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Christian, Christians, and Christianity: Defining the Terms

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Christian, Christians, and Christianity: Defining the Terms

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

What do the terms Christian, Christians, and Christianity mean? The question is sometimes the focus of contention. In this article, we will offer some information on the origin of these terms, and we will explain how we use them.

Origin of the Term Christian

The term Christian originated almost as soon as the movement expanded outside of Israel’s traditional land into the predominantly Gentile world. Luke tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26 NASB), the city in Syria where Paul and Barnabas ministered in the early 40s (roughly a decade after Christ’s resurrection) before engaging in their missionary journeys. The term Christianoi, “Christians,” was formed by adding -ianoi, used in such terms as Ērōdianoi (Herodians) and Kaisarianoi (Caesareans), to the name Christos (“Christ”). The name “Christians,” almost certainly a nickname with which nonbelievers referred to the disciples, labeled them as people who supported Christ, just as Herodians were the movement that supported Herod and the Caesareans were the movement that supported Caesar.1

It would be a mistake to try to limit the modern use of the word Christian and related terms to the earliest usage in the New Testament. The word occurs only twice more in the New Testament, once in a disparaging comment by the unbelieving ruler Agrippa (Acts 26:28) and once in Peter’s exhortation not to be ashamed when suffering “as a Christian” (1 Peter 4:16). Thus, all three occurrences of the word in the New Testament reflect its origin as a term of disparagement used by outsiders. To limit the usage of the word Christian to functioning as a nickname used by outsiders obviously is both unnecessary and impractical. Of course, we do not want to use this word in a way that would contradict the teaching of the New Testament.

The reference in 1 Peter represents a kind of transition when believers in Christ began embracing the name as a way of glorifying God in defiance of societal rejection. This positive use of the term is first seen clearly in Clement’s epistle, written about 95 (approximately the same time as the traditional date of the Gospel and Epistles of John). Clement could speak of his readers “Christian piety” (1 Clement 1.2; see also 48.4).

Not All Forms of Christianity Are Acceptable

Although the Bible does not use the term Christianity or discuss who should or should not be called Christians, it does lay down relevant principles. Scripture makes it clear that people who profess to believe in or to follow Jesus Christ are expected to accept and live by certain standards of faith and practice.

The New Testament clearly teaches that genuine believers in Christ will seek to adhere to basic moral standards (e.g., Rom. 13:9-10; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21). The point here is not that Christians must be sinless or perfect (which would mean no real Christians at all) but that their lives in general should demonstrate a commitment to growing in obedience to biblical standards of conduct (see Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Peter 2:2).

The New Testament also warns about false doctrines, “destructive heresies” taught by “false prophets” or “false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1; see also Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 2 Cor. 11:13; 1 John 4:1). Believers cannot have spiritual fellowship those who profess the faith but teach false doctrines (e.g., Rom. 16:17; 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3). Again, the point is not that Christians must be perfect in their doctrinal understanding, which would also mean no real Christians at all. Rather, as “disciples” (literally, students), Christians should be moving in the right direction, growing in their knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Any religious group that forms around the teachings of false teachers, prophets, or apostles must be considered to have separated themselves from the faithful community (1 John 2:19).

These New Testament principles regarding doctrine and practice constitute the basis on which Christians from the early second century have differentiated between genuine Christianity and false or heretical forms of Christianity.

Ignatius, Christians, and Christianity

Ignatius of Antioch was a Christian overseer (or “bishop”) in the early second century who wrote seven epistles while he was being taken to Rome for execution. He is thus the earliest martyr for the Christian faith after the New Testament era of which we have any knowledge. Ignatius refers to “the Christians of Ephesus who have always been in agreement with the apostles, by the power of Jesus Christ” (Ignatius, Ephesians 11.2).2 Ignatius is the earliest church writer to make the point that not everyone who is called a Christian really is one. “It is right, therefore, that we not just be called Christians, but that we actually be Christians” (Magnesians 4; see also Romans 3.2). As Christ’s disciples, Ignatius urges, “let us learn to live in accordance with Christianity” (Magnesians 10.1). In particular, Ignatius drew a sharp contrast between “Christianity” and “Judaism” (10.3). These statements by Ignatius are the earliest known occurrences of the word Christianismos, “Christianity.”

