by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe
“Perpetua and Felicitas Gored by a Bull in the Arena,” illustration from Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World; The Story of the Advance of Christianity from Bible Times to Latest Periods of Persecution. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons
Rethinking the Meaning of ‘Christian’
What does it mean when someone calls themselves ‘Christian’? Is ‘Christian’ a word you use to identify yourself? The meanings we now give to this word are very different from the meanings attached to ‘Christian’ in the ancient world by those who first identified themselves as Christians. An understanding of the earliest uses of this word can help us to rethink, reimagine and reinvigorate our use of the word today.
‘Christian’ is a word we tend to take for granted. We might think, first, that this name was around from Jesus’ time onward, that the first Christians were Jesus’ students and followers. But Jesus and his followers were Judeans, people who honored the one God of Israel. There were no Christians in Jesus’ day. We do not find people calling themselves Christian until well after Jesus’ time.
When we hear the word now, we think of our own modern understandings of Christian. These understandings will be different, depending upon our own contexts and identities. We might define a Christian, for example, as someone who follows Jesus and Jesus’ teachings. We might define a Christian as someone who believes certain things about Jesus, Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ relationship to God. A Christian, perhaps, is someone who uses a set of ancient writings, sacred scriptures, to structure and guide their lives. A Christian, perhaps, is someone who participates in ritual practices, rites like baptism or communion.
‘Believing’ was no criterion for Christian identity originally
For the people who first called themselves Christian, however, none of these definitions would have applied. There was no fixed set of ‘scriptures’ in the early centuries of the Jesus movement. Ritual developed over time. Following Jesus meant different things. Belief certainly had nothing to do with the use of the word Christian. Being Christian was not about believing in anything at all!
For those who first said, “I am Christian,” the word was all about belonging. It was about membership, about being part of a particular group. Far from “I believe in,” the statement “I am Christian” meant “I belong to.”
Some of the earliest declarations of “I am Christian” come from the stories of the martyrs. The extra canonical writing Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas, for instance, likely dating to the beginning of the third century CE, tells the story of a mass execution of people who all declared that they belonged to Christ. The declaration of “I am Christian” in this story tells us a lot about how some people in this very early period understood the term.
Perpetua’s story is presented in the form of a diary she kept while held in prison. Perpetua is a new mother, arrested with other members of her Christian movement and kept imprisoned before their trial. When she is brought before a Roman official, a governor named Hilarinus. Hilarinus tries to force Perpetua to honor the Roman Emperor. Perpetua refuses. Hilarinus then asks her, “Are you a Christian?” Perpetua declares, “I am Christian.” This declaration condemns Perpetua, and other members of her community, to violent deaths in the Roman arena.
Christian identity as a dangerous political statement
Why? What made that simple statement so threatening, so dangerous, that a governor would have them killed? The threat was not about the community’s belief in Jesus, or God, or anything else. It was a statement of group belonging, and of a kind of belonging that challenged how people were supposed to belong to Rome. The belonging has a political meaning, like “I belong to the party of the Christ.” When Perpetua, like so many of the early martyrs in these ancient stories, declared, “I am Christian,” what she really declared was, “I belong to the party of the Christ.”
This statement puts her in opposition to the Roman Empire. Perpetua is rejecting the dominant form of belonging in her cultural context. In saying, “I am Christian,” she is essentially saying, “I am not Roman.” She is making a statement that reimagines the power of the Roman Empire. She is not saying anything about belief or a system of beliefs; she is saying something about where, and with whom, she belongs.
“I am Christian” is the focal point of many of the early stories of the martyrs. When the martyrs make this statement, their fate at the hands of the Empire is sealed. These words change everything.
It is important for us to understand this use of Christian as a term of belonging because we have largely lost that meaning today. Asking, “where do I belong?” and “to whom and with whom do I belong?” – even, “how do I belong?” – is very different than asking, “what do I believe?” These questions can be challenging to answer. We live in a time when we should be thinking very carefully and thoughtfully about belonging.
Our answer to the question of belonging might not be as dramatic as Perpetua’s. Perpetua used the term Christian in a particular way—it was a statement of resistance to the oppressive forces of the Roman Empire. It is context specific. It is part of her own time and place.
Belonging, yet in diversity
Perpetua’s idea of belonging is also one amongst very many between the early Jesus groups and followers. These groups were fantastically diverse, and if they used the term Christian to name themselves and their communities, their meanings would have been different than those of Perpetua. Yet, despite the diversity of these groups, all sought their own ways of belonging. Many of these groups created belonging through the celebration of a shared meal. Others met as schools, and belonged through learning. Some created new families themselves, choosing new sisters and brothers and establishing new households.
What does belonging mean to you? Maybe belonging means inviting a family new to your community over to share a meal. Perhaps it means starting a study group. Whatever our own answer, asking the question is really important. Asking what belonging means as part of what it is to be Christian will enable us to consider our perspectives and practices anew. When the many different groups who followed Jesus in the first centuries of the Common Era called themselves Christian, they did so with ideas and expressions of belonging in mind.