Should we call ourselves Christians or be called so? You may think one answer is quite obvious. But there are some good reasons to think about it.
To explain one of the reasons, now is probably the right time to explain that I now feel like a Muslim.
With many readers I can imagine now everything from astonishment to horror. But I only wanted to say that I feel like such a person: “Submission to the will of God” (see Wikipedia article). However, when people in Christianized Western countries hear that someone is a Muslium, they automatically associate a number of things with it. A term is quickly associated with a kind of ‘pigeonhole’.
We must therefore not forget that billions of people think of religion when they hear the words Christian or Christian and then think of crusades against Muslims, the Inquisition, religious wars in Europe, colonialism, the outbreak of two world wars and the Trinity. The term ‘Christian’ buys the whole package, so to speak.
Another extreme would be to feel bad just because of the name ‘Christian’: After all, who among us has been on one of the Crusades? And most of us might not even have been born at the time of the world wars. And not everyone believes in a church definition of the Trinity.
I think one thing has become clear, though: If you call yourself a Christian, it would be good to know what that means and what the origin of the designation ‘Christian’ is. What is the historical and, above all, biblical basis for this designation? As we will see, this is even more true of the term ‘anointed’.
The first clue
The first time the term ‘Christians’ appears is in Acts 11:26.
„and when he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. So for a full year they met together with the church and taught large numbers of people. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.“(Acts 11:26 NIV)
This seems to answer the question. But at least one could ask who had called the disciples ‘Christians’. Because according to this translation the formulation is in the passive voice: Not they gave themselves the name, but others called them so. And what did they want to express with this name? What does ‘Christians’ mean in the original text?
However, this text becomes even more exciting when someone reads the translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses:
„and, after he found him, he brought him to Antioch. It thus came about that for a whole year they gathered together with them in the congregation and taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called* Christians.*“
„After he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year they assembled with them in the congregation and taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.“(NWT 1984, NWT 2013)
The reference to ‘divine providence‘ does not appear in most of the 40 or so translations I have checked, except: The New World Translation, the 2001 Translation, and Young’s Literal Translation, Berean Literal Bible. Is there a reason for Jehovah’s Witnesses to speak of divine providence here? There is a rationale because of the Greek word used. We will come to that. In fact, however, this wording was also chosen and used as a justification that Jehovah in the 20th century also by ‘divine providence’ then chose the name Jehovah’s Witnesses for ‘his people’. For more on this, see the forum article “Acts 11:26 Called Christians by ‘Divine Providence‘? (in German)”.
But in the spirit of exegesis or the Lutheran sola scriptura (“through Scripture alone”), let the Bible speak for itself.
The meaning of the word ‘called’ χρηματίσαι (chrēmatisai)
Strong’s lexicon gives this meaning for χρηματίσαι (chrēmatisai):
(originally: I transact business), (a) act. of God: I warn; pass: I am warned by God (probably in response to an inquiry as to one’s duty), (b) (I take a name from my public business, hence) I receive a name, am publicly called.
From chrema; to utter an oracle (compare the original sense of chraomai), i.e. Divinely intimate; by implication, (compare the secular sense of chreia) to constitute a firm for business, i.e. (generally) bear as a title — be called, be admonished (warned) of God, reveal, speak.Strong’s Greek 5537, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon beschreibt diese drei Arten der Verwendung:
1. to transact business, especially to manage public affairs; to advise or consult with one about public affairs; to make answer to those who ask advice, present inquiries or requests,” etc.; used of judges, magistrates, rulers, kings. Hence, in some later Greek writings
2. to give a response to those consulting an oracle (Diodorus 3, 6; 15, 10; Plutarch, mor., p. 435 c. (i. e. de defect. oracc. 46); several times in Lucian); hence, used of God in Josephus, Antiquities 5, 1, 14; 10, 1, 3; 11, 8, 4; universally, (dropping all reference to a previous consultation), to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven ((Jeremiah 32:16 ())): with a dative of the person Job 40:3; passive followed by an infinitive (A. V. revealed etc.), Luke 2:26 (χρηματίζειν λόγους πρός τινα, Jeremiah 37:2 ()); passive, to be divinely commanded, admonished, instructed (R. V. warned of God), Matthew 2:12, 22; Acts 10:22; Hebrews 8:5; Hebrews 11:7 (this passive use is hardly found elsewhere except in Josephus, Antiquities 3, 8, 8; (11, 8, 4); cf. Buttmann, § 134, 4; (Winers Grammar, § 39, 1 a.)); to be the mouthpiece of divine revelations, to promulge the commands of God, (τίνι, Jeremiah 33:2 (); Jeremiah 36:23 (): of Moses, Hebrews 12:25 (R. V. warned).
