First in Antioch

By J. L. Leifeste

“…And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” – Acts 11:26  

Members of the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ, were first called “Christians” in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch. Antioch was a very dynamic, important city of trade. It was also famous for its diversity in moral attitudes as well as its interest in the different arts. Yet, the church became very strong in Antioch and sent out evangelists who brought many souls to Christ, especially among the “Gentiles” or non-Jews (Acts 11:21-24; 13:1-3; 15:3-4). Paul started his three missionary journeys from Antioch (Acts 13:1-3; 15:36-41; 18:23).

“Christian” was the only name worn by members of the church in the first century. To the early church, the name “Christian” held no shame. But today we find many different names used by many groups who believe and teach different ideas. Most of these also call themselves Christians — along with their other religious names. But “Christian” remains the only name in the Bible which was given to the followers of Christ.

Why be limited in name?

What is wrong with a follower of Christ calling himself or herself by another name in addition to “Christian”?

Jesus Christ prayed for unity among His followers (John 17:20-23). Having different beliefs and referring to each other by different names opposes unity. It contradicts the prayer of Christ. It may also cause some people to think that God creates or condones confusion, which He does not do (1 Cor. 14:33).

Isaiah foretold that God would give a new name to His people (Isa. 62:2; 65:15). Giving the name “Christian” in Acts 11 was possibly the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. Perhaps there was also importance in the timing when this name was given to the followers of Jesus Christ. For the first time, disciples who had been Jews, and others who had been Gentiles, were together in the church (Acts 11:19-26; 15:3-4, 7-18). This name served as a common name for all of them, declaring in whom they believed and whom they obeyed. It is a constant reminder to Christians then and today that Christ is our Lord and King (Matt. 28:18-20; 7:21-27; Mk. 16:15-16; Lk. 6:46-49; Jn. 14:21, 23; 1 Jn. 2:5, 17).

Christ built His church (Matt. 16:18). The names of other men, or names which indicate their doctrines or creeds, should not be applied to His church or its members. Denominational “names” suggest that the church was built on the beliefs of someone other than Christ. Should a Christian wear a name which suggests that men built the Lord’s church?

The church of Christ is the kingdom of Christ (Jn. 18:36; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13; Heb. 1:8). If you are a member of His kingdom, why call yourself by another name indicating varied beliefs, as if you also belong to another spiritual kingdom?

His church is also His bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:23-27). In this symbolic, spiritual marriage to Christ, calling oneself by any name other than “Christian” is like a bride calling herself by the name of a man who is not her husband. Why would the bride of Christ want to wear a name of some other man, or a name chosen by some other man?

Christ is the head of the church, and we should be called only by His name (Eph. 1:22-23). “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence(Col. 1:18; see Matt. 28:18; 1 Tim. 6:15; 1 Pet. 3:22). Calling ourselves by other names would suggest that doctrines of men guide the church. Why would a Christian wear any name which suggests that men’s doctrines guide the church?

Obvious examples

In Acts 18:24-28, we find a man in Ephesus named Apollos who knew only the baptism of John the Baptist. Two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, taught him more accurately about the way of God. Apollos then taught others about Christ rather than about John. Christians should teach only the gospel of the Bible without additions or subtractions (Gal. 1:8-10). Also, in Acts 19:1-5, Paul found disciples in Ephesus who had not heard the complete message of Christ. Like Priscilla and Aquila, Paul taught them more accurately concerning God’s will, “...and they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

Members of the early church recognized that the name “Christian” referred to them. They learned that it was an honor to suffer persecution as a “Christian” (1 Pet. 4:16). They were taught that “Christian” is a noble, worthy name (James 2:7). They were told that the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon those who are reproached for the name of Christ (1 Pet. 4:14). Therefore, Christians should glorify God only in this name without adding man-made titles.

There is an important lesson to learn in 1 Cor. 1:10-31. Christians at Corinth were condemned for following men. They were carnally minded (“fleshly” or worldly minded), even when they called themselves after the names of faithful men who had helped in their Christian conversion (1 Cor. 3:3-4). Being carnally minded is a sin (Rom. 8:5-14). So, Christians should not wear the names of men or their beliefs.

In Acts 25:13 through 26:29, we read about Paul’s conversion and the name “Christian.” Paul was a prisoner in the city of Caesarea. Festus, the Roman procurator, or governor, of Judea planned to question Paul about serious charges that had been brought against him by some Jews. Paul, facing the Roman judgment seat, spoke in his own defense. Also before Paul were Herod Agrippa II (the tetrarch of Calchis), Herod’s sister Bernice, and others.

Paul admitted that his pre-Christian actions had included persecution of those who followed Christ. Paul had thought that he should do many things contrary to the “name” of Jesus of Nazareth (26:9). Then Paul related how Jesus Christ had revealed Himself to Paul, and he had obeyed the Lord. Elsewhere, we learn more about that obedience. Ananias had told him, “...Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). He was then baptized (Acts 9:18).

After hearing Paul, King Agrippa told him, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Paul answered that he (Paul) desired that all who were listening would be like him — a Christian — but not bound with chains as he was. Clearly the name “Christian” did not offend Paul. It should also be the only name accepted by anyone who follows Jesus Christ today. To wear other names detracts from the name of Jesus Christ.

Are Christians described by other terms?

“Christian” is the only name given to the followers of Christ. But the New Testament also uses other terms to refer to Christians, such as disciples (Acts 6:1-2; 9:25-27), saints (Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Rom. 1:7; 8:27), children of God (Rom. 8:16-17; 9:26; 1 Jn. 3:10), members of the Lord’s body, which is His church (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 2:19), and brethren in His family, the church (Acts 9:30; Heb. 2:11). However, we need to remember that there is salvation in no other name except the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:8-12).

When we have obeyed the gospel and have become followers of Jesus Christ, we should not allow ourselves to be known by any man-made, denominational name. “Christian” remains the only spiritual name by which we should identify ourselves.