“Christian”—few words in the English language carry as much baggage as this one. It’s a loaded label, to be sure, but what’s interesting is that Jesus never actually gave a name to His followers. The early Church never called themselves Christians. In the Bible, the title most often used was “saints.”
The Greek word for saints is hagios which means “consecrated to God, holy, sacred, pious.” It is almost always used in the plural—“saints.” This reflects not just the individual but the connection to a group of people set apart for the Lord and His Kingdom.
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. A name is embedded 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). It wasn’t a name Jesus’ disciples gave themselves—it was a name given to them by the society in Antioch. But why a new name for this group of Christ-followers? Why, from the perspective of outsiders, weren’t they simply lumped in with all the other variants of the Jewish faith?
Some cultural 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. And the marketplace was its hub. 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. That always bring to my mind this map of Chicago divided by race.
Enter Christ-followers. Enter the Gospel. The Church came to Antioch and began breaking down the dividing barriers in a way that upset the society’s existing categories. People from all parts of the city—Jews and Gentiles alike—were suddenly coming together. This group of people was redefining community in a radical and unprecedented way, so much so, that a new word was needed to categorize what in the world was happening.
What’s interesting here is that there were so many offshooting sects within Judaism that Antiochians never bothered to learn or categorize differently. But in Christians, they saw something different. The term “Christian” comes from the world’s realization that something new and unheard of was happening.
It is often assumed 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 “little Christs.” Technically, the ending “-ian” means “belonging to the party of,” so “Christians” meant those of Jesus’ party.
After Acts 11:26 the word “Christians” is used only two other times in the New Testament: in Acts 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 in wider society under that given name). In each reference, the emphasis, inherent in the original Greeek, is on the fact that people from outside the faith recognized Christians as a distinct group.
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.
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 his behavior hypocrisy. Calling Peter out in public was harsh, but the future of Gentile Christians was at stake. The Gentiles from whom Peter withdrew got the message loud and clear that they were somehow second-class—which is clearly out of line with the Gospel.
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—giving others a reason to 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 reaffirmed the unity of the body, the centrality and sufficiency of Christ, and the unique inclusivity of the new community of those called Christians. He took the social divisions of the world 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? Are we able to show the world a vision of community in which there is no social, economic, racial, or gender division (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:10-11)? Or are we actually serving as instigators of division?
Perhaps this is why you hear some 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.
Ancient Antiochians may have given us that name because of early Christians’ radical inclusivity, but today, it’s up to us to keep that reputation alive. Because the “Christian” label is ever-redefining based on the reputation we give it.
According to John 13:35, Jesus says the world get’s a vote as to how they will know we are His: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And today, it’s up to us to recover that distinction—to defy the world’s categories once again.