What does it mean to be Christian? The word, as far as we know, is first used in Acts 11:26, when the disciples are called Christians at Antioch. The term itself means one who follows Christ. But in our modern society, where Christianity has been so intertwined with American culture, the word has lost its original meaning, and its common use clouds our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
If we take the word literally, however, we can look back to the words of Jesus to define what exactly it means to be a Christian. Jesus’ famous statement defining what it means to be his disciple serves as the most pertinent and precise explanation of what it means to be Christian. Jesus states, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
This may seem confusing to those of us in a modern world where crucifixion is abhorred as a cruel practice, but we can gather from Jesus’ statement meaning and practice that defines what it means to be his disciple, to be a Christian. Our interpretation, however, must not simply be a spiritualizing of what Jesus says, as is common practice among many Christians. To do so would move too far away from the meaning of Jesus’ statement that it becomes unrecognizable.
Rather, our interpretation should be one that appropriates the declaration to our modern context while at the same time remaining connected to the original intent of the definition, and particularly to the interpretation of early Christians.
We know that the cross was a symbol of Roman tyranny, and that crucifixion was practiced by the Romans on many who were considered enemies of the state. Jesus was far from the only one killed on a cross, and far from the only innocent one who suffered this fate. Thus, in the context of Roman jurisprudence, Jesus was just another enemy of the state that needed to be silenced.
But the earliest followers of Jesus reflected on his death and reached a different understanding of the image of the cross. Though the cross was still a ruthless tool in the hands of an oppressive government, for them the cross had shifted from an external symbol of Roman tyranny to an internal symbol of faithfulness for the Christian community.
Thus, for these earliest Christians, the cross served symbolically as the norm of a community that existed in a world not yet submissive to the rule of God. The cross became symbolic of the internal ethic of the community and the social formation of that community in opposition to Roman power. The symbol of the cross represented for them a new way for being human; one in which the virtues of Christ served to form a counter-cultural movement.
In an environment like Rome, where power, wealth and status were of prime value, the cross served as a constant reminder to the Christian community that there was now a new world order, a new way of living that was aligned to the virtues of Christ and not the virtues of the political domination of the world’s power.
In light of their experience of Jesus and their redefining of the symbolic nature of the cross, these earliest Christians understood that the virtue of sacrificial service, not domination, was the new norm. They viewed the inclusive welcoming of all, not exclusion of any, as their ritual. Humility, not power, became their characteristic. And simplicity and sharing, not indulgence, became their practice in Christian community.
In the fourth century, however, for the Roman Emperor Constantine, the sacred symbol of Christ, the Chi-Rho, became the symbol of earthly power and might. In essence, a second shift took place that moved the understanding of the cross as a symbol of self-less discipleship to one by which to conquer through domination, oppression and violence. Christianity, then, moved from the marginalized alternative community of character and political formation to the dominant symbol of power in the West.
In our modern political environment, the religious conservative movement of the last three decades has once again led to a shift of the story of Jesus and the cross. The cross has become once more a symbol of political power, and the church has been swept into being part and parcel of one political agenda. Those entrapped by this movement view the cross at a distance, preferring to see it as only an object on which Jesus died for our sins, rather than taking the cross as their own and seeing it as the symbol of vulnerability and openness.
It is time for another shift, one that leads us back to the early Christian understanding of the cross as the power of God, and not the power of humans. Shifting our understanding of the cross back to how early Christians viewed the cross would lead the church to find afresh its identity as an alternative community in which individuals are not formed by power, greed, exclusion and self-interests, but are shaped by the norms of Jesus and his cross. This is what it means to be Christian.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.