Called Christians

The term ‘Christian’ is only found three times in the New Testament.

  • First in Acts 11.25-26 Luke comments: “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians”. The underlying Greek verb could infer that the disciples called themselves Christians; but the overwhelming scholarly opinion is that Luke meant that this term was used of others to describe these followers of Jesus. If this is so, then it would have been a term developed by Gentile non-Christians. No Jew would have wanted to identify this group with their Messiah (‘Christ’)
  • Secondly in Acts 26.28 Luke informs us that King Agrippa, in response to Paul’s defence of the Christian faith, said – perhaps with a note of sarcasm – “Are you so quickly persuading me to be a Christian”
  • Lastly in 1 Peter 4.16 Peter within the general context of his readers suffering for their faith wrote: “If any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name”.

The word ‘Christian’ is a Latinism and denotes a supporter, adherent or follower of a person. It could also have the sense of ‘belonging’ to the person in question.

In writings of that period ‘Christian’ is often used by outsiders of this new religious group. For instance, the Roman author Tacitus in his account of the fire of Rome in AD 64, tells of how Nero attempted to blame the fire upon the Christians: “Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians”. Tacitus shows that the title ‘Christian’ was used to distinguish Christians as a group both from non-Christian Jews and from non-Christian Gentiles. By AD 64 they were a distinctive religious group.

The Jewish historian Josephus in his book, Antiquities of the Jews, written between September AD 93 and September AD 94, wrote of “the tribe of Christians” (18.64). A little later in his account he mentioned “the so-called Christ” (20.200). As far as he was concerned, Christians were a distinctive group, which was quite separate from other religious groups.

What is clear is that the term Christian was coined by people outside the Christian faith. This was not a term chosen by members of the early church. We can in that respect draw an analogy with the way in which the term ‘Christian’ is used today. As the New Zealand scholar, Paul Treblico, noted:

Many ‘Christians’ today will say to outsiders, ‘We are Christians’, but within their own group will say, ‘We are Presbyterians’ or ‘We are Brethren’ and so on. They will not use the latter terms to outsiders for a variety of reasons. ‘Presbyterians’, ‘Brethren, ‘Anglican’ and so on are often terms that confuse outsiders, and there is the added reason that they testify to the disunity of the church, something that ‘Christians’ do not want to speak to ‘non-Christians’ about, and so avoid.

On reflection it could be argued that in this series of names used by ‘Christians’ to identify themselves, the name ‘Christian’ is actually out of place. Whereas we are ‘Called to make disciples’, Called to be followers of the way’. ‘Called to believe’, called to be brothers and sisters’ and called to be holy’, we are not called to be Christians! Rather we are simply ‘called Christians’ primarily by those outside the church.

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