In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. They were known as Christ-people. This is not the only term used in the New Testament. In Acts alone we see Christians called saints, disciples, believers, the church, brothers, Nazoreans, and people of the Way. We can rightly be called by many names. But let me put this before you: don’t lose the term “Christian.”

Sometimes you find people who are a little hipper than thou who conspicuously eschew the title “Christian.”  They would rather we called a “Jesus follower” or a “disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.” There’s no problem in using this biblical language, unless it is to steadfastly avoid other kinds of biblical language. In our day there is a certain casualness about “following” someone. It’s what you do on Twitter. It’s what you do when you settle on a school of thought. You follow Keynes or you  follow Hayek. Following is pretty safe. Being called a “Christian,” however, is a little dicier.

Just like the first century.

Almost certainly, the believers in Antioch were first called “Christians” as a put-down. It was an insulting jab they came to own for themselves, much like the Puritans and the Methodists would later do. There was something about these believers in Antioch–their distinguishing characteristic to the world was that they were of Christ.

This is significant because the word “Christ” says something that merely “Jesus” doesn’t . Jesus was a common name. It’s become sacred to us, but it was like Mike or Jason or Sean in first century Palestine. Just another familiar male name. And so it’s telling that the church in Antioch came to be known as “Christians” rather than simply “Jesus people.” The fact that Luke points this out suggests the term stuck in the early church. The saints at Antioch not only pursued the ethical life of Jesus and revered the wise sayings of Jesus, they had a reputation for believing, teaching, and heralding that this man Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the Anointed One, the long awaited Messiah and King. There new name carried with it theological freight.

By all means, let’s be disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, lovers of Jesus, and friends with Jesus. But let us never stop there. We are also Christ people–worshipers of our Savior and King, trusting in all that the Messiah fulfilled and accomplished, redeemed by our dying Lord. Don’t lose the term the church in Antioch “earned” by their faithful witness. If you are glad to be a Christian, don’t be ashamed to be called one either.

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42 thoughts on “Do Not Lose The Term “Christian””

  1. Kim says:

    Kevin, thank you for this reminder. A few years back my pastor shared this very same sentiment as well and it has influenced me to this day. Thank you.

    ~ Kim

  2. Dean P says:

    Yeah I’m really tired of hearing the term “Christ Follower” as a I”m hip and relevant cop out. I would also say that the term “Evangelical” is the other derided term that many try to avoid as well.

  3. Dan says:

    Who was it that talked about Muslim or Hindu “followers of Jesus”? Essentially the idea I’ve heard put forth is that those of other religions don’t need to lose their previous religious identity to practice Jesus’ teachings.

    I participated last year in something Zondervan cooked up called the “Community Bible Experience”, during which participants could read or listen (I opted for audio) to a chapterless, verseless, historically rearranged NT (NIV 2011). I noted that all of the intros to readings referred to “Jesus followers” or “followers of Jesus”, rather than Christians, and it bothered me! Some guys in my group couldn’t agree with my viewpoint or thought that I was perhaps oversensitive or hyper-suspicious toward the intros’ exclusive use of those terms.

  4. Wesley says:

    Totally with you KD. The ballad that usually accompanies people not wanting to use the term Christian is often about all the “baggage” attached to that term and so (in their minds) they avoid the term to “remove a stumbling block to the gospel.” Seriously?!? even granting their viewpoint that the term carries preconceived ideas in the minds of listeners – Christian and non-Christian alike – they seem to ignore the fact that the preponderance of that baggage is good!

  5. Natalie says:

    Thank you! I’m an Evangelical Christian!!!

  6. Angela says:

    While I understand where you are coming from, I feel we need to be reminded that the name Christian can also be too vague to many. Countries in the east believe that all westerners are “Christians”. If polled, I would dare say that many Americans would still refer to themselves as Christian, but they do not have a relationship with Christ. It is often seen as a category without any accountability. I was recently in a first world country and when explaining to the Pastor there that not all Americans that say they are Christians are actually followers of Christ, he was amazed. He said, “Oh,here in India, if someone says they are a Christian, they are most likely a Christ follower! To follow Christ means that one is willing to forsake their family, their homes, and even their own lives.” How I wish this was true for all of us. So, don’t be too judgmental of those of us that call ourselves Christians, yes, but also followers of Christ. I’m definitely not a hipster.

  7. Angela,
    You are correct. In the missions world there is a tendency to burn quite a few cycles trying to explain what IS and IS NOT meant by the term ‘Christian.’ Whether we like it or not, the term has been abused for centuries and as a result carries little meaning today.