3. to assume or take to oneself a name from one’s public business (Polybius, Diodorus, Plutarch, others); universally, to receive a name or title, be called: Acts 11:26; Romans 7:3 (Josephus, Antiquities (8, 6, 2); 13, 11, 3; b. j. 2, 18, 7; (c. Apion. 2, 3, 1; Philo, quod deus immut. § 25 at the end; leg. ad Gaium § 43); Ἀντίοχον τόν Ἐπιφανῆ χρηματίζοντα, Diodorus in Müller’s fragment vol. ii, p. 17, no. 21:4; Ἰάκωβον τόν χρηματισαντα ἀδελφόν τοῦ κυρίου, Acta Philippi at the beginning, p. 75; Tdf. edition; Ἰακώβου … ὅν καί ἀδελφόν τοῦ Χριστοῦ χρηματίσαι οἱ Θειοι λόγοι περιέχουσιν, Eus. h. e. 7, 19; (cf. Sophocles’ Lexicon, under the word, 2)).Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
Interestingly, then, there are two foci here: A public designation or a response from God.
The use of the word ‘called’ χρηματίσαι (chrēmatisai).
Having looked at the meaning of the word in other literature as well, it is important to look at its use in the Bible itself.
The word used in Acts 11:26, is used 9 times in the Bible. Here is the overview. The translation of χρηματίσαι (chrēmatisai) is given in bold in each case. After that in brackets  the rendering in the Polyglot Interlinear edition.
„And having been warned [having been divinely warned] in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.“ (Matthew 2:12 NIV)
„Having been warned [having been divinely warned] in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee“ (Matthew 2:22 NIV)
„It had been revealed [divinely revealed] to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.“ (Luke 2:26 NIV)
„The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him [was divinely instructed] to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” (Acts 10:22 NIV)
„ So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called [were called] Christians first at Antioch.“ (Acts 11:26 NIV)
„So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called [she will be called] an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.“ (Romans 7:3 NIV)
„They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned [was divinely instructed] when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5 NIV
„By faith Noah, when warned [having been divinely instructed] about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.“ (Hebrews 11:7 NIV)
„See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned [divinely instructing [them]] them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?“ (Hebrews 12:25 NIV)
Of the 8 other uses of the word, Romans 7:3 does not speak of divine providence; in the other 7, divine intervention is found, but always in the direct context. However, this is not the case in Acts 11:26. In addition, it was always about a divine instruction, not a naming. But this translation ‘named’ is used in Romans 7:3, where no divine influence is evident.
Dr. Michael Heiser pointed out in a podcast that in Greek in the sentence “In Antioch the disciples were called Christians for the first time” there is a grammatical peculiarity which makes the translation difficult. Therefore, most translate with the passive voice. Greek experts discuss this, and it could possibly also be translated as, “In Antioch the disciples called themselves Christians for the first time.” What does this show us?
- The translation of the two thousand years old languages the Bible is difficult and sometimes there are uncertainties.
- The disciples of Jesus, who until then were considered a branch of the Jewish religion, became so numerous that they were distinguished from the other Jews.
