What label do we use to identify our religious commitment? What label should a convert adopt? These are common questions in Muslim ministry contexts. Many other ministry contexts also grapple with this issue. An internet search for ‘”Christian” or “Jesus-follower” as a label produced over 2,400,000 results (no, I didn’t read them all!). Should we call ourselves “Christians,” “Jesus-followers,” “Christ-followers,” “Born-again Christians,” or some other label?
The problem with labels is that they carry different meanings in different contexts, even within the same culture. In this post we will discuss the labels “Christian” and “Jesus-follower.” Both of these labels are subject to diverse understandings.
The label, “Christian,” is often equated with Western culture, especially in Muslim contexts. A “Christian” identity is often equated with “North American” including its international politics and social life-style. Even in the West, the label “Christian” will need further definition to avoid misunderstanding. It is often qualified to distinguish from competing understandings. So, we talk about “nominal Christians,” “liberal Christians,” “evangelical Christians,” and even go further with terms such as “historic evangelical Christians.”
At least since the second century AD, “Christian” has been the dominant label for those who believe the biblical teaching about Jesus Christ (see Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, 2016, 94-104). The centrality of Jesus Christ is clearly in focus. Writing about the identity label “Christian” in the early church, Hurtado notes:
Whether in its likely original usage by outsiders or in subsequent appropriation by insiders, the term shows that “Christ” was the chief identity marker of the new movement. – p. 102.
Although the history of the church has clouded this connection to the biblical Christ (the real historic Jesus), the term “Christian” should not be abandoned. Certainly it must be distinguished from cultural and theological distortions. Much of what is called Christianity in the USA has lost connection with the person and work of Jesus Christ recorded in the Bible. So even in the West the term “Christian” must be further defined to avoid misunderstanding.
“Jesus-follower” as a label also focuses on Jesus Christ. It actually is quite similar to the original meaning of “Christian.” Hurtado notes in writing about the original meaning of “Christian”:
… similar to the other terms with similar endings designating adherents or supporters of this or that figure, Christianoi designated “Christ-partisans,” those, that is, who were identified specifically with reference to “Christ.” – p. 96.
“Jesus-follower” is also open to various interpretations. The identity of the “Jesus” we are following is crucial. Are we following the reconstructed “Jesus” of modern liberal scholarship, the “Jesus” of the Qur’an, or the “Jesus” presented in the New Testament? When we use the label “Jesus-follower”, we need to clarify the biblical identity of Jesus Christ as we do with the label “Christian.” Both these labels keep the person and work of Jesus Christ central. Both can be misunderstood in various contexts.
What do we mean by “follower” when we identify as “Jesus-followers?” Some emphasize the example of Jesus while denying his atoning work. Indeed, Jesus is an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21) but not apart from his atoning work (1 Peter 2:24). Following Jesus includes both trust in his death and resurrection for our sins and following his example.
I think both these terms are appropriate for us to use in identifying our religious commitment. Yet we need to be aware of the context when using them. We want to communicate our union with Christ, not the cultural, political associations that a given context associates with the label we choose. We want to avoid using a label that will close the door to further conversation. We also want to avoid use of any label that hides our connection to Jesus Christ.
Labels are context-dependent and cannot carry all that is needed to communicate our identity in Christ. Witness to the biblical message of the person and work of Christ will need to follow in further conversations along with a “manner of life worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27).