In another epistle, Ignatius urged church members to “partake only of Christian food, and keep away from every strange plant, which is heresy. These people, while pretending to be trustworthy, mix Jesus Christ with poison” (Trallians 6.1-2). Ignatius’s comment here draws a clear distinction between Christian teaching (what “Christian food” means here) and “heresy,” that is, false doctrine that mixes elements of Christianity with serious error. Ignatius’s concerns that Christians behave and believe in a manner worthy of the name recall the exhortation in 1 Peter 4:16.

Christianity’s Historical Development as a Religion

Of course, Christianity has not been static since the early second century. As the religion grew and expanded throughout the Mediterranean region and even beyond, various movements arose offering novel interpretations of Christian doctrine. Christian leaders in the tradition of Clement and Ignatius found it necessary throughout the next three centuries to engage these challenging views and to develop expressions of the church’s beliefs that clearly distinguished those beliefs from erroneous doctrines. These efforts led large groups of Christian leaders in the fourth and fifth centuries to issue formal statements called creeds on the debated issues. The most important of these creeds are the Nicene Creed (325, revised 381), which articulated the deity of Christ against the view that Christ was a created being, and the Definition of Chalcedon (451), which set forth the Christian belief that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. The structure, ideas, and most of the actual wording of these creeds came from the New Testament, which preserves early “creedal” or confessional statements embedded in Paul’s epistles (see especially 1 Cor. 8:6; 15:3-5; Eph. 4:4-6).3

Christianity has suffered significant divisions in the past thousand years, resulting in three main streams or branches of the Christian religion: the (Eastern) Orthodox Church, the (Roman) Catholic Church, and the Protestant denominations. However, historically all three of these branches of Christianity have affirmed the theology of the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. Consequently, a standard definition of Christianity is that it is the religion founded by and centered on Christ and that includes these three main branches of churches.

For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Christianity as “the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies.”4 The definition is essentially the same: “the Christian religion, including the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.”5

Admittedly, there are religious groups outside of this historic community of Christianity that call themselves Christians. In a very broad sense, any religious group that self-identifies as Christian might be considered part of the world religion known as Christianity. However, such a broad definition would include a plethora of religious groups whose beliefs and practices differ radically from one another. In addition to the traditional denominations, “Christianity” in this broad, world-religion classification sense includes British-Israelite groups, Christian Science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of the LDS “splinter” groups, the Family, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Metropolitan Community Churches, New Thought, Oneness Pentecostalism, Rosicrucianism, the Sacred Name movement, Swedenborgianism, the Unification Church, The Way International, and many, many others.6 To describe all of these disparate religious groups as part of “Christianity” would be in no sense an endorsement or affirmation of the validity of their claims. In this world religions context, one cannot make any statement of the type “Christianity teaches…” because there are no teachings or doctrines accepted by all of these groups.

The more customary and preferred use of the term Christianity refers to the religious community that is rooted in its beliefs and values in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles and their associates in the New Testament as understood historically by all of the major branches of Christ-confessing religion. It is in this sense that one might state, for example, that Christianity affirms the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That assertion is a perfectly reasonable and defensible statement, even though the resurrection of Jesus is denied by many of the religions mentioned earlier. Religions that deny the resurrection of Jesus are not legitimate forms of Christianity, even though they profess to be Christian. The same principle applies to any religion that denies other basic teachings of the New Testament, such as Christ’s sinless life, his atoning death on the cross for our sins, and his divine nature and status.

