WHAT DOES THE WORD “CHRISTIAN” MEAN?
In the 1,189 chapters that comprise the Bible, the word “Christian” is used a total of three times. We find that word in Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16. How many times do you suppose you have heard the word “Christian” in your lifetime? Many of us have heard that word on a regular basis from the time that we were small children. Perhaps others have heard it used more frequently only after they became adults. In any case, people use the word “Christian” extensively. What does it mean?
From the spelling of the word “Christian,” it would appear that it must have something to do with “Christ.” The word “Christ,” which in the Greek language is equivalent to the word “Messiah” of the Hebrew language (John 1:41), means the anointed one. The prophecy of Psalm 2:2 foretold that earthly rulers would rise us “against the LORD and against His Anointed.” In the New Testament, we read of one occasion when Jesus’ disciples quoted that verse when they prayed, saying that human rulers were gathered together “against the LORD and against His Christ” (Acts 4:26; all emphasis mine, rdc).
How is being a “Christian” related to the Christ, the One whom God the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power? (Acts 10:38). The word “Christian” comes from the Greek word “Χριστιανός/ Christianos,” which literally means “a follower of Christ” [Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament via e-Sword]. Let that definition stick in your mind. Many people today use the word “Christian” to refer to anyone that believes in the Deity of Jesus. That usage is not in harmony with the teaching of the Bible. Please hear me out. Yes, every New Testament Christian believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. His followers are called “believers” (1 Timothy 4:12) – they are obedient believers, submitting to the instruction of the Christ (Luke 6:46). But, we read in the Bible that some who believed in Him in the first century would not confess Him (John 12:42,43). Those who refuse to confess the Master cannot be saved (Matthew 10:32,33; Romans 10:10). Christians trust in, imitate, and obey Jesus.
In some cases, modern-day dictionaries of the English language are quite accurate in defining biblical terms, while in other instances such dictionaries give definitions of Bible words that are tainted by man-made doctrines or traditions and vary from the original usage of those terms in the Scriptures. Here is how one 21st-century dictionary defines the noun “Christian”: “a person professing belief in Jesus as the Christ, or in the religion based on the teachings of Jesus” [Webster’s New World College Dictionary © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc.; taken on 22 August 2011 from www.yourdictionary.com]. According to this definition, a “Christian” is one that professes a belief. No action is indicated. That does not fit the Bible concept of “a follower of Christ” [Thayer]. Again, the Bible concept of “Christian” is more than acknowledging that Jesus was God in the flesh – it includes imitating and obeying Him. Remember this: the meaning of New Testament words is not determined by modern-day dictionaries or how those words are used currently among the people of our generation.
Okay, enough of definitions. Let us turn our attention to 1 Peter 4:16, where it is written, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christ, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” In that context, Peter speaks of “the house of God” (4:17), those who “obey the gospel”(4:17), “the righteous” (4:18), and “the flock of God” (5:2). Both “the house of God” and “the flock of God” refer to the church that Jesus purchased with His own blood (1 Timothy 3:15; Acts 20:28). We can see from these references in 1 Peter 4:16-5:2 that one who is a Christian is one that has obeyed the gospel (Acts 2:36-38) and, as a result, is a part of God’s church. Yes, the Lord adds the saved to His church (Acts 2:47). Such folks are the righteous ones of God.
What about one who has not obeyed the gospel? He has not yet been saved, meaning that he is still lost. The Lord has not added him to His church. He is not yet in the family of God. So, he is not part of the group that the Bible identifies as “Christians.” In my family there are people who are members of six different denominations. None of them is the church about which we read in the Bible. Based on the teaching of the gospel, I do not plan to refer to anyone outside of our Lord’s blood-bought church as “a Christian.” Jesus, whom Christians follow, is the Savior of His church (Ephesians 5:23). Let us not profane the great term “Christian” by using it to refer to those that have not yet obeyed the gospel!
— Roger D. Campbell