For some, the title of this article may seem to be unnecessarily abrasive and polemic to both Protestants and Catholics, yet, let’s agree on one basic premise; that, all ‘words’ have an etymology; that is, original meaning, which can be traced back to their original usage and a modern usage. While ‘words’ are sometimes hijacked into a modern usage and agenda that betrays their earlier meaning, it can never change the original usage and impetus of that word, which was at one time very specific and intentional.
Indeed, history is littered with words that have lost their original meaning. In the English language, the words ‘marriage’ and ‘gay’ immediately come to mind. Yet, another, immediately applicable to the instant case, which has long ago lost its original intention is the word Christian(s). This short essay will explore the etymology of the word ‘Christian’ and explain why, according to its original usage and impetus, why it can only be applied to Catholics who are in union with One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Ss. Peter and Paul.
The Root of the Word ‘Christian’
To go back to the beginning, in the New Testament the word Christian (Gk. Χριστός) is only mentioned three times:
- “Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:25-26).
- “Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You will soon persuade me to play the Christian.” Paul replied, “I would pray to God that sooner or later not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am except for these chains”” (Acts 26:28-29).
- “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer. But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name. For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:14-17).
From the three usages of the word Christian in the New Testament, it can be said that the explicit and original meaning of the term was applied to:
- The Disciples of the Apostles of Jesus Christ;
- Someone who becomes as Paul (Paul here connects himself as an example of the word Christian); and
- One who suffers for the name of Christ Jesus.
What is implied out of these three usages is that a ‘Christian’ is someone who is associated with the Church of Peter and Paul; for, only in connection with these two persons was the word ever originally used. That is, the word Christian was never associated with any other of the other Apostles or evangelists, such as Apollos, but only Peter and Paul. Moreover, the word was never associated with any other community, such as the Gnostics or Judaizers.
This implied definition is important because whenever we are speaking about an unofficial identifying word that people are ‘called’, such as Christian, we must then associate that group of people with a local community or geography. That is to say, that we must answer the associating question which follows the identifier, such as, ‘Where does that group belong?’ or ‘Who does that group belong to?’ In this case, the Christian belongs to a Church in Antioch, which is globally associated with the Church community established by the Apostles.
While the modern definition of the word Christian simply means someone who has committed themselves to following/being a disciple of Jesus, the original meaning meant much more. You were not merely a disciple of Jesus, you were a disciple of Jesus through His Apostles. You merely didn’t just profession a belief in Jesus Christ, you professed the creed of the Church of Jesus Christ. It was not you or your chosen pastor who taught you the faith and how to live, rather, it was the Apostles themselves and their successors who instructed Christians on how to live. Being known as a Christian was not as that silly song suggests, ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love, love love.’ Rather, they knew we were Christians because we were persecuted for believing and preaching the truth.
This praxis of the faith was taught by Christ Jesus Himself, who said to the Apostles, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Paul reinforces this a number of times, but particularly in writing to the Church of the Thessalonians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2:15). He also connects the Church he helped to found as being a source of authority on the Apostolic teaching in his first letter to Timothy, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth” (3:15).
Finding the ‘True’ Christians Today
Therefore, if we were to connect the original meaning of the word Christian with a group of people today, where would we find them? Our path to answer this question would lead us, first, to find the community of Churches that the Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul started, and then, second, determine whether that community of people are still being taught by the successors of the Apostles and if they are still suffering for the name of Jesus Christ. These two examinations would the lead us to conclude that these people are the true Christians.
Fortunate for us, there is beyond a sufficient amount of evidence of prove that the same community Churches that we read about in the Bible eventually began calling themselves Catholic by the early second century. Whereas, those who belonged to this community of Church were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26), it was also in Antioch where the community was first documented as being called Catholic.
In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans and in other letters, Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch draws from the traditional teaching, which connected Christian discipleship to being taught by Apostles and their successors to offer a theology of high episcopacy in a community he calls ‘Catholic’:
- “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Chapter 8).
