What is a “Christian”?

“Christian.” It’s a label we sometimes take for granted. As an adjective, the word can be applied to just about anything marketers think they can sell. There’s a Christian book industry, of course, as well as Christian music. But we can also buy Christian sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and knick-knacks; if we get a hankering for something sweet, we can even nosh on Christian candy. (One fruit-flavored gummy candy is called — I kid you not — “The Fruit of the Spirit.”)

As a writer of Christian books and a Christian blog myself, I’m not about to pronounce some hard-line condemnation on all of this. But I’m leery of the ways in which the market can water down the word “Christian” until it becomes something more like a consumer choice or lifestyle preference than a living commitment to Jesus.

“Christian,” of course, is also a noun, a name identifying a person who in some way has chosen to identify with Jesus. Depending on our personal histories, the word may have different associations. For some of us, the name “Christian” suggests someone who is moral, dependable, and safe; to others, it suggests superficiality and hypocrisy; to still others, someone who is narrow-minded and intolerant.

Christians have been all these things, from the earliest days of the church until now.

Historically, Luke tells us that “it was in Antioch where the disciples were first labeled ‘Christians'” (Acts 11:26b, CEB). Antioch, you’ll recall, was the site of the first Gentile church, started by unnamed Hellenistic Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene, and mentored by Barnabas and Saul. Early believers did not call themselves Christians, and would not until the second century. The name was invented by others as a way of distinguishing them from other groups, such as Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles who did not believe in or follow Jesus.

Even if early believers had taken the label for their own, they would have meant different things by it. The Jews who chose to follow Jesus understood him as their Messiah. The word “Christ” is from the Greek for “Messiah,” designating a title or office. Thus, for a Jew to be a “Christian” meant believing that Jesus was your prophesied and long-awaited Messiah, with all that this belief entailed and then some. “Jesus Christ” meant “Jesus the Christ,” or “Jesus the Messiah.”

Gentile converts, however, didn’t inhabit the same history or culture. Some, of course, were “God-fearers” who worshiped in Jewish synagogues, or even proselytes who agreed to be circumcised (e.g., Nicolas, whom we met in Acts 6:5). For the most part, however, those who populated the newly founded church in Antioch were largely unfamiliar with the story of Israel and her Messiah. The story of Jesus was heard against the background of the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses — and the pantheon was found lacking. Here, at last, was a God they could believe in and worship! Still, for them, “Christ” was less a title than a name. “Christ” was something like a synonym for “Jesus” — and thus “Christian” made sense as a label for those who followed Christ.

Today, “Gentile Christian” sounds like an anachronism, as if we doubted there could be any other kind. Similar to the meaning of “Christian” in ancient Antioch, we treat the word “Christ” almost as if it were Jesus’ last name (especially, unfortunately, when in anger someone adds the middle initial “H”). We often don’t have a clear sense of Jesus as Messiah, as the culmination of a long and complicated story of faith and prophecy.

That’s a pity. Because without that grand story as a framework for our imagination, it’s harder to root ourselves in Scripture. Instead of inhabiting the story the Bible tells, we reduce the story to moral principles and inspirational slogans which can be more readily dropped into our time, culture, and preferences — without altering them too much.

So what is a Christian? A person who follows Christ, of course.

But it matters what we mean by “Christ.”