I Don’t Call Myself a “Christian”

Forty years at Western Seminary (1977-2018)

You are probably surprised to read these words, “I don’t call myself a Christian.” How can someone who is an ordained minister, taught the Bible for forty years, pastored churches, written Bible commentaries and “Christian” books say, “I don’t call myself a Christian.”

I am not trying to be sensational or gain a bit of notoriety. Yet I have come to believe the word “Christian” is not the best term to identify me or describe my spiritual commitment. The word “Christian” is based on the Greek word, Christos, which is means “anointed one” and refers to Israel’s promised messiah (meshiach). When Jesus’ disciples were asked who they thought he was, Peter answered correctly saying, “You are the Christos (messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Peter was simply affirming his belief that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah.

The first time the word “Christian” appears in the Bible was when it was used by the pagan gentiles of Antioch (Acts 11:26).  In their attempt to identify the congregation that had gathered to hear the teaching of Saul (Paul) and Barnabas, the people of Antioch called them Christianos (Acts 11:26). The root meaning and cultural background leads me to translate Christianos as “Messianics.” Since the strange community of people who had gathered in their city believed that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, they were identified by the citizens of Antioch as “Messianics.”

It is helpful to point out that none of Jesus apostles ever called themselves “Christians.” Nor did Paul ever identify himself as a “Christian.” Paul was born a Jew and died as a Jew. He testified to his Jewishness even after he became a follower of Jesus (Phil. 3:4-6). After hearing Paul’s testimony about his personal spiritual journey, King Agrippa said, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). In replying, Paul didn’t use the term Christian, but simply said, “I would wish to God, that…all who hear me this day, might became as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28). Although Paul wanted Agrippa to believe in Jesus, he didn’t invite King Agrippa to become a “Christian.”

The apostle Peter used the term Christianos to describe followers of Jesus who were undergoing persecution. He wrote, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify” (1 Pet. 4:16). Peter used the term “Christian” in the same way as those who were persecuting the believers. He was saying to the persecuted, “Glorify Jesus when you are persecuted as a “messianic.”

The greatest concern I have with the term “Christian” is that it is too broad and widely used to be helpful in self-identifying as a follower of Jesus. People sometimes claim to be “Christians” because they were born into a Christian family. Many religious minded people call themselves “Christians” even though they don’t believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God and Savior of fallen humanity. They call themselves “Christians,” because they are not Jewish, Moslem or Buddhist. The heretics who darkened the church over the centuries called themselves “Christians.” The Crusaders who led a murderous spree across Europe to “liberate” Jerusalem from the Moslems and Jews regarded themselves as “Christians.” The Spaniards who carried out the Inquisition were “Christians.” Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers identified themselves as Christians, as have members of the Klu Klux Klan.

“Christian” Klu Klux Klan members gather at their church

Years ago I was reading my Bible and praying at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem when I was greeted by Jewish man who asked, “Are you Jewish.” I responded, “No, I am a Christian.” He turned and walked away. I wonder how he might have responded had I replied, “I am messianic.” Perhaps he would have inquired further. Perhaps we might have had a conversation. But by calling myself a “Christian,” I had conjured up two millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment and history of persecution by so-called “Christians.”

In a day when self-identifying has become so acceptable in our increasingly diverse American culture, I wonder if there is a better way for believers to speak of our relationship with Jesus. When the Lord called His first disciples, He simply said, “Follow me” (Mk. 1:17, Matt. 4:19). And immediately the fishermen left their nets and “followed Him” (Mk. 1:18, Matt. 4:20). Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me,” is found repeatedly (ten times) in the Gospels! The word “followed” is commonly used in the Gospels to refer to the crowds who attached themselves to Jesus as His disciples. They became followers of Jesus.

I suggest that “Jesus follower” is a more meaningful way to self-identify than using the traditional, but rather empty term, “Christian.” What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? First, a follower of Jesus must believe and trust that what the Bible says about Him is true (Jn. 20:30-30). A follower of Jesus believes that He is the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Intellectual ascent to these facts is not enough. These essential truths must be personally embraced and individually relied upon. Second, a follower of Jesus must count the cost of discipleship (Lk. 9:59-61). Jesus wants followers who are moved not merely by their emotions or family background, but have thoughtfully considered the commitment they are making. Third, a follower of Jesus must be willing to sacrifice (Matt. 16:24). To follow Jesus will require the sacrifice of pleasures, habits, aims and ambitions that we have woven into our lives. This act of turning from ourselves and turning to Jesus is called “repentance.” It is an act of surrendering the leadership of our lives to Jesus. Self-surrender is never easy. It is an act of sacrifice.

Jesus was not a “Christian.” He was the Jewish Messiah of Israel. The apostles were not a “Christians.” They were first century followers of Israel’s promised Messiah. Paul was not a Christian. He was Jewish man whose life changing encounter on the road to Damascus led him to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). So, I don’t call myself a “Christian.” I identify as a follower of Jesus. And I invite you to be His follower too.