Are the Unfaithful Still “Christians”?

By Wayne Jackson

“Is it ever appropriate to refer to the apostate child of God (one who has ceased to be faithful) as a ‘Christian’?”

This semantic problem has generated confusion among the Lord’s people for many years. The controversy results from the different ways in which the term “Christian” is employed among the people of God. The issue is not one that is easy to resolve, due to the fact that not even scholars are agreed as to the precise significance of the Greek term Christianos. Note these possibilities.

  1. One authority, Nigel Turner, a highly respected British scholar, contends that the suffix “ian” conveys the idea of “belonging to” in the common Greek of the New Testament era, so that in the parlance of the New Testament it denotes those who “belong to Christ” (cf. also Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel & Friedrich, eds., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, Vol. 9, p. 537).

    Turner also suggested that Christianos might relate to the Greek term chiro (to anoint — as reflected also in the title “Christ”). It thus could be a term signifying those who have been “anointed” – in the sense of 2 Corinthians 1:21, “Now he that establishes us with you in Christ, and anointed us, is God” (Turner, Christian Words, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981, p. 66).

    If this view is correct, then anyone who has obeyed the gospel will technically be a “Christian,” until the time of the Judgment, since he will “belong to” Christ until then. At that point, however, those who have abandoned the Lord will be gathered “out of his kingdom” (Mt. 13:41). Until then, they remain in the kingdom, though they may have become unfaithful. We acknowledge that apostates are still “children of God” inasmuch as we do not require their re-baptism (the only way to enter the body of Christ — 1 Cor. 12:13) as a condition of their restitution.
  2. On the other hand, if one followed the suggestion of J.H. Thayer, he might conclude that Christianos signifies “a follower of Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 672). In that case, one might reason that whenever one ceases to “follow” the Lord, he has disqualified himself from wearing the name “Christian.”

Conclusion

The question becomes, then, whose definition is to be accepted? The fact is, the term “Christian” is used only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). Since the word is without definitive contextual definition in any of those references, one simply cannot be too dogmatic in his use of the term, as it applies to one who has genuinely obeyed the gospel plan of salvation at some point in his life.

Every knowledgeable person must concede that when a brother/sister in the Lord abandons Christ, he/she is lost. And really, we should not wrangle over whether or not “Christian” can be applied technically to such a person. Let us rather employ our energies in seeking to reclaim those who are in danger of eternal separation from God.

Finally, we must respectfully note that one who has only a nominal identification with the Christian faith, who has not legitimately yielded to the gospel (cf. 1 Pet. 4:16-17), cannot be designated as a “Christian” in the genuine sense of that term.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.