What is a Christian?
Updated: Feb 28
This Sunday morning I'll be speaking in Scrabo Hall in Newtownards on Acts 11:19-30, which describes the beginnings of the Church in Antioch. The title I've been given is: "The first ‘Christians’ in the world", which reflects the fact that this passage tells us that "in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians" (verse 26). Sneakily, I will also be reading Acts 13:1-3, as those verses tell us more about that Church and what it was that made people call the disciples there 'Christians'.
It is worth noting that the label 'Christians', which simply indicates people who 'belong to Christ' or 'identify with Christ', was probably given to these disciples rather than chosen by them. It may even have been used as a term of abuse and mockery. Yet, it clearly stuck, since most followers of Jesus today accept the label happily. There are certainly worse things to be called, and if it indicates people who speak a lot about Jesus and maybe even look a little like him, that will do for me!
The challenge in the twenty-first century with using this label is that it is so familiar it has almost lost all meaning. Pew Research reports that in 2015 some 31.2% of the global population identified as Christian. That's 2.3 billion people. In my home region of Northern Ireland in the most recent census to have results published (2011), 82.2% of people identified as Christian of some shade. But what does that mean? Is being Christian just a matter of ticking a box or accepting a label? Is it about being born in a Christian country, community ot family? Is it, as the Oxford dictionary definition suggests, "a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Christianity". According to Scripture, it is more than this and Acts 11:19-30 and 13:1-3 is not a bad place to start for a more accurate understanding.
The term 'Christian' appears to have been chosen first by non-believers. It simply means 'adhering to Christ' or 'belonging to Christ' and was possibly first used as a pejorative nickname for these people who spoke so much about the 'Christ', meaning the Lord Jesus. Those who opposed the Christian message may have used it to insult believers. Even if that is the case, the word quickly became a badge of honour, so that the apostle Peter could write: "if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name" (1 Peter 4:16). We should not be ashamed to be labelled as belonging to Christ. It is a cause for rejoicing to be identified with our Lord.
In the example of the Church in Antioch as recorded by Luke (the author of Acts), I see four things that led to the disciples there being called 'Christians'. Four qualities of a true Christian, which also correspoind to four commitments a Christian makes.
1. Christians are believers in and disciples of Christ
This is clear throughout Acts, which repeatedly calls Christians believers and disciples. In this passage we see it several times:
"a great number who believed turned to the Lord" (11:21)
"a great many people were added to the Lord" (11:24)
"the disciples determined" (11:29)
These people who were called 'Christians' had placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so, they had trusted in the message they heard about Him and placed their confidence in Him to save them and direct them. This involved turning away from sin and from other loyalties to pledge allegiance to Jesus as their Lord. This meant being 'added' to Him, which must certainly have included baptism. This mixed group of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds would no longer identify primarily as Jew, Gentile, Roman, Greek or any other label, but as people of Christ. Their new loyalty was to Jesus the Messiah and they were commited to following Him.
The first commitment of a Christian is to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
This first commitment is foundational. It is how a person becomes a Christian. The remaining three flow from commitment to Jesus and are signs that a person can be recognised as a Christian.
2. Christians obey God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit
There is a clear emphasis in this passage, as throughout Acts, on the Word of God, or the gospel. The Church was formed because people were "preaching the Lord Jesus" (11:20). It was strengthened because Barnabas "exhorted them" (11:23) and because Barnabas and Saul "met with the church and taught a great many people" (11:26).
There is, however, also an emphasis here, as throughout Acts, on the Holy Spirit. Barnabas' ministry was effective because he was "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (11:24). He believed the things he was teaching and lived them by the power of the Spirit. The Antioch Church was also listening for the voice of the Spirit, so that they responded faithfully when the prophet Agabus foretold the coming famine by the Holy Spirit (11:28).
Christians, like the first people to bear the name, listen to the Word of God and seek to follow the Spirit of God. This is how we grow together as God's people. We need teachers of the Word and we must respond in obedience to what thyey teach. We need to be prayerfully seeking to listen to the Spirit's prompting too, recognising when the Spirit who inspired Scripture is moving us to specific acts of obedience to its commands in our context.
The second commitment of the Christian is to obey the commands of Jesus (the Word of God) by the leading, enabling and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
2. Christians are brothers and sisters together in Christ
Acts 11 is not simply telling us about individual Christians, although some of them are named, but about the start of the Church in Antioch. These 'Christians' were committed individually to Christ and collectively to one another. That was not just a commitment among Christians in Antioch. They were also part of the whole Church, which began in Jerusalem. Luke writes that, "The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch" (11:22). When Barnabas arrived, he "exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (11:23). He exhorted them collectively as a community created by the grace of God. Their steadfast purpose was not only to follow Jesus, but to love one another.
Their identity as the community of God's people led this Church to transcend many of the things that would normally divide people in their context and still can in ours. The list of leaders in Acts 13:1 is remarkably diverse in terms of ethno-religious background (Jews like Saul and Barnabas united with people with Greek names like Lucius), former political allegiances (a Pharisee like Saul would not have got on with a Herodian like Manaen), geography (from Cyrene in Africa to Tarsus in modern-day Turkey via Cyprus), class (Manaen must have been pretty upper class to have been brought up with a king), and what we would call race (Simeon was presumably called 'Niger' because he had black skin). Here is the gospel transcending barriers to unite people in Christ.
Not only did this community in Antioch express the nature of the whole Church in internal diversity, it also understood itself to be part of the whole Church globally. This was demonstrated practically in their response to the needs of the Christian communities in Judea when warned through Agabus of the coming famine. The believers in Antioch looked like Christ people because they loved all their fellow Christians locally and globally.
The third commitment of the Christian is to the community of believers in Jesus known as the Church.
4. Christians share the gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone
The Church in Antioch was formed from persecution. Christians were driven away from Jerusalem and Judea and they made their way north to Syria. Some of them had not grasped yet that Jesus was for all people. They communicated the gospel, but only to Jews. But, "there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also" (11:20). These men grasped the truth that Jesus had come to be Messiah not only for the Jews but for people of all nations and that faith in Him would transcend the old divide between Jew and Gentile. We shouldn't be too hard on those who didn't get it - this was a radical discovery for the Church to make and it occupies a large part of Acts and many of the apostle Paul's letters. But we who are Gentiles should be exceedingly thankful for what happened in Antioch as well as for the fact that Barnabas, sent as an envoy from Jerusalem, recognised that this had happened because God accomplished it.
Antioch was formed through evangelism that crossed boundaries and it became a sending church that furthered the spread of the gospel. In Acts 13:3, we read that "after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent [Barnabas and Saul] off". This must have been an immense sacrifice for the church that had benefited so greatly from the minsitry of these men. But in respoknse to he Spirit's prompting, they commissioned these apostles into their mission in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and eventually into Europe. It is a mark of the true Christian to be committed to evangelism locally, like the ordinary, unnamed Jewish believers who shared the gospel with their new Gentile neighbours in Antioch, and globally, by contributing prayer, finance and (perhaps) ourselves to mission beyond our context.
The fourth commitment of the Christian is outwardly to share Jesus with all others.
So, there we have it. Four markers of a true Christian identity and four commitments a true Christian makes. What is a Christian? Well, if we want to be worthy of the name - labelled as belonging to Christ, we must be like our brothers and sisters in first century Antioch. Here, in summary, is the Antioch definition of a 'Christian'.
A Christian is someone who is committed to the Lord Jesus and, therefore, to His commands, community and commission.