following him.  The term "believer(s)" is used approximately 12 times in the new testament, yet Jesus never uses the terms "believer" or "believers" in reference to his disciples.  This author believes this is so because the Light knew how easy it would be for a person to say they 'believe' in him, and so he used disciples, which means pupils or students.  It is indeed easy to say that 'I believe in Jesus', but it is a good bit more difficult to sincerely say that you are a student of the Master, because then you really ought to know what he teaches!

Finally, the term "Christian" is used 3 times in the new testament, and it is never used by Jesus in reference to his followers, nor is the term used (and thus not approved) amongst his followers.  On this basis alone, we have arrived at what those who follow Jesus should be known as, "his disciples".  The Greek transliteration behind the English term "disciple" is mathetes, and it means, "a learner" or "a pupil".  Beautifully simple, isn't it?

As noted above, the term "Christian" is not even used among the disciples of Jesus, to describe one another.  The only places it is used is in Acts 11:26, 26:28 and 1 Pet. 4:16.  Let's take a very brief look at those verses.

"...and when he had found him (Saul), he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." (Acts 11:26)

This verse makes it clear that "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch".  What is also clear is that the term "Christian" was not used among the disciples, but rather it was used about them from those who were not disciples.

"Agrippa replied to Paul, 'In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.'"  (Acts 26:28)

Here, the term was used by King Agrippa, who was examining Paul in a legal sense.  Again, it was not used by the disciples in reference to other disciples.  It is also unclear as to the tone of Agrippa's words here.  They could easily have been in the form of a sarcastic or derogatory question, which would make the term "christian" a term of derision used by the world towards those claiming to follow the Light.

"...but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name."  (1 Peter 4:16)

Here in 1 Pet. 4:16, Peter is saying if you to suffer and people label you with the term "Christian" in association with this suffering, then suffer the derision gracefully.  A contemporary example could be drawn from the evil of racism.  So a wise older black man could say to a young black man, 'but if anyone suffers as a 'nigger', he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name'.  What is clear is that the term "christian" is used by non-disciples in their persecutions against the disciples.  Hardly an endorsement to the followers of Jesus to throw away the term he used for them (disciple) in favor of a new term created by the world and referenced by Peter.

And so we have arrived at the main point of this little letter.  What we choose to label ourselves is significant, since Jesus teaches that, that which proceeds out of our mouth comes from our heart.  The fact is that Jesus used the term "disciple" in reference to those who trusted in him as Messiah and followed him, and he used NO OTHER TERM (except the special disciples labeled "sent ones" which is translated "apostles") to describe his followers.  The other important fact is that the term "christian" was created by the world in reference to the disciples of Jesus, and probably that term was intended to be used in a derogatory manner. 

Another important fact for today.  The term "christian" is used by Popes and Presidents, homosexual clergymen and hollywood "stars".  In other words, the term is not only meaningless, but it brings confusion as those who take it contradict what even they say their 'christ' represents.  Those who love the Truth ought not to bring or contribute to this confusion.

So, to answer the question of this letter in terms of contemporary culture (particularly in the United States), a "christian" is typically a person who has the scantest intellectual knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth and who, if pressed for their religion, will not take the label Jew or Muslim or atheist but prefers the label "christian".

Now, for you who are truly trying to follow the Real Jesus fully revealed in the gospels, why would you want to associate with the term "christian" given the facts in this little letter?  This is not a big issue, for sure, but if we can't speak the truth on the little things, then how are we going to speak the truth on the important issues?  If we don't care enough to be right about the little easy things, then how will we do with the larger, difficult things?

Let's be his Light AND Salt, disciples, lest we lose our flavor and be good for nothing but to be trampled on by men.

Send comments to the author Tim 


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