Since we cannot determine the exact meaning with certainty, we turn to the term ‘Christians’ itself. If God had indeed caused this designation, the name itself would have to have a special meaning.
The meaning of the word ‘Christians’ Χριστιανούς (Christianous)
Let’s start with the explanation in Strong’s lexicon of Χριστιανούς:
Christian. From Christos; a Christian, i.e. Follower of Christ — Christian.Strong’s Greek 5546
And still Thayer’s lexicon:
Χριστιανός (cf. Lightfoot on Philip., p. 16 note), Χριστιανου, ὁ (Χριστός), a Christian, a follower of Christ: Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16. The name was first given to the worshippers of Jesus by the Gentiles, but from the second century (Justin Martyr (e. g. Apology 1, 4, p. 55 a.; dialog contra Trypho, § 35; cf. ‘Teaching etc. 12, 4 [ET])) onward accepted by them as a title of honor. CL Lipsius, Ueber Ursprung u. ältesten Gebrauch des Christennamens. 4to, pp. 20, Jen. 1873. (CL Sophocles’ Lexicon, under the word, 2; Farrar in Alex.’s Kitto, under the word; on the ‘Titles of Believers in the N. T.’ see Westcott, Epistles of St. John, p. 125f; cf. Dict. of Chris. Antiqq., under the word ‘Faithful’.)Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
So, according to the lexicons, the meaning of the designation in Acts 11:26 is a ‘follower of Christ’. And this designation was given to them by the Gentiles.
Can that really be so? That would be something like ‘Nazarenes’!
So once again exegesis – or according to Luther sola scriptura …
The use of the word ‘Christians’ Χριστιανούς (Christianous)
So the meaning of the word for ‘Christians’ doesn’t necessarily sound like a special divine prediction. But if it is a term used by God for Jesus’ followers, then we should find it frequently in the Bible, right? How often does ‘Christians’ Χριστιανούς (Christianous) occur in the Christian writings of the Bible? Don’t read on right away. What would you say? Well, here is the result:
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.(Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; 1 Pe 4:16 NIV)
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?“ [Or „You will soon persuade me to play the Christian.” New American Bible]
However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
These are actually all the passages! Including Acts 11:26, there are only 3 passages in the entire Bible! Do any of the apostles or other authors of the epistles use it to refer to other disciples of Jesus? No. Quite the opposite. In Acts 26:28 Agrippa uses this designation rather derisively. And how is it used in the 1st Epistle of Peter?
If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?(1 Pe 4:15-17 NIV)
In the context of the term ‘Christian’, therefore, judgment is spoken of here. And the suffering as a criminal is contrasted with the suffering as a Christian, or in vers 14 in the name of Christ. In both Acts 26:28 and 1 Pe 4:16, ‘Christian’ is an official designation of Gentiles, perhaps even a designation of a group to be judged.
And just to make it perfectly clear once again:
How many times did Jesus address his followers as ‘Christians’?
How often did Paul address others as ‘Christians’ in his letters?
How often did Peter and others address their spiritual brothers and sisters as ‘Christians’ in their letters?
How often is the term used at all in Christian scriptures?
Only many decades after Jesus’ death the followers of Jesus adopted this name – according to the report of the early ‘church fathers’. In the English Wikipedia one finds still further explanations about it:
Kenneth Samuel Wuest holds that all three original New Testament verses’ usages reflect a derisive element in the term Christian to refer to followers of Christ who did not acknowledge the emperor of Rome. The city of Antioch, where someone gave them the name Christians, had a reputation for coming up with such nicknames. However Peter’s apparent endorsement of the term led to its being preferred over “Nazarenes” and the term Christianoi from 1 Peter becomes the standard term in the Early Church Fathers from Ignatius and Polycarp onwards.
