I have asked a few of my friends to write posts on the labels Christians use. This post is by Peter Horne.
Confession: I like to use labels.
Labels break the world down into bite sized chunks. If you’re from a particular state, or city, I feel like I know certain things about you. If you’re from a particular church with a particular label outside its building, I don’t need to spend a week getting to know you, the label provides me a huge amount of theological information that I can attach to you as an individual.
Labels are natural.
The church had barely existed more than a few years before the world needed a handle to refer to this group of people with a new set of beliefs. Acts 11:26 tells us that the name “Christian” originated in Antioch and has stuck for 2,000 years. Perhaps it started out as a derogatory label, but these followers of Jesus took pride in that label and claimed it as their identity.
When the followers of Jesus were first designated as Christians this label distinguished them from particular sects of Pagans and Jews. It seemed that one label was all it took. After all, unlike the Pagans who gave varying degrees of loyalty to a diverse array of gods, these Christians just worshiped one God.
1 Corinthians 1 reminds us of how quickly people seek to establish independence as Paul accuses some in the church of identifying themselves with Peter, Apollos, or Paul rather than giving primary allegiance to Christ. On the big picture it only took a few hundred years for different expressions of Christianity to arise and different groups desired their own distinct labels to distinguish themselves from others. The label “Christian” no longer adequately described each of these different groups.
Over the years the segmentation of Christianity has only increased. The Lutherans have a variety of Synods. Baptists have a plethora of conventions. And Churches of Christ have a secret code that distinguishes congregations from one another while maintaining the same label at street level.
Among Churches of Christ we use some belief-based labels such as “one cuppers” or “non-institutional” or increasingly “instrumental” churches. Sometimes we use descriptive labels including “black”, “Hispanic”, “older”, or “college”. But we also revert to subjective labels like “progressive”, “liberal”, “conservative”, and “traditional”. The lie in these labels is that we think we know everything that church stands for because we’ve determined the most appropriate label to stick on it.
Labels are Impersonal
The greatest deception of labels is that they remove a person’s individual identity. We think we know a person because they associate with other people that we’ve labeled. People find themselves guilty by association with no opportunity to differentiate themselves because they’ve been labeled and now no one is listening.
Lastly, labels are inadequately equipped to address the complexity of humanity. Very few people are completely one thing or another. If I worship in a Church of Christ but believe instrumental worship is ok, I might be labeled a “liberal”. But if I hold to a traditional view of male elders and teachers in the church, I’m obviously a “conservative”. If I agree with the majority that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated each week and that individual cups are okay, I’m “mainline”. I also look for the church to grow in certain areas, so the label given to my church may or may not describe my theological bent. How should I be labeled?
Yet how quickly we tend to slap a label on others as though we now know them.
I learned this lesson a few years ago when the preacher and his wife from [what they would have claimed] was the most conservative and Bible-based church in the state came to visit my parents. My dad is a minister and they were trying to get my parents church to support their annual retreat. This couple talked about how “sound” they were and how the camp ran and the modesty guidelines they put in place and how they don’t allow mixed swimming.
The whole time my Mum, who has worn dresses almost her whole life, is looking at this preachers wife thinking, “You came to make a formal visit wearing pants?” For many reasons, including the pants, my parents never attended that camp.
Peter Horne is the minister for the Lawson Rd Church of Christ in Rochester, NY. Born and bred in Australia he moved to the United States in 1999. You can follow more of his writing at any of his 3 blogs: www.ozziepete.wordpress.com (sermon related Bible study); www.GodMeetsBall.com (God and sports discussions); and www.CulturalMosaic.com (promoting multiethnic churches).