Christian as an Adjective and as a Noun

The term Christian is sometimes used as an adjective to describe a religious group, organization, doctrine, or practice. For example, someone might say that the Southern Baptist Convention is a Christian denomination, that the Resurrection is a Christian doctrine, or that Communion is a Christian rite. We recognize that some people use the adjective Christian broadly for any group, belief, or practice that purports to be done in the name of Christ. We also recognize that people in every group that considers itself Christian will use the term accordingly. Everyone is free to use language in whatever way suits them. By that token, though, we are free to use the adjective Christian more narrowly and descriptively. For the sake of clarity, then, we use the adjective Christian to describe groups, doctrines, or practices that are properly associated with legitimate, genuine forms of Christianity. Used this way, the belief that Jesus ascended into the spiritual realm of God called “heaven” is a Christian doctrine, whereas (to give an extreme example) the belief that Jesus traveled in a spaceship to another planet in outer space is not a Christian doctrine. Baptism is a Christian practice; the mass marriage “blessing” ceremony of the Unification Church (founded by Sun Myung Moon) is not a Christian practice. The Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination) is a Christian church; The Family International (a sexually deviant group) is not a Christian church.

Similarly, we do not use the noun Christians in reference to adherents to a religion or teaching that is not a legitimate or authentic form of Christianity. For example, despite their common name, we don’t refer to Christian Scientists (members of the Church of Christ, Scientist) as “Christians.” Historically, this religion denies that Jesus actually died (since they don’t think death is real!) and thus also denies that Jesus rose from the dead. Refusing to call Christian Scientists as a group “Christians” does not express a judgment about each individual member of the religion. No doubt there are members who disagree with the teachings of their religion on the subject but who remain in it for whatever personal reason. These individuals might be Christians despite their religious affiliation.

Generally, we refer to members of Christian churches as “Christians.” However, our doing so does not imply that we consider each individual member of such churches to be “Christians” in the popular, narrowest sense of being individuals who have a personal, authentic, saving relationship with Christ. That usage is well known and acceptable when used in a clear fashion, but we must remember that not everyone who is a member of a Christian church has such a saving relationship with Christ. Just as we acknowledge that there may be members of false churches who are “Christians” in this narrow sense despite their religious affiliation, we also acknowledge that there are (definitely!) members of sound Christian churches who are personally devoid of a genuine faith in Christ.

We also acknowledge that we are not in a position to know with certainty the genuineness of the faith of most of the people we meet. We may be reasonably confident or fairly certain about the faith of those we know well, but for many people we just do not have any way to be even that sure.

In short, we use the terms Christian, Christians, and Christianity refer to church groups and their members who affirm the traditional beliefs about God and Jesus Christ that the church in its early centuries recognized as the teachings of the New Testament. Historically, these beliefs were worked out in formal doctrinal expressions during the three centuries following the New Testament era, but again, these doctrines were clearly based on biblical teaching. The doctrines include one Creator God, the deity and humanity of Christ, the virgin birth, sinless life, redemptive death, bodily resurrection, and future second coming of Christ, and the divine person of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Protestant denominations all historically share these beliefs. Religious bodies that view themselves as “Christian” but are not Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, and that do not share these common beliefs, are not Christian in our sense of the term.

We do not expect people of other religions that profess to be Christians to agree with our terminology. Hopefully, though, the explanation given here will make it clear to all that we do not use the terms in this way out of any prejudice or animus toward members of other religions.


1. See Stephen J. Strauss, “The Significance of Acts 11:26 for the Church at Antioch and Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (2011): 283–300; Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 2: 3:1–14:28 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 1847–50.

2. Quotations from Ignatius are taken from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999). There are three versions or “recensions” of varying length of the epistles of Ignatius. Holmes presents what is called the middle recension, which scholars generally recognize as authentic.

3. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Why Do You Believe the Creeds Instead of the Bible?” FAQ about the Trinity #4 (IRR, 2014).

4. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online), s.v. “Christianity.”

5., s.v., “Christianity.”

6. For information on these and other such religions, see H. Wayne House, gen. ed., The Evangelical Dictionary of World Religions, consulting eds. Robert M. Bowman Jr. and Irving Hexham (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018).