The Name of “Christian”

Christian on chalkboard

The “Restoration Movement” is sometimes called the “Stone-Campbell Movement” after two principle men in that movement – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. They were two of many who endeavored to leave the churches and creeds of men and follow the Bible alone.

Stone was formerly a Presbyterian. Campbell had previously been associated with the Baptists. Yet they decided they were no longer going to use those names to identify themselves. So what would they be called? Campbell thought brethren should be identified as “Disciples” while Stone favored the name “Christian.” What does the Bible say? Notice what Luke recorded:

And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

In the verse above, disciples were called Christians. Let us consider what the Bible says about the name we are to wear.

The Importance of a Name

Names often reflect a meaning. When the apostles wanted to identify a particular disciple who was a source of great encouragement, they called him “Barnabas… (which translated means Son of Encouragement)” (Acts 4:36).

Yet a name is more than a description. One may be funny, smart, caring, patient, and so on. We may use those terms to describe such a person, but they are not names. Generally, names are given by one with authority and embraced by the one given the name (for example, a parent names a child and the child embraces that name by accepting and using it throughout life).

If we believe in Christ and strive to follow Him, what name will we wear? In the passage above, Luke indicated that those in Antioch were called Christians (Acts 11:26). This indicates a divine calling. Isaiah prophesied that God’s people would be “called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord will designate” (Isaiah 62:2). This “new name” was the name of “Christian.” The Greek word which is translated “called” in Acts 11:26 is the word chrematizo. Every time it is used in the New Testament, it describes a message that comes from God – “warned by God” (Matthew 2:12, 22; Hebrews 8:5; 11:7; 12:25); “revealed…by the Holy Spirit” (Luke 2:26); “divinely directed” (Acts 10:22); a married woman being “called an adulteress” (Romans 7:3).

So when “the disciples were…called Christians” (Acts 11:26), that means the Lord gave them that name. Why was this name given? Why is the name “Christian” the name that we should wear?

More Than Just…

There are several terms used in the New Testament that can be used to accurately describe the people of God. Yet some people use these as more than just descriptions, they adopt them as names. However, the terms below are simply meant to describe who we are; they are not really meant to be titles/names. The reason we can know this is because others who are not the people of God can accurately be described using the same terms.

  • Believers – We believe in Jesus (John 1:12; 8:24). Yet His people are not the only ones who believe in Him. James wrote, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons could have been described as believers in a particular sense, but they were certainly not Christians. A similar point could be made regarding those who “believed” in Christ but “were not confessing Him” (John 12:42).
  • Disciples – We are the Lord’s disciples (John 8:31; Matthew 28:19). Yet others may gain disciples for themselves. Paul warned about this when he spoke with the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). The ones who would be drawn away could still be described as disciples (the word disciple means a learner or follower). But they were no longer disciples of Christ, they had become disciples of the men that they followed.
  • Brethren – We are brothers and sisters in Christ (Hebrews 2:11; Colossians 1:2). Yet there are other types of brethren – in particular, brethren according to the flesh (Matthew 12:46-50) and fellow countrymen (Romans 9:3).

If we are serving the Lord as we should, we can all be accurately called believers, disciples, and brethren. Yet these are not names, only descriptions, since they are not exclusive to the people of God. The “new name” (Isaiah 62:2) which God gave to His people to distinguish us from the rest of the world was the name “Christian.”

Not Named After…

There are many different names used in the religious world – even by those who claim to be Christians. Yet there are other names that they wear. As we have already noted, names reflect a meaning. Those who wear other names are named after someone or something.

  • A man like the Lutherans or (alleged) Campbellites* – Names like these honor a particular religious leader. Yet we are not to follow men. Some in Corinth had a problem with this and Paul wrote to correct them: “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:4). If we are not to follow men, we are not to wear the names of men.
  • A method/purpose of baptism like the Baptists or Anabaptists – These names were used to distinguish these groups from other religious groups in that they practiced baptism as immersion (not sprinkling) and for believers (as opposed to infant baptism). We certainly are to baptize believers (Acts 8:36-37) and are to understand baptism to be immersion (Romans 6:4 – a burial); yet that does not mean we should wear these names.
  • A form of church government like the Presbyterians or Congregationalists – The pattern in the New Testament does indicate that local churches are to be overseen by elders (1 Peter 5:1-2; Philippians 1:1) – also called presbyters (1 Timothy 4:14) – and that local churches are independent/autonomous (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). Yet God did not give these names to His people.
  • A day or events on a day like the Pentecostals or Adventists – The day of Pentecost was the day on which the church was established (Acts 2). The term “advent” refers to the coming of Christ. In the case of Adventist churches (the largest being the Seventh-day Adventist Church), this coming of Christ refers to His return at the end of the world. We are still looking forward to this return of Christ (Revelation 22:20; 2 Peter 3:12). However, the Lord never indicated that His church was to be named after a day.
  • A “universal” body like the Catholics – The term “Catholic” means universal and is used to signify all Christians. We understand that there is just one body (Ephesians 4:4). This is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), the body of all the saved (Ephesians 5:23). Yet the Lord never referred to His people as “Catholics.”

Why would we want to be named by those peculiarities when God did not name us by them?

We Are Named After Christ

God gave the name of “Christian” to His people. That name reflects Christ. Why would God give us a name that reflects Christ?

  • We believe in Christ – “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). This was the same group who were “first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
  • We are disciples (followers/learners) of Christ – Jesus told His apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19; cf. Acts 11:26). This means that as disciples we are to follow His word in all things – “observe all that [He] commanded” (Matthew 28:20; cf. Colossians 3:17). This includes our beliefs and practices. It also includes the method and purpose of baptism, form of church government, and so on.
  • We are brethren as children of God through Christ – “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).

In order to designate those who believe in Christ, are disciples of Christ, and are brethren as children of God through Christ, God called them Christians.

Conclusion

If we simply identify ourselves by the divinely-given name of “Christian,” some will ask, “What kind of Christian are you?” Many people claim to be Christians, but they claim to be different kinds of Christians. We are just Christians. That is what the Lord wants us to be.

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* In the case of the term “Campbellite,” this is a label that is given to a particular group by other religious groups. It is not a name that is embraced by those who are derogatorily called that name by others.


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Comments

  1. Wayne D. Teel says

    I enjoyed the article. I do wish I could find a passage that states, “The Lord called His disciples, Christians.” Or something to that effect. It does indicate that the Lord approved of this name, Christian, because there is no refuting the fact of this name and it is used a number of times in identifying the disciples after Acts 11:26. “but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God” (1 Peter 4:16). This is definitely approval by God to use that name, “Christian.”