The disciples of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch in the first century AD. (See Acts 11:25-26) Of course, these disciples were not just the twelve chosen by Jesus, but converts, followers of the way. They are frequently referred to as the first century “church”. You may find it interesting, perhaps even surprising, that those two terms “Christian” and “church” are used very sparingly in the New Testament. “Christian” is used just three times, and the actual Greek word for “church” just twice.
The word “church” derives from the Greek word “kuriakos” which simply means “of the Lord”. It is used to describe the “Lord’s supper” and the “Lord’s day” in the New Testament. (See 1 Cor 11:20; Rev 1:10.) Over time the word devolved to “kirka” in the Germanic languages, and “cirice” or “circe” in Old English and, finally, to our modern day “church”. And, “church” has come to mean a building, an organization, the whole of Christendom as in the universal church. It is important to note that for reasons of tradition, and only tradition, the English Bible translators have insisted in translating the actual Greek word, “ekklesia” as “church” 115 times in our English Bible. It’s simply incorrect, an inaccurate translation. If you were to pick up a Spanish translation of the Bible you would see the word “iglesia” where the English translations write “church”. The Spanish speakers have it right. “Ekklesia” is the Greek word Jesus chose, quite intentionally, when He said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church(ekklesia), and the gates of Hades not will prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18 BLB). And, He only used it twice, here and in Matthew 18:17. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. That was His focus, not the “church”. “Ekklesia” is not even a religious word. It is a Greek word that literally meant citizens called out to serve as a body, a group, such as a council that was convened for the purpose of governing. And, in this context Jesus stated that He was going to build a body of people “called out” and “Hades” (that is the place of departed spirits, not hell, the place of torment), death itself, would not prevail against. Or, perhaps it could be restated… this ekklesia that He would build would not die.
Note that He said He would build this body of those called out. He would say of this body that it would be unified such that the world take note. (See John 17.) He said that this body would do greater works than He. Now compare that description with what we here in America call “church”. Anybody can start a church and build an organization, and many have. There are literally thousands of denominations, sects, divisions all claiming to be the “church” of Jesus Christ. Most are program based wherein the great majority of the members attend once a week at a “service” wherein there are announcements, music/worship and then a sermon. Are these organized bodies built by Jesus or by man? Did Jesus supply the pattern of having a single man, the pastor, running the show or being the front man? Or is this simply western church tradition?
It is not my goal to denigrate the “church”. It is easy to focus upon a church history that has been marked by cruelty, injustice, racism and even murder. It takes no special skill to point out the weaknesses and frailties of the current church system in America. Also, it is grossly unfair to point out the blemishes without highlighting the good that committed men and women have accomplished via the church down through time. But, there is no denying that we live in treacherous times wherein we will face challenges that will require something more than the status quo. Old wineskins will not hold the new wine that God is going to pour out and that is necessary for the “ekklesia” to survive, and even thrive.
As for the term “Christian”, it is derived from “christos”, anointed. Typically in that day, to be anointed meant to have olive oil poured on to one’s head as sign of a special calling or assignment. As when a king or a prophet was anointed. Jesus was the “anointed”, the Messiah. It should be noted that Jesus never called His followers Christians. He called them disciples. He repeatedly called them and others to simply, “Follow Me.” While the word “Christian” is found only three times, once simply stating when the Christ-followers were called Christians while in Antioch. There is no indication that they called themselves Christians, rather it appears that the label was supplied by non-Christians, perhaps derisively. The second time the word appears it is used by King Agrippa when conversing with the apostle Paul, again perhaps not in a positive light, but more like sarcasm. The last time the term appears it is found at I Peter 4:16, the context is suffering as a Christian. The unbelieving world had taken a dim view of this group, addressed them as Christians and the persecution was significant. Peter encourages his readers not to be ashamed when undergoing this suffering. By contrast the word “disciple” and/or “disciples” is found 263 times in the New Testament! The word “saints” is used over 60 times in the New Testament, mostly by Paul when he addressed his audience. To which word should we give more weight?
