What Is the Meaning of The Term Christian?

Christian, as an adjective, means "relating to or professing Christianity." As a noun, it means "a person who follows the teachings of Christ." The word comes from the Greek Christus, meaning "Christ" or "Messiah", and anum, meaning "of" or "pertaining to."

In Acts 11:26 we read, "in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." In the first century, because Jesus was Jewish and most of His followers were Jewish, Christianity was first seen as a new sect of Judaism. So the term Christian could be better understood as "those of the Messianic party" in this early context. The Greeks gave these types of names to those who sided together behind political leaders. For example, they termed those who were loyal to General Pompey as "Pompeians" and those who excessively praised Nero Augustus as "Augustinians." So "Christian" was the term for those who believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah or Christ.

It is important to note, however, that early Christians did not use this name for themselves. In the Bible, they call themselves disciples (Acts 6:1), brothers (Acts 28:14), saints (Acts 9:13), the elect (2 Timothy 2:10), and the church (Acts 5:11). Generally, the Romans did not grant religious freedom to the peoples they conquered. Instead, Rome simply added new gods to their pantheon and required conquered peoples to worship their gods along with all the others in Roman temples. However, Jews were given special permission to continue their monotheistic religious practices. So it was advantageous for early Christians to identify as a new Jewish sect. Conversely, as the Jews began to rebel against Roman rule and the Romans became increasingly hostile toward the Jews, followers of Jesus saw the need to differentiate themselves from the Jewish faith. By the time Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, followers of Jesus were using the term Christian for themselves. Despite this distinction, Christians still suffered considerable persecution periodically until the rule of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

Since that time, the term Christian has meant different things to different people. It has been used to mean simply a person who believes in God but is neither Jewish nor Muslim, rather than a person who trusts Jesus as their Lord and Savior. It has been used as an adjective to simply mean "kind" or "good" as in "that's mighty Christian of you." Others only use the term for a person who had received baptism into their particular denomination. Today, most people use the term to refer to a thing or person who aligns with the teachings of the New Testament, including the teaching of the necessity of relying on Jesus' work on the cross for the forgiveness of one's sins and submitting one's life to walking humbly with the Lord.