“What is a Christian?”

…And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 11:26b

The majority of people in the world today identify as Christians. But what exactly is a ‘Christian’? It is a slippery term in our culture because it means so many different things to different people. There are other words and phrases which correspond to it, such as ‘believer,’ ‘disciple,’ ‘follower of Jesus,’ ‘child of God,’ and so on, but they all share the same nebulous cultural definitions as ‘Christian.’ When pushed to define the meaning of the term some offer the postmodern response, “What the word ‘Christian’ means to me is…” and their subjective definitions run the gamut.

The solution to our problem is, of course, to allow the Bible to define its own terms. So long as we are approaching this question from the vantage point of culture, we are doomed to be tossed about by its ever-changing winds. While the world is in constant flux, and language and ethical fashions fluctuate with it, “the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:23-25; Isa. 40:6-8; Mt. 24:35).

The real question to ask is how the Bible defines a Christian. We may be surprised to learn that the word ‘Christian’ only appears three times in the Bible (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). Each appearance reveals something about its meaning.

“In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Luke records this because ‘Christian’ had become a familiar term in certain areas when he wrote the book of Acts. The suffix of the word (ιανοσ) was attached to proper nouns to give a diminutive form. As ‘Herodians’ (Mt. 22:16) were those loyal to Herod’s family, 'Christians' are loyal to ‘Christ,’ a title meaning “anointed one.” Note also that they were “called Christians.” This implies it wasn’t a title they made up for themselves but a nickname given them by the people of Antioch. Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as ‘disciples,’ ‘saints,’ and ‘brothers.’ Therefore, a Christian is someone who is loyal to Jesus and shows their loyalty by following him in a way that is plain for others to see.

The word ‘Christian' appears next after Paul gives his defense before king Agrippa. Agrippa responds, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) This, in fact, is exactly what Paul was trying to do. But understanding Agrippa’s response is difficult. Was he expressing his amazement that Paul would try to convert him after such a short speech? Or was he expressing his amazement that he was, in fact, almost converted in such a short time? Either way, while he was confident of Paul’s innocence (Acts 26:32), Agrippa was not yet persuaded to become a Christian.

The last time we see the word ‘Christian’ in the New Testament is in the context of suffering innocently. The apostle Peter encourages saints to share in Christ’s sufferings “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). While suffering for doing wrong is just and cause for shame, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:16), that is, in the name of Christ.

Therefore, a Christian, is not merely a title one wears to confess one’s identity. People identify as all sorts of things but saying so doesn’t make it so (Jn. 8:39). Nor is a Christian merely a believer in Christ. Those who were not willing to step out of the shadows and follow Jesus were “believers” but not Christians (Jn. 12:42).

So, what is a Christian? A Christian is a follower of Christ. A Christian’s loyalty to Christ should be plain for all to see (Acts 11:26). This requires a change in life (Acts 26:28) and a willingness to continue following him even if it means suffering for it (1 Pet. 4:16). If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?