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What is a Christian? What does a person have to do or be to be called a ‘Christian’?

There are many ideas of what a ‘Christian’ is –

A ‘Christian’ is a person who tries to be good.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who goes to church.

A ‘Christian’ is a person who lives in a ‘Christian’ country.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who was born in a ‘Christian’ family.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who was ‘baptised’ or ‘christened’ as a baby.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who aligns with a particular denomination.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who has been ‘born again’.

A ‘Christian’ is someone who is self-righteous.

A ‘Christian’ is a kill-joy whose life is hemmed in by rules and regulations.

A ‘Christian’ is a somewhat over-the-top religious person who tries to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

A ‘Christian’ is a person who is living with the values of a by-gone era and out of touch with the real world.

While some of these have an element of truth, none of them actually defines unambiguously who or what a ‘Christian’ actually is.

The English word ‘Christian’ translates the Greek christianos (from Christos – Christ). This term was first used in the late AD 40s, in Antioch (Syria). We read in Acts 11:26 ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.’ The word christianos means ‘belonging to Christ’, in the sense that slaves belonged to their master. In its three New Testament uses it appears to have been a derogatory term, used not by Christians to refer to themselves, but by those who despised or mistreated them. The other two places we find the term are:

‘Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that is such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”’ (Acts 26:28).

‘However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name’ (1Peter 4:16).

Who were they, these people who were given this name by those who were not part of their group? The one thing that was obvious to the inhabitants of Antioch in Syria was that this group of people had a significant connection with ‘Christ’.

They were students (disciples) of Christ.

They followed the teaching of Christ.

They engaged in a regular ritual in which they remembered Christ.

They honoured Christ as their God, to the exclusion of all other ‘gods’.

They baptised people into the name of Christ.

They preached about Christ.

So focused were their lives on Jesus Christ that their unbelieving neighbours noticed that Christ was their central focus. Their commitment to him was more important than their own personal well-being – more important than the ridicule it attracted, more important than the physical and financial suffering it incurred, more important even than family traditions and expectations. For some, more important than life itself.

This derogatory name accurately expressed the truth: They belonged to Jesus Christ. They were subject to him, living under his authority.

As the Scripture states about belonging to Christ:

‘You are not your own; you were bought with a price’ (1Corinthians 6:19, 20).

‘...you were redeemed ... with the precious blood of Christ’ (1Peter 1:18, 19).

‘...with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Revelation 5:9).

And about being under his authority:

‘... you received Jesus Christ as Lord’ (Colossians 2:6).

‘Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God”’ (John 20:28).

For those of us who today claim to be a ‘Christian’, the original use of the term ‘Christian’ issues a challenge: Is the key thing that people notice about us the fact that we belong to Jesus Christ and are living our lives under his authority? Or does some other factor, other than Christ, override this central fact?

© Rosemary Bardsley 2021