All of us bear labels of one sort or another. For example, Jesus had a status label (i.e., something about yourself you cannot deny) of "Israelite from Judean Galilee" (John 1:47; Mark 1:9; Mark 14:70). Other labels we give to ourselves. Jesus, for example, by all accounts called himself "son of man" (meaning something like "man of the people," Luke 9:58). Others sometimes give us labels that are not complimentary. For example, Jesus was called a "glutton and a drunkard" (Luke 7:34; Matt 11:19), likely because of the dinner parties he attended (Mark 2:15-16; Luke 15:1-2).
This third kind of label is apparently what happened to the followers of Jesus: "They were first called 'Christians' at Antioch" (Acts 11:26). It was a term used by the Graeco-Roman citizens of Antioch to designate them as followers of the god "Christos," a general way of designating the adherents of a particular leader—as, for example, followers of Herod were called "Herodians" (Mark 3:6). The only other uses of the term "Christian" in the first century (Acts 26:28. 1 Peter 4:16) are not inconsistent with this understanding. Luke apparently thought that followers of Jesus originally called themselves "disciples" (Acts 11:26; 9:10; 6:1-2, 7; 16:1; 19:1; 21:16).
By the second century, however, the name was clearly embraced as a self designation by Jesus followers (e.g., Didache 12:4; Martydom of Polycarp, 10:1; 12:1; Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 4:1). In 1Peter 4:16 the name "Christian" was associated with suffering and persecution: "If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name glorify God." In the early second century (ca. 112) Pliny the Younger, a Roman administrator in Asia Minor, reported to the Emperor Trajan that he tried those accused of being Christian and executed the ones who refused to deny the name. Their denial would have taken the form of sacrificing to the Roman gods and cursing Christ.
The Letter to Diognetus (2nd /3rd century) has an interesting sociological description of Christians as appearing little different from the rest of the Graeco-Roman population, with certain exceptions: they did not expose infants, practiced free hospitality, and guarded their purity (Diognetus 5.1-17).
Who were these people who embraced the label "Christian" in the second century in spite of its negative associations? One may not simply assume that the label "Christian" means today what it did in the past—for one reason, the term means different things to different people today, and it was no less true in antiquity. Those who recanted the name "Christian" to Pliny confessed "the whole of their guilt or error" to be that they met on a certain fixed day before light, sang a hymn to Christ as a God and took a solemn oath not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, and not to falsify their word, or to deny a trust, and later they ate together. On the other hand, Cerinthus, an early second-century Christian-Gnostic teacher in Asia Minor taught that the world was not created by God but by a lesser power. Jesus was not virgin-born but the natural son of Mary and Joseph, although he was better than other men. The (heavenly) Christ descended on Jesus before his baptism and departed before his death.
In the third century the author of the Gospel of Philip, a Christian-Gnostic text from the Nag Hammadi library, claimed the term "Christian," as a self-designation, but the kind of Christianity reflected in the text is very different from that reflected in Paul, John, and the synoptic gospels. For example, the author writes: "The chrism [i.e. the anointing] is superior to baptism, for it is from the word "chrism" that we have been called Christians, certainly not because of the word "baptism" (74:12-14)…He who has been anointed [i.e., by the chrism, which is Christ] possesses everything. He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit. The Father gave him this in the bridal chamber…" (74:17-22).
Phillip's community would have been declared heretical (i.e., not genuine) by those defining themselves as "orthodox." The orthodox group later adopted the Nicene Creed (4th century), which assumes in part a three-tiered universe (Heaven/earth/Hell), spirit entities, and affirms that Jesus was not a human being, but a divine figure from heaven who was "made flesh" of the holy spirit and the virgin Mary. It affirms "one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" and a "baptism unto the remission of sins."
The label "Christian" has had a wide variety of meanings in the past, and the situation is no different today. A large number of different religious groups are categorized "Protestant" Christians. They exist alongside of "Christians" of a different ilk: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Mormon. They all claim the term "Christian" and yet all believe and practice different religious customs. It appears that the label means little specific, or, put another way, it means just about anything you want it to. So what does one imply by wearing it? Has the term outlived its usefulness?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University