If most Americans were asked to define what a Christian is, it is highly unlikely that many would incorporate the words disciple or saint in their definition. More likely, a Christian is considered to be one who attends church, has “accepted Christ as their Savior” or has been “born again”. While all those things may be true of a Christian, I submit that the word meant something very different to the first century disciples. The notion that a Christian is one who has “accepted Jesus as my Savior” is simply not Biblical. Search for it there and you will not find it. Jesus never said “accept” me, He repeatedly said, “Follow Me.” His first and last words to Peter were “follow Me”. (Matthew 4:19; John 21:18ff). Giving mental assent to the claims of Jesus is good, but if that is all that was required why did Jesus teach the parable of the sower? If the issue is a one time decision to believe and thus be “born again” why did Jesus deliver a whole chapter on discipleship? (See Matthew 10.) I am not intending to be picayune, it’s just that there is so much more to being a true Christ-follower than “accepting” Jesus. To accept is to simply receive or approve of. To follow requires action, continuing positive action. Is it honest to suggest to an unbeliever that all they need do is “accept” Jesus as their Savior? Where is counting the cost? That simply is not the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached. Just sayin’…
Even the phrase “born again”, which came into vogue during the Jesus People Movement (late 60’s, early 70’s) wherein yours truly decided to follow Jesus, is typically taken out of context and poorly applied. The phrase is first found in the recorded conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus was describing to this man of the law what it was to be “born of the Spirit”. He was trying to move a learned man, who had committed his life to the study and teaching of the law, to a spiritual plane for which he had no construct. Frankly, the phrase “born again Christian” is not a Biblical phrase. Look for it there and you will not find it. More importantly, is there any other kind of Christian? Is it not an indictment against ourselves? Does it not imply that there is another type of Christian that is not “born again”? In truth, the phrase “born again” is found only in John 3 and in I Peter 1, that’s it.
I am not suggesting that we strike the words “Christian”, “church” or “born again” from our vocabulary. Neither am I suggesting that church organizations and/or denominations disband. Rather, I submit that from time to time we must go back to the beginning and re-read the words of Jesus in order to keep our understanding and application of those words fresh and consistent with His message.
If not “Christian”, then what shall we “followers of Jesus” call ourselves? Why should we call ourselves anything? Do we really need a brand or a label? Moreover, do we want to wear a label that has become synonymous with all sorts of evil, corruption, religious practice. Why employ an old, tired label that not only allows others to put us in a box, but has become a trigger word for many wherein at the mention of the word “Christian” they turn us off.
In these days we must be wise, discerning, even shrewd. Jesus was no one’s fool, neither should we be. I refuse to give myself away to a brand, or a label. As an example, I am neither democrat nor republican. I owe no allegiance to anyone, but Jesus. And, as to that allegiance I can only truly testify to that which I personally know and have experienced of Him and/or have read about Him in the Scriptures. I need not defend a church or a label or a theology. Let them scratch their heads and say as some have in response to my replies, “You are … different.” Or, the one I really enjoy, “I’m not sure what to do with you.” I love one of the lines Jesus speaks in the newly developed online series “The Chosen”. In response to one of the disciples He says, “Get use to different.” Wonderful. Dare I say, the old wineskins (the old brands, labels, organizations, theological structures) will not hold the new wine.
We live in dynamic days. While the darkness is increasing, God is on the move. God is doing a new thing. There is a remnant. God has always kept a remnant for Himself. The times in which we live require that this remnant must be “different”, just as those first century disciples of Jesus were different. Isn’t that why we began to follow Jesus to begin with? We all needed something different, very different… like a new start on life. Let’s get our “different” back. Let us eschew brands and labels. Let’s become the “ekklesia” once again, those “called out”, those willing to “go outside the camp” to where Jesus is still calling, still speaking, still inviting us to, “Follow Me!” I hope to meet you there…