A controversy broke out in the UK, when its Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in the Church Times that British people should “be more confident about our status as a Christian country.” In response 50 prominent individuals including authors, broadcasters, comedians and scientists added their names to a letter to the newspaper Daily Telegraph which argued that the UK was largely a “non-religious society”. But two senior Conservative ministers have backed the prime minister arguing that those who deny the UK is a Christian country are “deluding themselves”.

The important question is: On what basis did David Cameron label UK as a “Christian” country?

In Christian circles the answers are not clear. A Christian is sometimes said to be someone who belongs to a church; or someone who confesses the “right” creeds/doctrines; or someone who has made a decision.
There is a vast body of people that endorses the concept that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ is a Christian. But this simply is not true. Consider the case detailed in John 8. The record indicates that as the Lord taught, “many believed in him” (8.30). Jesus addressed those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8.31-32). In the same breath he accused them, “You look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word” (Jn. 8.37), and “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (Jn. 8.44). So these believers were in reality the children of the devil!!!

So what does being a “Christian” mean?

Surprisingly, the word “Christian” appears only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11.26; Acts 26.28; I Peter 4.16). According to Acts 11.26, “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”.” Thus, the origin of the term dates back in the Luke’s chronology somewhere between AD 40 and 44. The text tells us two things about the Christians. First, “Christian” was not a name that the early church chose as a self-designation. Second, it was a term that was placed on “the disciples”, indicating that the title was coined by those outside of the church.

A common Greek (or Hellenistic) practice in the 1st century AD for identifying adherents was to attach the Greek ending ianos (Greek plural ianoi) to the name of a leader or master. Eg. Greek word Herodianoi (“Herodians” Mt. 22.16; Mk. 3.6,12.13; Josephus Antiquities 14.15.10). Therefore, the term Christian (Greek word Christianos) is formed from Christ (Greek word Christos) and indicates Christ’s adherents or followers or devotees.

Therefore, a “Christian” is one who follows the life, teachings and deeds of his/her Lord or Master Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul helps us understand what a Christian is by stating that he imitated Christ (I Cor. 11.1). The apostle Peter likewise reminded the believers that they were to follow Christ’s example (I Pet. 2.21). However, the term virtually lost its meaning since then, as it is usually not accompanied by the same way of life and understanding.

According to John’s Gospel, believers in Jesus Christ are those who “know the truth”. To “know the truth” means to be in the truth (Jn. 8.44). Truth is not a sum of statements, nor a system of concepts or doctrines, nor a matter of knowing this or that. Truth is not a deposit of acquired knowledge. To merely know the truth is insufficient. Mere knowledge of truth is, in a way, same as not knowing the truth. In this case truth does not affect the person in anyway. In order to have any effect on or value for the person, that person must have a subjective relationship with the truth. That means, truth must be appropriated subjectively.

The truth, which John’s Gospel is talking about, is more relational than rational. If a person relates herself/himself to the truth, that person is supposedly in the truth. It is like food. Just as food is appropriated or assimilated and thereby becomes the sustenance of life, so also the truth. Merely having a set of Christian doctrines and claiming to have knowledge or teaching them to others is not being in the truth. One may become a “believer” in Jesus Christ without allowing his word or the truth to become a part of her/his life. For such people, truth becomes merely objective and a matter of indifference. They were believers in a sense, yet still unregenerate. So a Christian is one who has relationship with Jesus Christ, the embodiment of truth, in such a way that this relationship controls the life of the believer.

As mentioned above, the term “Christian” was coined by those outside of the church. Of those outside, the Jews were not likely to have referred to the disciples as Christians, followers of Christ, the Messiah, since this would have validated Jesus’ claim to that title. The Jews instead referred to the disciples of Jesus as “the sect of Nazarenes” (Acts 24.5). Hence the name “Christian” must have been coined by the Gentiles of Antioch. In the large metropolis of Antioch, with its many competing cults and mystery religions, those who spoke about Christos (Christ) were soon called Christianoi (Christians). This term differentiated the followers of Jesus Christ from the Gentiles and the Jews who did not follow Jesus Christ.

More likely, the term may have arisen generally among the populace as a slang term to indicate those who were followers of their God Christos, and who were regarded as a sort of mystery fellowship. The name Christos, Messiah, means nothing special to the Gentiles, sounding more like a second personal name for Jesus than a religious title.

In all three NT passages (Acts 11.26; Acts 26.28; I Peter 4.16) the variant Chrēstianoi (crhstianoi) occurs in the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus (4th century AD manuscript). This remarkable persistent textual testimony confirms that Gentiles often confused the term Christos with the homophone Chrēstos. Chrēstos was a common proper name, especially for slaves, and apparently Gentiles tended to think that the disciples were followers of one called Chrēstos. This is the likely reason why the Roman Historian Suetonius (c 69 – after 122 AD) says that Jews were expelled from Rome because of disturbances made at the instigation of one called Chrēstos (Suetonius Claudius. 25.4). Tacitus (AD 56 – c 120), Roman senator and historian, appears to correct for his readers the common mistake among the Roman populace of confusing Chrēstianoi with Christianoi (Tacitus Annals. 15.44).

Therefore, there is no New Testament evidence that the term “Christian” was commonly used as a self-designation by the early church. According to Acts 11.26, the common term for believers at the time of the origin of the title “Christian” was “disciples” and other terms soon came to be used by the early church such as “believers” (Acts 5.14; Rom. 1.16; Acts 10.45; I Tim. 6.2), “brothers” (Acts 6.3; James 2.15) and “saints” (Acts 9.13; I Cor. 1.2).

The term “Christian” appears for the first time as a self-designation in Didache 12.4 (Didache is a brief early Christian treatise of the late 1st or early 2nd century AD), and is commonly used by Ignatius (c 35 – c 107 AD, Bishop of Antioch) for a member of a believing community, but the name does not occur in abundance elsewhere in the writings of the early church fathers. In the middle of the 2nd century Polycarp (AD 69 – 155-160’s) calls himself a “Christian” (Epistles 10.1; 12.1). The reason for the scarcity of the term in the early church fathers may be found in a letter by the Roman governor Pliny, the Younger (AD 61 – c 113), to Emperor Trajan (AD 53 – 117). Those accused of believing in Jesus Christ were asked whether or not they were “Christians”. If they admitted the name, they were put to death, or else, if they were Roman citizens, sent to Rome for trial (Letters 10.96). In the days of persecution of the early church, the use of the term was dangerous, because it clearly marked them out in the minds of the Romans as believing in a god who was in opposition to the emperor. But nonetheless, in the church, as early as I Peter 4.16, honour was associated with those who suffered because they bore the name of their Messiah, since suffering as a “Christian” glorifies God.


Michael J. Wilkins, “Christian,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 1 (A-C), ed. by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 925-926.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: