Question: Is the term "Christian" biblical?
Answer: I’m not sure what you are asking… not exactly. Your question is stated clearly enough — that’s not my problem. But I’m struggling with how the term “Christian” might not be biblical… or how one might perceive it to be nonbiblical. Are you wondering if it’s like the terms “Trinity” and “Rapture” which do not appear in the Bible but which are used to describe biblical doctrines? That’s all I can think of in way of a potential problem at this time. So what I’ll do is answer the question directly as you asked it, and if you need to amplify your question you may respond to this response.
The term “Christian” is indeed biblical. The word itself appears three times in the New Testament, but even if it didn’t, the “idea” of Christian would be there — so we would still have to deal with it. After all, what was a “Christian” in the Bible but one who had differentiated himself from the Jews (the ones who would not make the leap into the new covenant) and from the pagans (who were omnipresent). So, whether or not the word itself appeared in the Bible, there would still be a category of persons who were followers of Christ — and the post-apostolic commentators would likely have named that category for us. As such, we would still have the word “Christian” (or something very like it) whether or not the Bible contained the word. That being said, here are its citations:
“and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
(Acts 11:26, NIV)
“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”” (Acts 26:28, NIV)
“However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
(1 Peter 4:16, NIV)
These three passages are very telling. The first one shows the “categorical” nature of the word Christian. After the Christ-followers fled to Antioch, that city’s residents observed that there were now people living among them who were of a different type. These were neither Jews nor pagans — but they were followers of Jesus Christ… and they had to call them something, so they called them “Christians.”
What’s important here is that the believers did not get together say, “Hey — let’s call ourselves Christians, and let’s use a secret handshake….” No — the term evolved naturally among the population. However, it was used as a term of ridicule — and you know what? It still is.
Today, when a believer uses the term Christian to refer to another person, it is a positive (even an affectionate) identifier. He is saying, “That guy over there is my brother in Christ!” But when a non-believer uses of the word, it often contains ridicule on some level, like “In this age of scientific enlightenment, who would believe the Christian worldview?” or “No Christian is going to tell me how to behave!” or my favorite, “Who do those Christians think that they are insisting that Jesus is the only way to heaven! How small-minded!”
But no matter what age, this idea of “the other” (that is, persons who are not like us in some significant way) has kept the world at war — and we humans are particularly adept at spotting differences and assigning categories. As such, human nature would not allow such a unique group as the first-century Christians to go unidentified.
The second citation shows that the both the word Christian and its category were known by high officials; King Agrippa himself heard Paul’s defense of Christ… but he was not alone. Anything that reached a king would have been filtered through many subordinates. Therefore, the concept that Christian persons existed was well known in the highest circles — and this (it seems to me) would constitute historical as well a biblical proof that the term was in general use.
Furthermore, the Bible tells us that many people who might have had something to lose by doing so, converted to Christianity— even members of the religious establishment (Acts 13:14; 16:34; 17:34; 18:8; Phil. 4:22;). Logic dictates that there had to be something to convert to before they jumped into that meat-grinder — and that something was Christianity.
In the third citation, Peter uses the term “Christian” without definition. This tells us that the term was in common usage, and the fact that Peter used it Christian-to-Christian completes an ironic circle. You see, “the joke” is that the world tried to make fun of Christ’s followers by using the term “Christian” as a negative appellation. But we have adopted it to our joy! And in this we see the Christian life defined: We rejoice in what the world mocks — and the world just can’t figure us out…. I mean, how could it, being unconverted?
“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
(1 Corinthians 2:14, NIV)
In my opinion, this is the big lesson concerning the word Christian, and I see it as biblical in three ways: first, the word shows up; second, the concept shows up, and third, the irony shows up. But since irony can only have meaning in a work (or a culture) that has the context to generate it, Christianity is — both in word and in concept — eminently biblical.