What is a Christian?
To many this question may seem rather unnecessary, however given the age we live in and the steady corruption of Christianity, answering this question is of paramount importance and may offer far more insight into the early faith than many may realize.
Frequency in Scripture
The term Christian only appears three times in the New Testament:
“So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Acts 11:25-26
“And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am - except for these chains.” Acts 26:28-29
“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” 1 Peter 4:16
It is often said that the term “Christian” has its roots in early scoffers and this is certainly true. We see in 1 Peter 4:16 that it was intended to bring shame upon those who were called “Christians”. However, the popular myth that the Greek term Χριστιανός (transliterated as Christianos) means “little Christ” is just that – a myth.
Christianos (Christian) is derived from the Greek word for Christ, Χριστός, an adjective meaning “anointed” or “anointed one” (an equivalent of the Hebrew term Messiah). Upon considering the Greek suffix ανός (a possessive genitive), we see that the term expresses belonging, a possession - a slave. A Christian was said to be a slave of Christ, His possession – one who belongs to Jesus.
An Insult from Unbelievers
Those unbelievers in Antioch saw the passion and commitment of early followers of Christ and sought to mock them by calling them His slaves - a derogatory epithet. The implication being that His followers were not free to think for themselves or to do as they wished for they had willingly surrendered such freedom to Christ.
Compounding the matter, followers of Christ would refer to Him as κύριος, a term translated today as Lord but more appropriately meaning “Master”; not as a cruel slave-Master but as the Lord of Heaven and earth (Psalm 97:9, Isaiah 25:8-12).
Such insults are as popular today as they were during the first century. Today, those perceiving themselves as the intellectual elite still see Christians as not thinking for themselves, relying on ancient myths and subjecting themselves to unnecessary moral and religious bondage; slaves of fiction.
Rather than taking offense, early followers of Christ set aside the intended implication and instead chose to celebrate the term. For to be persecuted for Christ is to be considered a great honor and for unbelievers to see you as being so thoroughly devoted to Jesus as to call you “sold out” was a compliment.
Over time the term simply came to mean an adherent of the Christian faith.
The Fulfillment of Judaism
In this age which we live in it is easy to look at the writings of the early Church through a western lens, forgetting that Christianity was originally a Jewish movement. Christ's Apostles and followers saw themselves as embracing the Jewish Messiah which God promised long ago.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20
These early believers saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, so to embrace Jesus was the most Jewish thing they could possibly do. It was not until after Christ fulfilled the Law and Prophets that the Apostles were charged with proclaiming this good news (Gospel) to the Gentiles.
Early Jewish Christians and Gentile converts wrestled with how exactly this thing we call Christianity was to be practiced, what elements of Judaism were to remain, what were to be let go and what was to be replaced with the new. All of this was done with great care and reverence of Christ's teachings.
Perhaps the earliest use of the term Christian as a means of self-identification can be found in the Didache - that document which sought to establish the basics of the Christian faith.
"But if he has no craft provide for him according to your understanding, so that no man shall live among you in idleness because he is a Christian." Didache 12:4
Are We Slaves?
While Scripture certainly makes use of slavery metaphorically as a means of conveying truth (Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 3:24, 1 Peter 2:16), the question remains – are Christians really slaves of Christ? Does Jesus view His followers as slaves and servants? Do Christians really view Jesus as their slave-Master? What exactly is the relationship between Jesus and His followers?
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” Philippians 2:14-15
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27
Clearly Scripture makes use of the imagery between a slave and their Master and such parallels are not to be dismissed, but rather understood in light of their context and the overall message of Scripture.
What is a Christian? A Christian is one who believes in Jesus, following His teachings and trusting that He is the Messiah - God incarnate - the One who conquered the grave and overthrew the works of the devil to reconcile man to God, offering eternal life to all who are in Him. A Christian is one who has considered all the evidence at their disposal and has concluded there is but one way to life, to God - Jesus Christ.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6