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Why they called us Christians

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Have you ever given much thought to why we are called “Christians?”  The early church never called themselves Christians. Jesus never gave a name to his followers.  In the Bible the title most often used was “saints.”[1]

The Greek word for saints is “hagios” which means “consecrated to God, holy, sacred, pious.” It is almost always used in the plural, “saints.”  Which reflects not just the individual but the connection to a group of people set apart for the Lord and His kingdom (more on that later).

A name is a powerful thing. Beginning with Adam’s first task of naming the animals, throughout human history and even today, the creation of a new name or title is significant and should not be overlooked.  A name is imbedded with deep meaning drawn from experiences that help define reality in language we can understand.

The early church was called “Christians” by the powers-that-be for the first time in Antioch (Acts 11:26). “Christian” was the emerging name for those who followed the way of Jesus given to them from the world’s perspective – but why a new word and new name for this group of Christ followers in Antioch? Why, from the perspective of outsiders, weren’t they simply lumped in with all the other variants of the Jewish faith? Some context might help:

Antioch was referred to as “all the world in one city;” where you could see all the world’s richness and diversity in one place…but really, only in the central marketplace.  Antioch was designed like most cities of that day: A circular wall on the outside, a marketplace in the center, with the interior of the city walled in way that divided different people groups from one another.

Enter Christ followers.  Enter the Gospel.  The Church came to Antioch and began breaking down the barriers that divided people in such a way that generated a unique diversity and an energy that upset the worlds existing categories.  People from all parts of the city (Jews and Gentiles) were coming together as new community.  This group of people was redefining reality in a way that was previously unknown and so radically that a new definition, a new word, was required for people to categorize what was happening.  What’s extremely important to realize is that without this intrinsic diversity there would have been little need for a new name to be given by outsiders – for example “Jews” would have sufficed as most did not trouble themselves with the intricacies of all the various religious sects within Judaism.  Something new that had not been seen in “all the world” was being recognized.

Historically it is thought that the name Christian was given somewhat flippantly or even derogatively by these powers-that-be; a sort of dismissive wave of the hand to those alternative people who follow Jesus as The Christ (Messiah) and were trying to live like He did, those “little christs.” Technically, the ending “-ian” means belonging to the party of; thus “Christians” were those of Jesus’ party. After Acts 11:26 the word “Christians” is used only two other times in the New Testament: in 26:28 (by Agrippa, an unbelieving King that applied the name he knew as an outsider) and 1 Peter 4:16 (in the context of being oppressed under that given name). The significance of the name, emphasized by the word order in the Greek text, is that people from outside the faith recognized Christians as a distinct group. The church was more and more being separated from Judaism and any other preexisting experience. Furthermore, it is a name the early church clearly adopted and owned as the appointed name for those within the Church as the body of Christ.

In Galatians 2:11-17 we can see just how central the diversity of the Antioch situation was to the definition of what it meant to be a Christ follower.  How this experience is built into the meaning of our given definition.

Peter, who had been living side-by-side with Jews and Gentiles, broke the unity of the community when he chose to withdraw from the Gentiles in a kowtow to a group of conservative Jews who had come to town. Peter was “afraid” (vs. 12) of what this group would think or do. This led other Jewish believers to do the same and withdraw from their non-Jewish brethren. Peter has a record of struggling to get his heart to change in line with what he knew to be true. This case was no different.

Paul confronts Peter on this and admonishes him publicly in order to set the record straight (vs. 14) – calling the behavior hypocrisy and not in line with the gospel. Paul is angered with this behavior of conformity and this divisive posture of Peter.  Calling him out in public was harsh but the future of Gentile Christians was at stake.  This fear of rejection that led to disobedience was not only out of line, but untrue because of the Gospel.  No one should neither experience division nor fear rejection because of the truth of the Gospel.

The Gentiles from whom Peter withdrew got the message loud and clear that they were somehow second class because of what they were or weren’t, did or didn’t do, are or aren’t into.  Peter knew the truth, but acted against his better judgment and as a result led others to do the same.

Where there is division, the Gospel brings unity, where there is brokenness, healing. The racist split Peter caused among the people suggested that the church wasn’t really any different from the rest of the world after all – and others could say “so what” to just another belief system.  Division along racial lines is not just wrong; it is an affront to the Gospel itself and betrays its definitive distinctiveness in the world.

In response Paul declares the unity of the body, the centrality and sufficiency of Christ, and the uniqueness and newness of the new community of those called Christians.

Paul takes the witness of unity/diversity across the world’s boundaries extremely seriously – and so should we.  Are we living up to our given name?  Do our cities look like Antioch?  Do our churches?  Do our hearts?

Do we defy the world’s categories? Does our presence in the world denotatively define a reality where Christ transforms people into a new body of believers where there is no social, economic, racial, or gender division (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:10-11)?  When the unsaved, in a world full of poverty, division, and oppression, after hearing the Gospel ask where they can see that happening are we able to show them such a place without hesitation? Or do we simply reflect the pattern of the world (Romans 12:2) and suggest that there is no special meaning to the word Christian.

Perhaps this is why you hear many Christians turning from that name, giving rise to phrases like “I’m a Christ follower not a Christian,” because they no longer like what it means to be Christian from the world’s perspective.  The world gave that name to us and as such continues to redefine what the word means by its experience of the reality we represent.

Perhaps it is a stronger choice to take on the challenge of the world’s perspective and stand for the name Christian – to reclaim and recover our definitive distinctiveness within culture, to defy the world’s categories once again, and to not abandon our name to those who would represent a reality other than the Gospel.

How will the world know we are Christians?


[1] also: “the way,” “brethren,” “disciples,” “apostles,” “servants,” “believers,” “followers,” “the faithful,” “the elect,” “the called”

He has shown you what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. ~Micah 6:8