    If you want to follow the term up with a solid explanation of what it means then I see no harm in it. I certainly would not fault a person for wanting to retain the word. But if the desire is truly to retain what was originally said then should not we retain the greek pronunciation and symbols? I just have a hard time seeing THAT as a hill worth dying on.

  8. Paul says:

    I also agree with Angela. While I agree with the point the author is is trying to make, the word, “Christian”, has become so trite and overused that to hear the term “follower of Jesus” or “follower of Christ” is refreshing to hear from time to time.

  9. Wesley says:

    Paul – how about the word “love”? You ready to abandon that overused and tritely spoken word too?

  10. Paul says:

    Wesley – That’s a fair point. All I’m saying is that there is so many connotations that goes along with the word “Christian” that to hear the label, “follower of Jesus”, simplifies what Christianity really is about. What is a “Christian”? He is a follower/disciple of Jesus.

  11. Sean Carlson says:

    Can’t agree with you on this one, Kevin. A follower of Jesus seems very clear to me while Christian almost always needs expansion. To Wesley on the word love…needs to go out with the trash, as we’re always having to explain what we mean to differ it from its sexual/feelings connotation. Maybe, somehow, we will re-discover charity!

  12. anaquaduck says:

    As much as Jesus was a common name it still held/holds significant meaning, as does Christ. It’s a shame when people twist that so it loses its intended meaning. I am puzzled why people use Jesus name for swearing & cursing, it reminds me straight away how different we are & how little people really know about the Saviour. Belittling people is often a preferred choice when seeking to feel superior (a recent speech of Obama comes to mind) when it happens God tells us to rejoice, it happened to Jesus the Christ also.

  13. Wesley says:

    Why does it seem to be the endless mantra that the idea of having to explain ourselves – whether that be a word like “Christian” or “love” or “mission”, etc., etc. – is the worst possible fate imaginable and akin to having to sandblast and repaint an ocean liner (yes, it’s possible but it’s an immense amount of work!)? We have to explain ourselves about what we say every day: it’s called communicating! only in a 124-characters-per-message world would the idea of having to explain ones’ self sound like such a laborious task.
    And beyond that – what a wonderful opportunity to actually share Christ with someone when you DO get to explain what you mean by the word “Christian” in describing yourself. You feel that?

  14. Robert Jefferson says:

    The reason why the term “Christian” is got a stigma in the West is because most Christians are serving mammon instead of Jesus. Until the church repents of serving mammon nothing will happen in the West and things will continue to get worse. The unsaved know that the world’s stuffed. The church should have the answers but they don’t. They are to busy doing the christian spin while they are enslaved to mammon. Until the church gets the revelation of Matt 6:24 things will only get worse.

  15. Dean P says:

    Well said Wesley. It is once again a case of people trying to justify or excuse something just for the sake of relevance and not being seen as one of those “weird,hypocritical, out of touch, sexist, homophobic,provincial, backwater, dullard, rube, insert current term for an out of touch Christian here” Either way this is just an excuse for avoiding any kind of marginalization and eventually persecution by the world, by trying to set ourselves apart from the church instead of uniting with it. It’s called idolatry and worldliness.

  16. LiarLunatic says:

    It’s not the Christ, but Christians, who have earned such a horrible reputation in some spheres. And not for following Jesus but for not following Him, though they call Him Lord. If I were to tell a complete stranger that I am a Christian I could not even be sure what I had just communicated. A stubborn insistence on terms that happily abandon the very sentiment of the term while undermining that same intention in another term must come from an unawareness of the issue. It’s not about what I mean when I say “Christian” but about what it means in our culture. I think Kevin made that quite clear, whether intended or not. “Christ” meant something special to that culture and it means something special to our culture and they are not the same thing any more.

  17. Dean P says:

    Right LiarLunatic but in the words of Jesus following him meant that we would be hated and persecuted as his followers. Sure the term Christian has come to have a lot of negative connotations in the culture (and many of them have been merited) but with that said the term Christian also indicates that this person is bound to Jesus Christ as God incarnate. And because Jesus is Holy he commanded Christians to also be holy. It is this holiness in the association with Christians that is what really causes people to recoil from the term Christian. The reason for this is because the holiness reminds people that they are not and that some day they will be morally responsible to him in judgement on the last day. Now we being sinful by nature are blind to this truth before we are regenerated because since original sin and Satan has blinded us from the truth and the goodness of holiness.This means that our natural inclination for the unregenerate person when they meet a Christian is to run in the other direction. They do this because they disdain God’s moral authority, and shake their fist at him and say I’m God… not you. This more than any other reason is why people hate both the term Christian and the term Evangelical. Any other reason is a smokescreen.