To put the quote above in context, the third Bishop of the Church of Antioch where Saint Peter had served as the first Bishop, just called that Church, ‘Catholic’. He also mentioned the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which is very important in regards to the search of a true Christian as well. For, as we see documented in the Johannine (John 6:22-71), Pauline (I Cor. 11:17-34), and Antiochian Catholic Christian communities (Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans 7:3, Letter to the Philadelphians 4:1, and Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7:1) the faithful were always obligated to believe that Christ Jesus comes to them at the Sacrifice of the Mass (Sunday worship) in His Real Presence of Real Flesh and Blood as the bread and wine, respectively.
Also in the Biblical definition of a Christian, we saw that a Christian was someone who is associated with the Church of Peter and Paul. This too is something we see being taught very early on by the Fathers. For example, Saint Irenaeus, second Bishop of the Church of Lyons, affirms primacy of the Church of Rome and its continuance in passing on the Apostolic teachings in Chapter 3 of his 180/199 Against Heresies:
- “Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels.”
From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
For those who at this point may move to argue that the Church that we can historically prove continued its Apostolic teaching into the age of persecution had, at some time, fallen into apostasy, I kindly direct you to my article Anti-Catholic Myths and Lies: #1 Emperor Constantine Founded the Catholic Church.
The Conclusion and Crux of the Whole Matter
Tieing all of this neatly together, we must first return to the original definition of the word Christian, which is (1) a Disciple of the Apostles of Jesus Christ; One who suffers for the name of Christ Jesus (e.g. like Paul), and (3) Someone who is associated with the Church of Peter and Paul. We then ask, ‘Where is the only place today where we can find and document an unbroken succession of the Apostles?’ We also ask, ‘Where is the only place where we can find an unbroken and unaltered teaching on the Holy Eucharist?’ Again, we also the latter question because we have seen that the teaching on the Holy Eucharist is something very peculiar and unique to the early Christian communities, which is evidenced from Scriptures and tradition.
The answer to both of those questions would be ‘the Catholic Churches’ that are in union with Catholic Church Rome where the successor of Peter sits, and in the community of Orthodox Churches. Both of these communities can produce a documented paper trail of succession of episcopal ordination back to the second and third centuries. Both of these communities also profess a belief that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is the Real Presence of Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
The third qualifier of being a Christian; that is, ‘Someone who is associated with the Church of Peter and Paul,’ ONLY befits those who belong to the community of Catholic Churches that are in union with the Church founded by Peter and Paul, and where the successor of Saint Peter sits. Thus, that qualifier excludes Orthodox so-called Christians (e.g. Russian and Greek)
So the question the sprouts next is, ‘What shall we call Protestants and other non-Catholics who identify themselves as being Christian.’ I answer that in asking you whether you call a man who self-identifies as a woman, a man? You see, we can’t change the terms and definitions of things that have been established by God. Surely, we could call an orange an apple, because those are things that we have defined. You may sound stupid calling an orange and apple, but that is under your liberty to do so.
To the contrary, the definition of a Christian belongs to the Divine deposit of faith; that is, it has been revealed by God in the sacred Scriptures. Therefore, to call someone a Christian who does not fit the Biblical definition diminishes the value of the calling. Moreover, to know what God has ordered a thing to be, and to label it something other than that is an offense against God. Again, as Christians, if we know a person was created by God to be a man, we don’t call that person a woman. That’s like celebrating a victory of Satan over God. We don’t do that. We don’t misassign what God has assigned.
So what do we call them? Well, certainly, we can call Baptists, Baptists and Methodist, Methodists and Anglicans, Anglicans. We can call them brother and sisters. We can call them any number of charitable things, but we should never call them what they are not, which is Christian.
If you think it is a new teaching that we should only call faithful Catholics Christian, I ask that you consider what St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, write in his Four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis around 359-360 A.D.:
- “But what is also to the point, let us note that the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian.”