The earliest occurrences of the term in non-Christian literature include Josephus, referring to “the tribe of Christians, so named from him;” Pliny the Younger in correspondence with Trajan; and Tacitus, writing near the end of the 1st century. In the Annals he relates that “by vulgar appellation [they were] commonly called Christians” and identifies Christians as Nero’s scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome.Wikipedia
The German Bible Society website states:
According to Acts 11:26, the name “Christians” (literally “Christianer”) appears in Antioch on the Orontes, where Paul worked for a year on his first missionary journey. The use of this name shows that the followers of Jesus here were no longer considered part of the Jewish community, but a new grouping that included Gentiles.
In the New Testament, the term occurs only three times. In Acts 26:28 it is used by King Agrippa. This indicates that it was not originally a self-designation of the Jesus people, but only became so in the course of time. However, this seems to have happened relatively quickly. In any case, 1 Peter 4:16 says that being called a “Christian” was enough to be ostracized and persecuted.Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft
“Marginalized and persecuted” … so this is what the term ‘Christian’ was used for ….
Is the meaning of ‘Christians’ Χριστιανούς (Christianous) anointed?
Some may think that ‘Christians’ would be a perfectly appropriate term, since it would mean ‘anointed ones’.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular often use the term ‘anointed Christians’ to distinguish a small group from the ‘other sheep’ – that is, the vast majority of other Witnesses. In fact, their president, J.F. Rutherford, introduced this distinction in the 1930s to create a class of ministers. (See Eric Wilson’s video: Identifying True Worship, Part 8: Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Teaching on the ‘Other Sheep’) The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has complete authority over doctrinal matters and which everyone must follow unconditionally, is therefore naturally composed only of men who consider themselves ‘anointed Christians’.
But what exactly does this expression mean in Greek?
The Greek word Χριστιανός (Christianos), meaning “follower of Christ”, comes from Χριστός (Christos), meaning “anointed one” with an adjectival ending borrowed from Latin to denote adhering to, or even belonging to, as in slave ownership. In the Greek Septuagint, christos was used to translate the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (Mašíaḥ, messiah), meaning “[one who is] anointed”. In other European languages, equivalent words to Christian are likewise derived from the Greek, such as Chrétien in French and Cristiano in Spanish.Wikipedia
S. 147 p. 147, “All these Greek terms, formed with the Latin suffix -ianus, exactly as the Latin words of the same derivation, express the idea that the men or things referred to, belong to the person to whose name the suffix is added.”Bickerman, Elias J. (April 1949). “The Name of Christians”. The Harvard Theological Review. 42 (2): 109–124
S. 145, “In Latin this suffix produced proper names of the type Marcianusand, on the other hand, derivatives from the name of a person, which referred to his belongings, like fundus Narcissianus, or, by extension, to his adherents, Ciceroniani.”
But are not the disciples of Christ called anointed ones? No. There are only these two texts:
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.(2 Cor 1:20-22 NIV)
The verb translated as ‘anointed us’ occurs only 5 times in the Bible, according to Strong’s, and is applied to Jesus 4 of those times.
As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.(1 John 2:27 NIV)
This text also does not speak of ‘anointed ones’ but that they would be anointed.
How often is the term ‘anointed’ (plural) used in the Christian scriptures for the followers of Jesus? The answer is: not at all! I only noticed this when I looked for it in translations. This should also give us food for thought.
Here is another quote from the 2001Translation:
Early Christians never called themselves ‘the Anointed’
The Jewish-Era scriptures used the words for anointed many times when referring to prophets, kings, and priests. However, in the Christian scriptures, the same term is used almost exclusively in reference to Jesus. There are no Bible references to Christians ever calling themselves the Anointed. Rather, it seems like the term is reserved for Jesus alone.
There are only two verses that refer to Christians as being ‘anointed’: 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and 1 John 2:27. These only mention that the early Christians were anointed in passing. It is probably because they are to rule as ‘kings and priests’ (Revelation 1:6). There was indeed evidence that they were anointed. This first happened in Acts 2:1-3 when ‘tongues of fire’ appeared over them. From then on, many of the early Christians could perform miracles or had other special abilities. So they truly were anointed – having a physical sign from God that they were chosen.
