“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
The name “Christian” did not originally carry any association with power. Rather, early disciples were derided as “little Christs.” Christians should remember that and should be careful what power they try to accrete to Christ’s name.
Original view of Christians
Many biblical scholars agree the label “Christian,” as first applied to those who followed Jesus, was not a compliment. Some think the term was given by pagan governing officials to differentiate Jesus followers from the larger Jewish community, neither of which they had much love for. Whoever in Antioch used the term first, they did not utter “Christian” with respect.
It wasn’t until almost 300 years later, when Constantine appropriated the cross as a symbol of power—namely, military—that Christians and Christianity became associated with power—namely, worldly.
Before Constantine, Christians were among the sometimes tolerated but usually despised elements of the Roman Empire. According to Tacitus, Christians were “people loathed for their vices.” According to Suetonius, Christians were addicted “to a novel and mischievous superstition.”
What were their vices? What was their superstition? Christians had the audacity to hail a commoner as Lord even over Caesar. They followed that commoner’s teachings—things like “the first will be last” and “bless those who persecute you.”
Starting with Constantine and up to the present, Christianity in some of its forms—like Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox—has been associated with worldly power, with empire.
Other Christian communities—like Coptics, Moravians, Mennonites and Baptists—continued to be persecuted. Indeed, much of European history is a chronicle of Christian against Christian, a fight that continued into the colonization of America.
The irony of Christianity in America
One of those persecuted groups—Baptists—became instrumental in enshrining freedom of religion within the fabric of the United States. I’m grateful for this freedom, and I don’t want to see it overturned. I also don’t want to see it abused.
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Christians who wed religious faith with worldly power seem to forget the Christ of Christianity. He did not make murderous threats. He did not storm the temple with his disciples. Though he raised a ruckus among the money changers outside, he did not ransack the inner temple. Nor did he drag temple guards down the stairs and beat them.
The Christ of Christianity regularly took leaders to task, criticizing them, even calling them names—brood of vipers, fools, hypocrites, fox, to name a few. Jesus wasn’t always nice; that’s true. But hateful and violent? That’s not the Christ of Christianity.
Yet, there are those who claim the name “Christian” while engaging in acts the Christ of Christianity never committed. And when confronted with this fact, rather than blush with shame, these people attack.
The real Christ of Christianity
Most of those who waved flags bearing Christian symbols and language at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 may not have engaged directly in vandalism and violence—though at least one did enter the Senate Chamber. Regardless of their specific actions, their presence at the Capitol gave their blessing to what was happening.
The Christian symbols and references displayed during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are a misappropriation of “Christian.” Couching them as free speech doesn’t change that fact.
Christian symbols waved among the throng exhibit the marrying of worldly power with religious faith. Doing so honors the Roman Emperor Constantine, not the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christ of Christianity was innocent, yet nonetheless was crucified, executed like a criminal, a dog. He was humiliated and abused. And he didn’t utter a word in his defense. He was silent like “a sheep before its shearers.”
Paul told those who would be like Christ—Christians in the original meaning of the name—not to look out for their own interests, but instead to be like Jesus, who “made himself nothing,” took “the very nature of a servant,” “humbled himself,” and became “obedient to (his own) death.”
That’s the power of Christ.
To be a Christian is to be a “little Christ,” not a usurper of power. Many American Christians have lost sight of the Christ of Christianity. It’s time for us to be “little Christs” again.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.