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
The term Christian seems to mean allegiance to Christ. The problem is finding an agreed upon definition of Christ - there seems to be none.
Would the label Jesusian, meaning allegiance to Jesus, provide any more certainty? If someone asks me I say that I'm a follower of the JS red/pink Jesus, but that rules out the second coming Jesus.
Traveling through the W. Virginia mountains this week to see the leaves!
Good afternoon Charlie,
I wonder what has more of an effect on one's life- removing the Christian label or donning it? I can't even begin to imagine the reaction of friends and family if I were to decide to remove that label. The repercussions would be quite noticeable and immediate.
It has become a very highly charged term and people use it for their own purposes. Discovering the origins of its meaning and use shows us how differently it is used today- and interpreted today.
Is one's life more drastically affected by removing that label- or by taking it on? It's interesting to think about the reaction people have to it either way.
Respectfully, Elizabeth Holmes
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I suppose the reaction would be In proportion to how publically and loudly one made the announcement that one was no longer Christian. I have for many years thought of myself as a somewhat unorthodox Baptist, and if asked describe myself as post-Christian because the term "Christian" is too broad. Nevertheless, I have tried to inculcate into my life and philosophy of religion the best of the Christian tradition (I get to pick what those are). I regularly attend Bible study every Sunday at a Baptist church where my wife and I have been members for over 35 years. One needs a religious community, I think, to provoke thinking about existential issues. It has not yet become a problem for me. If someone asks me the direct question about my religious affiliations, I can always ask for definitions about the terms they are using and then answer honestly. If I use a term, then I carefully define it,
I appreciated your learned & thoughtful comments on this subject as well as both Gene's & Elizabeth's opinions. I might add since man continually creates and recreates Gods and religions, one may feel justified in defining both his God and religion however he wishes or is persuaded.
Good evening Charlie,
It is very wise to carefully define the terms one uses with regard to religious affiliations. I'm not sure this helps define the term "Christian" or not- but a pastor once used these three words to describe the Christians who belong to Protestant denominations: Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Liberal. Speaking in general terms, fundamentalists tend to emphasize legalism and believe every word in the King James version was inspired by God. Evangelicals emphasize the gospel, believe in salvation by grace, and believe in winning souls to Jesus. Liberals tend to take most of the Bible metaphorically, do not emphasize rules, and usually don't believe there's a hell.
Those are very broad, general descriptions of Christians found within each of the denominations... I personally identify with the liberal slant (religion-wise) and I was wondering if anyone had ever asked you if you are a liberal Christian and what you thought about those labels helping define "Christian?" Do they clarify that term at all?
Yours truly, Elizabeth
Good Morning, Elizabeth,
I find the categories your pastor listed to identify protestants critically inadequate to describe the numerous and very different groups to be found under the heading "protestant." It appears to me that the good pastor likes to "pigeonhole" people on the basis of the idea that if you can "hang a label on 'em" you can simply disregard them. Truth be told: I see a little of myself in all of the labels, even though I self-identify with none of them. At one time or another, however, I have been labeled by others with each of the labels used by the pastor. I have good friends, many of whom are willing to identify themselves by one of these labels or another. I don't. What you see is what you get and it may be different tomorrow.
Incidentally he omitted the category "conservative," which is another popular label that many either use of themselves or use to demonize others.
I have one more question for the group- if anyone is interested. Charlie used an interesting word that I don't hear often. He said he "self-identify" with none of them. It leads me to wonder- does your religious institution allow to you self-identify with a certain label or are you required to have the same one as everyone else? I have always seen label (particularly a religious one) as something that is assigned to us from another party or a higher power. It takes courage to give yourself your own label- or none at all. What does your institution say- if anything?
St. Louis, MO
During my short term as a United Methodist Pastor in the 1960's, I once asked each one in the congregation to reflect on why they were in church. One person said that he was in church to stand up for the ten commandments. In other words, he self-identified with the ten commandments as the heart of the religious experience. Nothing particularly Christian about it, and the real reason he was probably there was because his wife grew up attending Methodist congregations. If I'd the chance to speak with each person in attendance, I suppose there would have been an equal number of unique theological and sociological stories.
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