  18. LiarLunatic says:

    Dean P, A faithful answer from within the bubble. You have just casually dismissed the legitimate concerns of millions. Of course there are reasons that many will reject Christians along with Jesus. But I am more concerned for those who reject Jesus along with Christians. Any further discussion with you seems pointless. Such irony here.

  19. I’m French. When we use the word “Christian in France, it means I’m Catholic. When I use it in Germany, where I live this year, it means I’m either Catholic or Protestant (depending on the region).

    The interesting thing is that people aren’t any more advanced in understanding what I am, whether they take me to be Catholic, Protestant, or just a Christian. Perhaps that’s what’s significant that in Antioch, the Christians were called that by their neighbors.

    What part of our teaching is so prominent as to get us labeled?

  20. Dean P says:

    How is what I am saying coming from the “bubble” when it was Christ himself who said we will be hated it is scripture that says that world loves the darkness and that it suppresses the truth and it was from the Bible where we heard the term Christian for the very first time. Also I didn’t dismiss your compliant I acknowledge that Christians and the Church have committed atrocities. With that said regardless Christians are still fallen and and still sin Paul makes this clear. Fortunately God works in us through us despite our mistakes. My point is that when unbelievers are pointing out how bad we are time after time over and over again we don’t ever reserve the possibility that they also have their own agenda too. This agenda can be to find ways to guilt us into wanting to compromise, dilute, or to even walk away from our own the faith altogether, What is going on here is deeper than we want to acknowledge. Lastly, the only way that any discussion is pointless is if you abandoned the discussion or if you produce a better argument for why we should deep six a term that has over 2,000 years of Biblical and world history and tradition behind it for pleasing the wold’s need for us to be something other than what God calls us to be.

  21. Scott says:

    While I understand the thesis of this article, and I personally think the word ‘Christian’ explains who I am/we are, I would remind us of a) how the definitions of particular words shift over time and b) how specific terms can easily drive others away.

    For the first example, think of the word ‘gay’. The meaning of the word has changed over the past few decades. And how have we all adapted – by using the word in its more recent context, rather than how it was originally used.

    Secondly, think of how the term ‘Christian’ can be seen by so many in our world today. It is connected to the One whom we follow, but it does not leave that impression for many, if not most. I actually came across an interesting article on why one person does not prefer the term ‘evangelical’, since it has now become equated with ‘fundamentalist’. This leader was willing to adjust his vocabulary.

    I believe the same can be true for the term ‘Christian’. Again, I think it an appropriate term. But for so many, it does not leave them thinking of the Christ we follow. It’s like my desire, at times, to not tell people that I was a pastor or missionary. It’s not that I was ashamed of the work. It’s just that those 2 terms could make people feel awkward, as if they couldn’t simply be themselves around me. Other times, I found the term helpful for an opportunity to be salt and light in conversation. Each situation called for its own wisdom.

    So let’s be careful to make this too black and white, since that can be our favourite thing to do. There is a bit of grey here, calling for wisdom in differing situations as to what is best in communicating who we are, but ultimately who He is.

  22. LiarLunatic says:

    Dean P, You say “It is this holiness in the association with Christians that is what really causes people to recoil from the term Christian.” That is an all encompassing statement that is not only demonstrably false in many cases but also impossible for you to know for every “real” case.

    And then this, “This means that our natural inclination for the unregenerate person when they meet a Christian is to run in the other direction. They do this because they disdain God’s moral authority, and shake their fist at him and say I’m God… not you.” Really? Everyone? Disdain for Christians always equals disdain for God? No chance that they might run from a Christian because they are an insufferable, arrogant, socially incompetent, self righteous jerk? Any possibility they might be open to the Spirit of God at work in their life and circumstances but totally closed to the misrepresentation of God’s extravagant offer of grace being modeled by some foolish Christian?

    And finally, “This more than any other reason is why people hate both the term Christian and the term Evangelical. Any other reason is a smokescreen.” I just wonder how you know such things so categorically about all or most people and situation. And I wonder if you have ever met the kind of people I meet and with whom I share the hope of the Gospel who have been so unjustly and hatefully condemned or rejected by Christians who believe exactly the kind of things you write.

    Your point…
    “My point is that when unbelievers are pointing out how bad we are time after time over and over again we don’t ever reserve the possibility that they also have their own agenda too.” I really have to point out the obvious; you clearly do reserve that possibility, perhaps even hold it as primary, and so devalue the effort that many Christians are rightly making to communicate the truth of God’s mercy through Jesus Christ to those who have unfortunately acquired a definition of “Christian” that precludes listening to people who carry (for them) such a pejorative label like an unearned martyrs badge of honor without regard for the eternal consequences of such stubbornness.

