When were the followers of Jesus Christ first called “Christians”?
Acts 11:26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
1 Peter 4:16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
The three verses above constitute the only instances in the New Testament (in the entire Bible for that matter) where the term “Christian” is found. It is not at all found in the gospels in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus never taught that it is necessary to become a “Christian” in order to be saved. Rather one had to follow him as Lord and Savior. Moreover, Jesus never used the term “Christianity”—as in “converting to Christianity.” Jesus also never commanded his disciples to “go to church.”
It was not until after the gospel reached Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. (Some commentators say that at that time it was a pejorative term used to deride the followers of Jesus Christ.) Note that Acts specifies it was the disciples who were called Christians. What does a believer have to do to be a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ?
Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
In the book of Acts therefore, whenever the term “Christian” was used, it referred to someone who hated his own life, who carried his cross following Jesus, and who gave up everything he had. Hence as defined by the gospels and Acts, just repeating the sinner’s prayer at church does not necessarily make one a Christian.
However, the meaning of the term Christian in the world has radically changed over the past 2,000 years. Very generally speaking, it is anyone who professes the religion called Christianity. This covers a vast range of meanings, ranging from true disciples—as Jesus defined the term above in Luke—to people who happen to be born into a “Christian” family but who have never heard the gospel, do not have a personal relationship with Jesus and are not born again. Today the term “Christian” has completely lost its true and original meaning as taught in the New Testament where the terms “Christian” and “disciple” were synonymous.
What does this have to do with reaching the gospel-resistant?
Now the European imperialists of recent history—the British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Belgians—who by one means or another subjugated much of the Third World, were all known to be “Christians” by those they colonized. These invading Europeans were known by those they conquered and exploited to profess the Western religion known as “Christianity”—a foreign religion very different and conflicting with the religions of the people they colonized: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, idol-worship, animism, belief in ancestor worship and sorcery.
Were these invading Europeans actual disciples of Jesus Christ? No. Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations, not to make colonies of all nations.
Interestingly, what is called the “era of modern missions” coincided roughly with the period of European imperialism. The early missionaries to the Third World, following the terminology they had learned growing up in church in the West, encouraged the “pagans” to renounce their false religions and “convert to the religion of Christianity” to become “Christians.” While some indigenous people indeed did so for whatever reason, the great majority of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists did not and instead rejected Christianity.
Why does this contrast so sharply with missions as recorded in Acts where the early disciples harvested large numbers of idol-worshiping Gentiles for the kingdom of God?
On reason of course is the lack of undeniable and convincing evidence for the gospel in contemporary missions—as was witnessed in Acts time and time again through powerful miraculous healings. But at this time we want to focus on another very cogent aspect.
By preaching ”Christianity” to Third World peoples, the early missionaries were—unconsciously perhaps—evoking the foreign religion of their European masters. But the people already had a rich tradition of spiritual beliefs interwoven in their culture and history over thousands of years often even predating “Christianity.” Rejecting their religion often meant betraying their sacred traditions, their culture and even their own families. It would be unthinkable to do this in order to adopt something totally foreign—the religion of their white European conquerors no less.
How then should we preach the gospel to such people groups? We should avoid any mention of religion, of Christianity, of the word Christian and other “Christian” terms like “going to church.” Jesus never did so when preaching the gospel.
As an example, let’s take sharing the gospel with Muslims.
Muslims already believe in Jesus (“Isa” in the Arabic language) as a great prophet, but they vehemently deny that he died on the cross to bear our sins and that he is the Savior. Therefore our task is to convince them that Isa is far more than a prophet.
We can of course show them what the Qu’ran says about Isa:
Qs. 3:45 [And mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ].
But we can back this up with supernatural proof which can convince them that Isa is actually THE Messiah who brings salvation and eternal life. The evidence will be powerful miraculous healings which Jesus enables his disciples to perform as they proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. These will be impressive miracles which they have never before witnessed within Islam.
When a Muslim personally experiences the supernatural intimately in his own body, he is touched. We can then follow up by saying: “You see, Isa is far more than a prophet. The wonderful healing you have just experienced in his name shows that he can also take away your sins through his death on the cross and grant you eternal life. Would you like to accept him as your Lord and Savior for the forgiveness of your sins?”
