Some American Christians want to disown the name “Christian.” They think it has become politically tainted and want to replace it with “Jesus-follower” or some other phrase. I’ll stick with “Christian.”
In the first centuries of the church’s existence, Rome treated those who claimed the name “Christian” as enemies of the state. Tertullian’s Apology makes it very clear: the word “Christian” itself was the basis of the accusation. Believers were torn apart by animals and put to the sword rather than surrender the name. That alone would make me slow to give it up.
The word “Christian” captures the totality of my life in Christ better than “Jesus-follower.” I follow Jesus, but I also worship him, believe his word, give thanks for his victory over sin and death, live in sacramental union with him and look for his return. “Jesus-follower” highlights only one aspect of a Christian’s life.
And when I say that I follow Jesus, I don’t just mean that I follow his teachings and imitate his life. I mean that I offer him my personal allegiance no matter the cost. I put all my time and resources at his disposal and I do my best to stay in his presence. In our culture, most people are going to hear “follow”only in the ethical sense.
Indeed, I am obligated to follow Jesus’ teachings. Like everyone else who claims to follow Christ, I have to interpret and apply those teachings in my own circumstances. Some of Jesus’ instructions applied primarily within the context of his earthly ministry. Very few Christians of any stripe follow his instructions exactly as he gave them. Those who do aren’t on the internet. Not all Christians agree on what following Jesus’ teachings mean today, and I often fail to live up to my own expectations in that regard.
Jesus didn’t just give us instructions; he gave us promises and assertions of truth. As a Christian, I not only do what Jesus commanded, I believe what he said.
In telling us about the life of Jesus, the gospels are not just giving divine rules to follow, they are telling us what Jesus accomplished on our behalf. Even if I am only looking at Jesus’ mortal life, the gospels call me to thank Jesus even more than they call me to imitate him. The law is what I should do. The gospel is what God has done to deliver me from sin, death and the devil. My first response to the gospel is thankfulness.
And of course the gospel does not stop with Jesus’ death, or even his resurrection. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Neither did the story begin with his conception and birth. He was with God the Father from the beginning. All things were made through him. With God the Father, he is worthy of worship and praise. At his name every knee bows in heaven and on earth. The Lamb who was slain now reigns in majesty, and he is at the center of our worship.
To Jesus, now risen and exalted, I am united in baptism and holy communion. I participate in his divine life through the means of grace. A mystical union now exists between Christ and his church.
And the Jesus who won my salvation on earth and who is now exalted to the right hand of the Father will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I look for his return.
I don’t think “Jesus-follower” captures all of that. The word “Christian” has a history that does.
In the gospels, Christians are disciples (“students”) who literally follow Jesus from place to place. Outside of the gospels – after the resurrection – the New Testament authors rarely refer to Christians as disciples. Christians are saints (“holy ones”), brethren (“brothers and sisters”), and believers (“faithful ones”). They are Christ’s witnesses. They are his servants. They are God’s chosen people, a priesthood, and God’s temple. They are Christ’s body. They are Christ’s bride. They are the first fruits of a new creation. They are people of the way (“road”) – people who follow the way of Jesus or, equally, people who are on the way to final salvation at his return. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares that he is the way, his person, not just his teaching.
The New Testament describes Christians using many different images. No one word or phrase captures it all any better than the word “Christian.”