    I agree with Kevin that the term is rich and beautiful ought to be cherished and preserved. I absolutely disagree that it should be used in every context and without regard for the perceptions and understanding of a sub culture that still needs to hear the Good News.

  23. Paul says:

    I would agree with Lunatic.

    The Christian message is repulsive to the world because the gospel condemns all under sin. Therefore, even the most heroic, secular, philanthropist is dead in sin without Christ. The gospel exposes the hidden sins of the self-righteous, claiming that all charitable deeds without Christ is spurred by some hidden selfish desire to justify themselves, and not out of love, and this is worthless.

    Therefore, it is the gospel that offends the unregenerate because it threatens their core identity as moral people. Why should the Christian, who is exhorted to love and bless even his enemy, be hated by the world other than his association with the dreaded gospel. On the contrary, Christ told his disciples to live virtuously so that unbelievers would see their good works and give glory to God. This is how Christians act as the salt and light of this world.

    I have a problem with Christians being hated by the world because of the very self-righteousness that Christ preached so fiercely against. In the time of Christ, the Pharisees were considered to be the most religious and holiest of all the Jews… that is until our Lord Jesus exposed their hypocrisy. Today, we, Christians point and laugh at the Pharisee-ism of the past, without seeing that we fall into the very same hypocrisy and self-righteous snobbery that the Pharisees were accused of. The gospel preaches the treachery of man, and the goodness of God, and yet “Christians” walk around as if they were entitled to the grace that they received through no act of their own.

    Therefore, yes the term, “Christian”,historically and culturally, portrays a group of people that is self-righteous, arrogant, narrow-minded, unsympathetic, and unreasonable, which unfortunately does not portray the real person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I apologize for being coming off as overly critical or harsh… there are many great and noble Christians that brings justice to the term, “Christian”, and I am not proposing that the term, “Christian” should be done away with. Like Scott wisely said above, it really isn’t a black and white issue.

  24. Alien & Stranger says:

    In my country, “Christian” is used by officialdom to cover any form of Christian affiliation, including the pseudo-Christian sects/ cults and synchretistic churches. This is used to distinguish them from the other religious groups. This is the problem when a word has a common usage, just as in English the word “love” is devalued through trite usage and because we do not have the various Greek words for different kinds of love. I have tended to use the term “authentic Christian”, depending on the context, because we have many who are religious but do not know the Lord, are nominal, etc. When I have upheld Biblical standards, I have been denounced as self-righteous, Pharisaical, bigoted, etc., mostly by non-believers but also by those who call themselves Christian but are compromised. This is even though I have stated that my trust is in Christ alone, and have tried to express myself as tactfully as possible.
    Regarding “Christ follower”, I have tended to avoid it if possible, because I gather that this is a term used by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  25. I am not against using the word Christian, but I avoid it at times because too many people in the world think it means an adherent of a religious system rather than a follower of Jesus (as it originally meant in the early church). Which word I use depends on who I am talking to.

  26. L. Westerlund says:

    Good comments here about keeping the Biblical word but using it wisely, with awareness of the possible preconceptions of our hearers.

    My problem with the currently popular “followers of Jesus” is that it emphasizes the human side, which is conversion, and ignores the necessity of regeneration if we are to escape eternal condemnation. This fits all too well with the theological climate of today, which emphasizes human experience, and minimizes spiritual reality, just the opposite of the Biblical emphasis! I hear about “brokenness”, not “sin”; everywhere I find a focus on this life, not eternity.

    So what do we do? I like the term, “believer” but that, too, needs further explanation. Do we not need to depend upon the indwelling Spirit for wisdom, as we choose our words? And we need to ask questions so we learn what cultural context our hearer brings to the conversation. Maybe God even wants us to say, “I have been saved by the grace of God.” Biblical, yes, but, horrors, the language of the despised fundamentalists! Let us let God examine our hearts, so that, in dependence upon the Spirit, we may with simplicity and integrity choose from the rich Biblical vocabulary God has given us in His Word.

  27. jack jones says:

    Running a website called http://www.thechristiannetwork.com
    your article reminded me of how important it remains a Christian. I myself at times have said ‘follower of Jesus’, yet you are right, good enough for 1st century good enough for 21st

    thank you

  28. Michael Gonzalez says:

    I am limited with time at the moment so let me say that I have not read the other posts yet on this subject.

    I will say this, the term “Christian” was first used in a derogatory form. In addition, it is only shown in the Scriptures three times and; most importantly, it is UNDEFINED.

    However, the term DISCIPLE is scripturally defined.

    Conclusion: you can label anything Christian but disciple; that is totally different.

    MG

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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