If you ever see a Christian talking – about serious topics like philosophy or faith – to someone who doesn’t know much about following Jesus, it can be an interesting event to observe. In some cases, you can tell that the Christian knows that as soon as he or she says, “I’m a Christian”, the other person is going to immediately associate that statement with a whole host of past experience, previous encounters, and preconceptions. (Just ask a minister, pastor, or other Christian leader what he or she says when a seatmate on an airplane asks, “So what do you do?”)
Neither of circumstances mean that the Christian is ashamed of his or her faith; only that explaining the truth behind that faith is going to be difficult as soon as someone else puts up “shields” and stops listening. (Maybe you’ve even mentally checked out, just reading this article, but are sticking around to see if I have a point! If so, that’s ok – let me know in the comments what you decide.)
But, really, what does being a Christian mean? And, in some situations, would we be better off using other terms that are more descriptive?
First off, let me emphasize that I’m not suggesting that we hide our faith, or that we be embarrassed to tell others about Jesus, and what we believe about Him. After all, Jesus spoke about this pretty clearly:
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Mark 8:38 NASB
However, the term “Christian” wasn’t necessarily used by followers of Jesus at the start of the church, as described in Acts. When Saul (before his conversion) went out to persecute those we know today as “Christians”, Acts 9:1-2 suggests that they were collectively called “The Way”. (I thought that this article did a good job describing the significance of that term: http://www.brentcunningham.org/?p=842.)
Eventually, in Acts 11, we find that the term “Christians” started to be used, starting in a city called Antioch.
And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 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 11:25-26 NASB
The term “Christian” might have actually been an insult from others in Antioch (calling Jesus’ followers, “little Christs”), In the end, though, the name made sense. Consider that Christians not only chose to subscribe to the teachings of Jesus, but actually tried to become like Him. They also weren’t just students of a teacher, they actually considered the nature and mission of this Teacher to be pivotal to their faith.
Admittedly, the name “Christian” has stuck for more than 19 centuries, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – the only way to define this faith. I think that those who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ – including myself – should still be happy to refer to themselves as “Christians” (especially after understanding this context).
However, when we tell others that we are Christians, that often comes with a lot of baggage. Christians have been associated – whether correctly or incorrectly – with everything from the Medieval Crusades to modern-day bigotry.
Consider our friends who don’t follow Jesus, today. They may have had bad experiences with those who called themselves Christians. Perhaps they were condemned, rather than being told the truth about both sin (which is a tough topic, but still must be told), and grace (which is made all the more spectacular in view of the fair and just penalty of sin). Perhaps they incorrectly believed that Christians were perfect – or at least better than others (a belief that, frankly, some Christians seem to imply), and yet saw failings in them. Perhaps they just heard or read about how Christians were all hypocrites and judgmental (which, unfortunately, some are…although Jesus can still save them, even with their flaws).
As a result, when we talk about what we believe, I don’t think we should hesitate to tell people that we are Christians, in the right circumstances. But, where we’re sharing our faith with someone who may struggle with that term, consider also the following:
- I follow Jesus, the Christ.
- Many people who don’t like Christians (whether specific ones, or just in general) still think highly of Jesus (like my friend in God is Not an Elephant). And, you can explain what “Christ” means, since a lot of people don’t realize that it is a title.
- I am a Christ-follower.
- This, after all, is what Christian means. Again, when we have the opportunity to align ourselves with the Son of God, who literally changed the world, we can focus on Him directly, rather than how good or bad of a job His followers have done over time.
- I believe in Jesus’ teachings, and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life
- Any time that we can quote Jesus’ statements about Himself (see John 14:6) is probably a good opportunity to do so. Jesus was not just a teacher about Christianity, He is the cornerstone of it.
- Consider also these passages, containing more about what Jesus said about Himself, which you are welcome to quote, too:
- Mark 14:61-62 (the Christ…and more)
- John 4:25-26 (the Messiah, which is the same as “Christ”, just in another language)
- John 6:35 (the bread of life)
- John 8:12 (the Light of the world)
- John 8:58 (existing before Abraham)
- John 10:7-18 (the door; the good shepherd)
- John 11:25 (the resurrection and the life)
- John 18:36-37 (a king, but not the kind we normally think of)
- Acts 9:5 (the one whom Saul was persecuting)
- I am a sinner, saved by God’s grace.
- This could lead into a conversation about how God made a way for us to be saved (through Jesus paying the price for our sins), but it leads with the key point: we’ve all fallen short of the standard of a Holy God.
So, don’t be afraid to stand up for your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But, when the time is right, I encourage you to put Him at the forefront of your conversation, rather than the rest of us Christians (who try to follow Him, but fall short).
Some background in this article was found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.