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 ESV)
It is a normal impulse to check something for its genuineness. We look at brand names with a different expectation than a lesser brand or a knockoff. Sports equipment, furniture, craft, art, mechanics, electronics – we don’t part with our dollars without some assurance that we are buying the real thing – that it is what it purports to be. Genuineness matters because over time the quality of the product will be tested. A product is known by its brand – its name. We want it to deliver. We want it to last.
So, what do we do with this word Christian? Churchgoers use it. Jesus-followers use it. People who hold a non-biblical view of Jesus use it. Charlatans use it. Non-westerners describe our culture by using it. Atheists even use one of its symbols (though the fish goes through a few transformations along the way). The word Christian encompasses a crowded field. What does the brand describe? What is it supposed to describe? Does it need to be abandoned as some suggest? Or can it be redeemed? Does anything need to change at all?
Christian is a word that comes from Greek and means “like the Messiah” or “followers of the Messiah (Jesus).” It is mentioned in Acts 11:26; 26:28; and 1Peter 4:16 and was first used in Antioch. Another widely used name was those belonging to The Way. It is likely based on Jesus’ own self-description as “the Way” (John 14:6). It is used repeatedly by Luke, the author of Acts (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 24:14; and 24:22). Paul even referred to himself as a follower of the Way when he came before Governor Felix (who knew a lot about the Way) and was accused by the Jerusalem leaders of inciting riots…
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. (Acts 24:14-15 ESV)
Paul was doing nothing more than living like Jesus. Living thus will draw the attention of the world around you. Sometimes that attention will be good and sometimes it will be bad, but it will get noticed. It is radically counter-cultural. It is Christian.
The word Christian suggests a lifestyle that is different — a transformed life that is evident to those around. In the Bible, people who lived according to “the Way” were known for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV). These things are called in Scripture the fruit of the Spirit, which “against such things there is no law.” They stand in stark contrast to a world that is self-loving, angry, cantankerous, in a hurry, unkind, self-serving, disloyal, rude and out-of-control. Yes, it is a normal impulse to check something for its genuineness. Rather than abandon the word or try to contend with other definitions, perhaps those of us who long for a genuine expression of Christianity should simply rise to its implications — humbly — because over time the integrity of the claim will be tested.
So, let’s not abandon it. Let’s redeem it.