What It Means to Be a ‘Christian’

Image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Ask a dozen people at random what it means to be a Christian and you are likely to get nearly as many different answers. Some of the most popular responses include having Christian parents, going to church, having certain moral or political views, or living in a certain area.

Clearly, much confusion exists in America today about what it means to be a Christian. Yes, there are many shared traits among Christians living in America. Any of these mentioned above, as well as many others, might describe shared experiences among any number of individual Christians. But none of these really gets to the heart of what Christians throughout history have traditionally held to be the essentials of our common faith.

The word ‘Christian’ traces back to the middle of the 1st century. The word itself comes from ancient Roman convention. It was common to name a group of followers or slaves using a combination of their leader’s or master’s name with the ending -ianus (Latin) or -ianos (Greek). This is how ‘Christian’ became the popular designation for followers of Christ.[1]

In the Bible, the word ‘Christian’ first occurs in Acts 11:26, which says, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” It is noteworthy that the term was not initially adopted from within the church, but instead was the common label others gave to those who followed Christ.

The word ‘Christian’ only occurs two other times in the Bible, once as a term of derision (Acts 26:28) and once associated with suffering (1 Peter 4:16). It is important to understand that, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, identifying as Christian was a death sentence. A Christian was seen as someone who worshipped a foreign god instead of the Roman emperor. It was not until the 2nd century when ‘Christian’ became a popular designation within the church, first referring to those who suffered martyrdom for their faith.[2]

The origins of the name ‘Christian’ illustrate the core meaning of the name. The heart of what it means to be a Christian is to identify as a follower of Jesus Christ. It means embracing a distinctly different way of thinking and living from those of other worldviews, a way centering on the person, teachings and works of Christ.

In a secularized culture where truth is often thought to be relative and the goal of life tends toward the pursuit of self-satisfaction, it is easy to lose sight of what it means to be a Christian. That is why it is important for Christians to remind ourselves of the essence of our faith—to reorient our minds and hearts to the centrality of Christ and seek to live out this reality as a testimony of God’s goodness and glory to the world in which we live.

[1] Robert S. Rayburn, “Christian,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 234. Logos Bible Software.

[2] Michael J. Wilkins, “Christian,” in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:925. Logos Bible Software.