Yet despite all of this, they did not use the term ‘anointed’ as a special title for themselves in some attempt to claim a more special relationship with God. Simple humility no doubt led them to leave the term anointed only for their Lord Jesus.2001 Translation
However, the Bible speaks of false anointed ones:
For false messiahs [ψευδόχριστοι (pseudochristoi) false anointed ones] and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.(Mat 24:24 NIV)
As an aside, even in the New World translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed Christians’ never appears in the biblical text, but ‘anointed Christians’ appears almost twenty times in the study notes. I never noticed this over the decades. Not until now, when I took a closer look at this topic.
It makes a difference whether you are something, call yourself that, or let others call you that. Jesus warned his followers:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.(Matthäus 23:8 NIV)
Since the Bible never uses the term ‘anointed’ for the disciples, one could formulate:
You, however, should never let yourselves be called anointed ones, for only one is The Anointed One, and you are all brothers.Loosely based on Matthew 23:8
Is this an exaggeration? Well, the ‘anointed ones’ of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses have recently said in an official video that ‘their [the ‘anointed ones’] voice is like that of Jesus Christ [The Anointed One]’ and they must be obeyed in the same way (video). But according to Jesus’ words, His disciples should all see themselves as brothers and sisters.
Other terms in the first century
Jesus repeatedly spoke of His disciples ‘all being brothers’ (Matthew 23:8). Therefore, it is fitting to use the terms brother and sister. Or as it was still done in former times: The brethren …
In the Gospels they are often called ‘disciples’ μαθηταὶ (mathētai) (Matthew 12:1,2 …). Strong’s Greek 3101 states, “A learner, disciple, pupil. From manthano; a learner, i.e. Pupil.” This reminds us that it is not a matter of ‘having found the truth’ as Jehovah’s Witnesses use it. But that we are always on the search for truth.
In fact, however, there was a name for the group of disciples before the Gentiles called them ‘Christians’:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord. He approached the high priest and requested letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women belonging to the Way, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.(Acts 9:1,2 BSB)
‘Followers of the Way’. A fitting term, when Jesus said about himself:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.(John 14:6 BSB)
And possibly it also has a reference to this prophecy:
And there will be a highway called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not travel it— only those who walk in the Way— and fools will not stray onto it.(Isaiah 35:8 BSB)
Sometimes the report emphasizes another idea:
But Ananias answered, “Lord, many people have told me about this man and all the harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem.. … As Peter traveled throughout the area, he went to visit the saints in Lydda(Apg 9:13, 32 BSB)
The word translated ‘saint’ is ἁγίους (hagious) meaning “set apart by (or for) God, holy. Of hagos; holy.” (Strong’s Greek 40). This term is used many dozens of times. And it is for the whole congregation, not just a few special individuals who were ‘canonized’. But that is also another subject.
Well, should we (let ourselves) be called Christians now or not? At least we know more now:
- Jesus repeatedly said about them that they are all brothers and sisters.
- They were first called ‘disciples’ μαθηταὶ (mathētai).
- These people were also called ‘the way’.
- And as saints.
- ‘Christians’ they were called only much later probably by others. The use by pagans in is documented in the Bible and other writings. In the Christian writings it occurs only 3 times, but never as a form of address to other believers. It is only attested in the 2nd century by the writings of the Church Fathers.
- But that was almost 2000 years ago and therefore the meaning of the term is perhaps more important.
- The term ‘Christians’ Χριστιανούς (Christianous) from Acts 11:26 means ‘followers of Christ’ and not ‘anointed ones’.
- In the Christian scriptures, believing Christians are never referred to as ‘anointed ones’. Only Jesus is called the Messiah, the Christos, that is, the Anointed One.
- The term ‘anointed Christ’ used by Jehovah’s Witnesses does not stand for ‘anointed ones,’ but contains a designation that first-century believers never gave themselves out of humility toward The Anointed One.
So, now you can decide for yourself to the best of your knowledge.