Is it “Pauline” to call ourselves “Christians?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

“Why do so many saints who trust in the Gospel of Christ refer to themselves as ‘Christians?’ In my research, I have never read the Apostle Paul ever refer to a member of the Body of Christ by that title. So, therefore, is it sound by Scripture for us to continue to call ourselves by this Gospel of the Kingdom term?”

Thank you, friend, for that question. I have often wondered about that matter myself, so you encouraged me to formally do a study on it. True, Paul never uses the term “Christian” in his epistles. However, on two occasions in the Bible, the title is used in connection with his ministry. The term appears three times overall in the King James Bible, so we will first briefly survey these passages. Then, we will summarize our findings and form a Scriptural conclusion.

Let us look at the first instance. We read in Acts 11:25-26: “[25] Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: [26] And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” The first time in history the disciples were ever called “Christians” was right here, in Antioch, and take note that it is in connection with the Apostle Paul’s ministry (at this time, he is still called “Saul”). The hermeneutic (interpretation) rule of “first mention” dictates that the first time any term appears in the Bible, its context carries much weight when the term appears throughout the rest of the Bible. We will comment more on that later. Just remember for now this verse is the “first-mention” verse.

Now to the second time “Christian” is used in the canon of Scripture. When Paul stood before King Agrippa in Acts chapter 26, the Apostle gave his testimony to this Gentile king. Reading in verses 27 and 28: “[27] King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. [28] Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuades me to be a Christian.” Agrippa, very convicted by the Word of God, brushed off Paul’s words with, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” In other words, “Paul, you expect me to become a Christian based on your wild, incredible stories? No way!” (You can sense the scorn, the mockery, in Agrippa’s words.) While Luke does not record everything that Paul said in the book of Acts, I wonder if Paul did not use that term Christian in his testimony previously. Two quick observations. Firstly, Agrippa was aware of the term (from where did he learn it?). Secondly, an interestingly enough, Paul did not discourage him from using it (did Paul approve of its usage among Gentiles, those apart from Israel’s Gospel of the Kingdom?, evidently so).

The last occurrence of the term “Christian” in the King James Bible is in 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” As you pointed out, this would indeed be a reference to the Jerusalem/Kingdom saints of Israel, the Little Flock. A little side-note: the “suffering” here is what Israel’s Little Flock will experience during the seven-year Tribulation, when the Antichrist slaughters those who do not worship him. Those Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah will automatically risk (ultimately forfeit) their lives for refusing the false Messiah.

Returning to your question, “Is it sound by Scripture for us to continue to call ourselves by this Gospel of the Kingdom term?” Well, here is how the Bible uses the term “Christian:”

  1. The term “Christian” was originally used to refer to Paul’s Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria (Acts 11:26). King Agrippa was aware of it being used to refer to the people associated with Paul’s ministry (Acts 26:28).
  1. Sometime after it was first used in Acts 11:26, the name “Christian” was used to apply to Israel’s Little Flock as well (1 Peter 4:16). In other words, the title did not originally relate to the Gospel of the Kingdom or Israel’s believers, so it is not Scripturally-accurate to classify “Christian” as a “Gospel of the Kingdom term.” It is used in Scripture to once apply to Jewish kingdom saints, but its original usage involved Paul’s ministry, and it is used twice in connection with Paul’s ministry.

Interestingly, Paul, as you pointed out, never used the term “Christian” in his actual writings. We can search his epistles to learn that his “favorite” term to refer to believers, including those in Body of Christ, was “saints” (which term, incidentally, originally referred to Jewish believers, Old Testament believers [see the book of Psalms, for example], those who were saved before the Church the Body of Christ began). Try Romans 1:7, Romans 8:27, Romans 12:13, Romans 15:25-26 (little flock), Romans 16:2, Romans 16:15, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Corinthians 6:1-2, et cetera. Paul used the term “saints” some 40 times in Romans through Philemon, mostly to describe his converts but sometimes to refer to Israel’s Little Flock.

“Christian” is a general term that simply means “Christ-like” or “follower of Christ.” First it was used as one of scorn—an insult that unbelievers hurled at people who behaved like Jesus Christ. If you think about it, that would apply to both Israel’s Little Flock and the Church the Body of Christ. Whether in Israel’s program or in our program, the Little Flock or the Church the Body of Christ, God’s purpose is to manifest His life in and through both sets of believers. Perhaps that is why the word is used in both programs: God’s Word working in both programs produces people who behave like Jesus Christ.

Based on the term “Christian” associated twice with Paul’s ministry in the Bible, I do not think it wrong to call ourselves “Christians” any more than it is wrong for us to call ourselves “Saints.” As long as we do not call ourselves something used exclusively for describing Israel (“Little Flock,” “Israel of God,” “Kingdom of Priests,” “Holy Nation,” and so on), we are safe in our theology.

Also see:
» Is the Church the Body of Christ spoken of in Matthew 16:18?
» Can you compare and contrast Peter’s ministry and Paul’s ministry?
» Did Paul quote verses out of context in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1?