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Date Posted:16/04/2008 9:44 AMCopy HTML

Following Jesus

Defining what it means to be a Christian

By Ian Thomason
 
"We agree that the only Christian (anointed one) is one who has received the Holy Spirit, but we do not accept the compromise and extravagance that many groups have adopted. When we began 50 years ago, Spirit-filled people did not fall over in the prayer line, dance in the Spirit, nor wave their hands in the air during prayer times and chorus singing, to name just a few of the behavioural extremes that have become common among Pentecostal groups. They have changed; the gospel has not. If you can quote a scriptural reference to substantiate these practices we will conform[1]."

Introduction

The definition of 'Christian' that is offered by the Revival Centres (RCI), and which is supported by the Revival Fellowship (RF), is that which appears in the above quote by Lloyd Longfield: an 'anointed one'. Accordingly, both groups promote the belief that it is only the person who is able to 'speak in tongues', which is held by them to be the definitive evidence of Spirit baptism/anointing, that properly qualifies one to be considered a Christian. The practical application of this definition naturally excludes fully two-thirds of all modern professing believers from fellowship with Jesus Christ, and with members of the various Revivalist[2] groups. It also condemns the untold number who placed their faith in the Saviour before AD 1901.

The question this assertion raises is obvious: does the definition of 'Christian' that is maintained and defended by Revivalists find any measure of support within the pages of the Bible? The corollary then becomes, that if not, why not and what are the theological implications that result?

The aim of this essay is to assess the hypothesis that a Christian is defined as an 'anointed one'. It is my position that such a definition cannot be supported from Scripture, that it is arbitrarily redefined in practice in any case, and that it is theologically immature. By way of contrasting the Revivalist position, I shall then attempt to provide a concise overview of the biblical teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
 
Beginnings

According to Luke believers in Jesus were first called Christians in Syrian Antioch[3].  The occasion for the coining of the term is not furnished in the initial Acts account; however, the very nature of the word coupled with the two other instances that it appears within Scripture, provides us with a number a clues. In Greek, 'Christian' simply means 'a follower of, or belonging to, the Anointed[4]'. Grammatically it cannot be manipulated to change the subject to the person under review, given that the adjectival termination clearly expresses the joint concepts of subservience, submission and possession. For this reason, followers of Herod were called 'Herodians', and followers of Caesar, 'Caesarians'. Quite simply, the Revivalist definition is invalid; it is completely wrong. In much the same way that a Herodian does not become a 'Herod', nor does a Caesarian become a 'Caesar'; neither does a Christian become a 'Christ'.

The first occurrence of the word clearly identifies that it was others who addressed the believers as 'Christians'. The term was not, therefore, initially a self-designation. Similarly, it is highly unlikely--almost inconceivable--that Jews would ever have referred to believers in Jesus as followers of the Messiah (or the Christ). These factors point to the pagan citizens of Antioch as being the likely candidates for introducing the expression, and that it was intended to be derisive and offensive. Contemporary usage alludes to the possibility that the detractors perhaps mistook the title 'Christos' for 'Chrestus' (Greek: 'useful'), a name quite commonly given to slaves by their masters during the period. 'Chrestian', therefore, was meant to be a play on words, one that reduced the standing of the followers of Jesus to lower than that held by slaves.

The second account of the word in Scripture is found in Acts 26:8, and involves an audience with King Agrippa by the Apostle Paul. After hearing Paul declare his faith, Agrippa responds: "... do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?" The king's words bordered on being an open taunt. This demonstrated the thorough ridiculousness of Paul having placed hope in his securing Agrippa's conversion. To a modern Christian, a similar jibe might be: "...do you honestly think you can persuade me to become a Jehovah's Witness?!" Again we note that the expression in the context in which it appeared, had an entirely negative connotation.

Finally, Peter makes use of 'Christian' in precisely the same way. In 1 Peter 4:16 we read: "...However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." The passage sees Peter applying the expression within the context of a legal trial, one in which believers are viewed as debased from the perspective of the general society of which they are a part. To bear the name 'Christian' at the time Peter wrote involved the consequence of accepting considerable personal shame. His plea was for them to accept the shame, given that Christ likewise accepted shame for their benefit.

In summary, Lloyd Longfield simply assumed and appropriated a meaning for Christian that was never intended by the biblical authors, and which is linguistically impossible. He made a mistake. He was wrong. A Christian is not, and cannot ever be an 'anointed one'.

Unpacking the theme

Given that the proper biblical and grammatical meaning for 'Christian' is simply 'a follower of Jesus Christ', it would do well for us to unpack this concept a little, and to search out the teaching of Scripture on what it means to 'follow Jesus'.

Almost immediately we are confronted by the fact that Jesus chose those who would bear first the title 'disciple'[5]. The Gospels identify that He divided a selected few into an inner group of twelve (whom he called Apostles[6]), and a larger group comprising around seventy (or seventy-two). The numbers, although real, were based on Old Testament figurative considerations: first of the tribes of Israel, and second, of the number of the nations[7]. The twelve and the seventy (or seventy-two) were sent out to be his representatives: to preach his message of the dawning of the kingdom of God, to bring deliverance from the power of the Evil One, and to minister healing in his name. The same three-fold commission has been entrusted to his believers throughout the ages. Importantly, Jesus promised these, his pre-Pentecost followers, that their names were written in heaven[8]. The Greek phrase occurs only twice in Scripture, the other account being an explicit reference to "... the church of the firstborn"[9].  The conceptual link is, therefore, very clear--being a believer in Jesus provided one with eternal assurance, extending backwards to before Pentecost, and forwards post Pentecost. It has always been the case that it was and is the Person in whom the belief is placed, that determines one's eternal destiny. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this short essay to develop the theme of saving belief. Interested readers are invited to consult the article on 'Belief' that also appears on this website.
  
Conclusion

The Gospel accounts concur that among the most important words Jesus ever spoke were two: 'follow' and 'me'. It mattered little whether one was a simple fisherman, like Simon Peter (Matthew 4:19); or a scheming businessman like Matthew (Mark 2:14); or a self-sufficient, well-regarded member of society (Luke 18:22). One's personal circumstances did not mitigate against Christ's universal appeal and command to follow him. Therefore, one cannot place stipulations on discipleship, or on Christian identification, that Christ nowhere commanded. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else besides. Contra Lloyd Longfield, the matter really is that simple.


Notes

[1] "What we believe", formerly located at the Revival Centres International website, www.rci.org.
[2] For the sake of this essay, a 'Revivalist' is defined as people belong to either the RCI or the RF fellowships.
[3] Acts 11:26.
[4] CristianouV which comprises CpristoV (Christos - [the] Anointed) and the adjectival termination  ianoV (ianos)
[5] The Greek word for disciple is MaqhthV (Mathêtês), which means "a learner", a word that is always used to refer to the pupil of another. In the NT the word is used in a technical sense, as the "disciple" or "follower" of either the Pharisees, Moses, John the Baptiser or of Jesus the Christ.
[6] A word that describes their mission as being "sent forth".
[7] See Genesis 10. An alternative proposal is that the number is a NT equivalent of the seventy elders chosen to assist Moses [Numbers 11]. The former is the most likely, and reflects the fact that Israel was intended to be a light to the Nations.
[8] Luke 10:20
[9] Hebrews 12:23

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