President's Page

What matters is not when Christ's followers were first called Christians, but that they be Christians first.

By Robert H. Pierson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


I am about to commit a hermeneutical error. I am going to take scripture and use it for what it says instead of what it means. This, in theological circles, is not permissible. The only redeeming feature in my action is that I am telling you plainly what I am doing, so I am not attempting to deceive you. This, my theologian friends tell me, makes my otherwise inexcusable practice acceptable.

Recently a friend of mine and I were speaking on a very sensitive subject. He and I are of different cultural backgrounds, but because we are Seventh-day Adventist Christians we could discuss some of the delicate nuances of racial problems with complete understanding. Christian love sails us safely over many otherwise stormy and treacherous seas. Jesus, whether in the heart of a black man or in the heart of a white man, makes a world of difference.

Now we come to the hermeneutical error, but also to a basic Christian principle that will help us to live in love and at peace with those not of our own cultural background, both inside and outside the church. In Acts 11:26 Dr. Luke says that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." Now I believe that Dr. Luke was merely recording a historical fact, that in the city of Antioch the followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time. Permit me the hermeneutical deviation that changes the meaning completely, but states a great truth and a sine quo non in the area of peaceful and loving relationships within a church composed of members from "every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people."

Whether you and I are black, or white, or brown, or yellow, God wants us first to be Christians. Whether our cultural roots and heritage lie in Europe, North America, Africa, South America, Asia, or the islands of the "seven seas," our words, even our attitudes (and how very important attitudes are in this sensitive field) must reflect our lovely Jesus. This is the conclusion my fellow leader and I reached as we discussed the matter together. He is a man who I know practices this "Jesus first" concept. He is a sweet, lovable Christian, and I have never known him to offend anyone of a different cultural background.

The Christian, and especially the Christian leader, is kind and com passionate toward all with whom he comes in contact, whether they are of a different cultural background or not. Jesus was never rude. He did not speak harsh, severe words. The Christian will follow His example. Though placed in positions of tension, disciples of the Master will exhibit His kindness and compassion.

The society in which Jesus lived was one in which racial tensions ran high among Jews, Samaritans, Romans, and Greeks^ Yet the Master never gave sanction to prejudice of any kind. He pointed rather to the great rule of loving one's neighbor as oneself.

The Christian leader must be careful in his choice of language.

There are names that denigrate, words that hurt. The Christian will never let these words slip) from his lips. It is well to become acquainted with such offensive words and phrases so they may be avoided. We must not needlessly wound in this manner.

The Christian leader will go out of his way to be helpful to those of another racial or national heritage. This goes for black and white alike. Little helpful acts, unexpected and not required, smooth the path on both sides of the street. Of the Saviour it is said, He "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38). Good deeds, kind acts, being helpful, build bridges among people of any race.

During His earthly ministry Jesus associated freely with people. Be cause people knew Jesus, they loved Him. They marked His love, His gentleness, His thoughtfulness, His self-control, His zeal, His life of un tiring service. "We have heard him ourselves" was the testimony of some Samaritans, who could then declare, "and know that this is in deed the Christ, the Saviour of the world" (John 4:42).

Knowing people, associating with them, helps break down walls of partition. It is sometimes true that we-are a bit suspicious of those we do not know and associate with. When Christian workers of varying ethnic backgrounds can be together, pray together, play together, worship together, they may learn the good points, the desirable characteristics of one another. It takes away the "you" and "us" labels. As Christians of varied racial and national backgrounds we need to know one another, to discover that Christ dwells in the hearts of people of all races.

May God help all of us that we may be "Christians first" before we are anything else in our relationships with one another.

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By Robert H. Pierson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

July 1978

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