What is a Christian?

by Mark M. Mattison

"Are you a Christian?" I once asked an acquaintance. She creased her eyebrows and thought about that.

"I'm not really sure," she said. "What is a Christian?"

I was impressed with her honesty and the profundity of her question. She knew very well who Jesus was. As I talked with her I found that she had grown up in the church. Yet she didn't really know what a Christian was. And I could hardly blame her.

What is a Christian, anyway? Someone of European descent? A persecutor of Jews? Someone who votes for only the most conservative Republicans? At times all of these answers have seemed plausible. Some use these definitions to this day.

In Christian circles the answers are no clearer. A Christian is sometimes said to be someone who has made a decision; sometimes, someone who belongs to a church; far too often, someone who confesses the right creeds. Which brings us right back to our question: What, really, is a Christian?

A Derogatory Term

Surprisingly, the word "Christian" appears only three times in the New Testament. The New Testament's use of this term indicates that it was a term of derision, a term placed upon Christ's followers by their critics.

We find the term, for example, in Acts 17:28 on the lips of King Agrippa, an unbeliever: "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'" (NIV). It is also found in 1 Peter 4:16: "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name" (NIV). This text indicates that early believers in Christ suffered persecution as "Christians." In fact, in 1 Peter being a "Christian" seems almost synonymous with suffering (1:6,7; 2:12,19-23; 3:9-17; 4:1,12-19; 5:9).

This thought leads us directly to the third text that uses the term "Christian." It appears in Acts 11:27, where we read that "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (NIV).

This key text tells us two things about the Christians. First, "Christian" was not so much a name that they chose as a name that was applied to them (they "were called Christians"). This is consistent with our observation that it was a term placed upon them by hostile critics. Second, it was a term that was placed on "the disciples." This helps us to establish the meaning of the term: A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, one who clings to the gospel. Furthermore, a Christian is one who is prepared to suffer for the sake of Christ, if necessary. This suffering, as we have seen, is described in detail by Peter. It entails a life patterned after the life and death of Jesus, a life of service to God and others. This is the Scriptural picture of what a Christian is.

Discipleship and Brotherhood/Sisterhood

This is not to imply that the Christian will perform that service perfectly. We read in 1 John that Christians will always struggle with sin and selfishness, and are in constant need of God's grace and forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). Nevertheless, though not morally perfect, the Christian is one who strives to follow Jesus. "This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (2:5,6, NIV).

In other words, a Christian is defined, Scripturally, as one who follows Christ. This is the most logical and trustworthy answer to our question. A Christian is not necessarily someone who has been sprinkled or baptized, who can boast membership in a religious institution, who can claim a certain ancestry or who believes in the best creed. A Christian is simply someone who follows Jesus, who calls upon Jesus Christ as his or her Lord as well as Savior (Rom. 10:9). Similarly, Christianity is an ongoing journey of discipleship to Jesus.

But how is this journey undertaken? Scripture clearly indicates that it is not taken alone, but with the help of spiritual brothers and sisters who can encourage us along the way. We can surmise this from the fact that the word "brother" is the New Testament's most common term for Christians. The church is a spiritual family, dependent upon a heavenly Father and led by an elder brother (Jesus). "But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast" (Heb. 3:6, NIV).

What is a Christian? A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, a spiritual brother or sister to others - one who strives to be like Jesus, regardless of denominational background or creedal preference.

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