Notice that there is no mention of renouncing Islam and converting to Christianity in order to become a Christian. Rather, the Muslim has now become a following of Isa Al-Masih. Outwardly he is still a Muslim. But in his heart he is now born-again. He is now a “Muslim follower of Isa” who acknowledges Isa as his Lord and Savior. And since he is still a Muslim in name, he is not expelled from his community as he would be if he converted to Christianity. And since he is still a “Muslim” he has opportunities to share with other Muslims who Isa really is. For eternal life, it matters little what we are labeled. What is important is that he acknowledges Isa as Lord and Savior in his heart and with his mouth. There are perhaps millions of people in the world who call themselves “Christians” who do not yet have eternal life.
Messianic Jews are technically not “Christians,” yet they are saved. Although the analogy of course is not perfect, “Muslim” followers of Isa can also be saved.
The born-again Muslim no longer goes to the mosque every Friday. But neither does he “go to church” every Sunday morning either (or Friday morning as the case may be). Instead he might worship the Lord and be taught in a house meeting apart from any formal church. (In China many underground believers gather in homes.) Why shouldn’t he “go to church” every Sunday?
Once a Muslim “goes to church” (meaning in a formal church building) everyone knows that he has “converted to Christianity.” Then commences persecution against him and even expulsion. He might indeed be saved, but he will have to endure suffering which might actually be unnecessary. He will have no opportunity to share his faith with other Muslims. And his presence in the Christian church might bring threats against the church by furious Muslims bent on vengeance against the sheep-stealers.
Jesus never told his disciples to convert to Christianity to become Christians, and then to “go to church” every Sunday. Such things may be appropriate for believers in the West, but they will become a stumbling block for Muslims in the Third World if it is a condition for them to follow Isa.
Let us therefore shed all the unnecessary traditions which often accompany the preaching of the gospel on the mission field and which render it ineffective. Let us simply preach Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father who is the One True God who created the heavens and the earth. Let us provide undeniable evidence of this by healing the sick and casting out demons with supernatural power and authority as Jesus commanded. Many otherwise resistant peoples will choose to become followers of Jesus Christ, and then go on tell others about him. We do not mention or compare religions or encourage changing religions. We simply share about the One True God who created the heavens and the earth who loves them through the one whom He sent. And we provide compelling evidence for this—miraculous works in His name.
In India, although nearly everyone has heard of Christianity as a rival religion to Hinduism, many have never heard of Jesus Christ per se. Preaching Jesus Christ alone instead of mentioning Christianity removes a significant obstacle to Hindus accepting Jesus Christ.
The matter of water baptism
Muslims understand that when someone is baptized in water, they have in fact converted to Christianity. How do we deal with this obstacle?
Instead of the term “baptism” we substitute the term “circumcision,” which Muslims accept since Ishmael was circumcised. Baptism of course is the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament circumcision; the two terms carry the same essential meaning. Therefore we can tell a Muslim who wants to follow Isa that he is going to be “circumcised in water” for the forgiveness of his sins. It will have the same meaning and effect as water baptism. We simply interchange the two terms, avoid the stigma of the term “baptism.”
We understand if some servants of God have a problem with interchanging these two terms. If so, let us simply agree to disagree on this one matter. Keep in mind that it is simply a matter of the specific terms being used—terms which carry the same exact meaning. For example, the term “immersion” is not found in the New Testament Scriptures, yet no one has a problem when it is used synonymously with baptism. The apostle Paul mentions circumcision by the Spirit in the context of the New Testament as being equivalent to baptism. He explains it as something not performed by human hands, but by Jesus Christ through His Spirit. And that is what takes place at water baptism.
Colossians 2:11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Philippians 3:3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—
Romans 6:4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—
When sharing the gospel with Muslim, therefore, words and terminology are important. Certain words which we as disciples understand and accept will be a stumbling block to them. In the beginning therefore when sharing the gospel with Muslims, we avoid the use of certain terms like:
- Son of God (at least at the outset in the beginning)
Later as they are taught and discipled, they will come to understand the true meaning of these terms.
1 Corinthians 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.