Labeling Ourselves to Death
This is, perhaps, one of the most important and timely pieces I’ve ever written. Now, that might sound like fluffy hyperbole employed only get more likes and more readers, but it isn’t. Let me reassure you, that’s not the intent of this being composed. I believe that Christendom, as a whole, is at a crucial juncture. Most of what’s in the past is the result of the natural pendulum swing of Christianity. That is, a group of believers react to another group who are seen as “pushing the envelope” in a certain area by another group pushing back against them. This dynamic, while natural, is extremely detrimental to believers, causing generational gaps and building denominational barriers that Christ never intended to exist. This pendulum swinging has also resulted in the influx of labels, to the point where we’re now labeling ourselves to death. If you’ve grown up in church, like I have, you might be familiar with this dynamic, but perhaps you’re not.
Just look for yourself, though, at the list of denominations recognized by our government — or, more than that, look at the list of differing Baptist groups and churches in your area (or Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Southern Baptist, or whatever group you affiliate with). We’ve acted and reacted, divided and subdivided so much, that now Christians are more like Christ-following-nomads than united soldiers fighting under the banner of “It is finished.” We react to what we don’t like, find other people who feel the same as us, then we form another group, start another church — multiplying, dividing, and segregating.
All this labeling, all this isolating, I believe, is the result of our overall loss of focus — of losing the major at the expense of upholding the minor. No longer is Jesus and his gospel of grace our sole mandate, it’s whether or not the pastor wears a suit and tie behind the pulpit. No longer is God’s abounding forgiveness the center and driving force behind our faith, it’s whether or not you listen to “Christian rock” or not. Instead of focusing on Jesus’s timeless message of meeting our incredible mess with his infinite mercy, we’re bucking each other’s heads because of the translation of Scripture being read. I believe that we, too, have become somewhat like the Pharisees in the Gospels, whom Jesus reprimands for having “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23) Instead of Jesus being where he ought to be, in the center, denominations and institutions have taken over, pushing Christ to the sidelines.
If ever we’re caught adhering to a denominational or institutional agenda more ardently than we follow God’s Son, we’ve gone far astray and lost sight of the “weightier matters” of the gospel. More and more, I’m growing vocal about my beliefs and stance regarding this matter, because more and more Christians are isolating themselves to protect their denomination, instead of radically clinging to the gospel of grace. Which is to say, perhaps to some alarmingly so, that I don’t call myself a “Fundamentalist,” nor am I a “New Calvinist,” nor do I classify myself as “Reformed,” or any other label you might conjure up or be familiar with. I prefer to categorize myself as (simply) a Christian that’s a Baptist. All that I am, I want to be found and defined by the Scriptures, by God’s words, not man’s. I want to be distinguished from the world, not for my conformity to an institution, but to my clinging to a Person, namely, Jesus Christ. Remember, the only label in the New Testament given to one who follows Christ was “Christians.” (Acts 11:26)
Were Jesus’s disciples “Baptists”? They were baptized, yes, but they weren’t Baptists, as we’re familiar with today — that classification wouldn’t arise until many years later. Regrettably, most of the labels and denominations that have developed through the centuries have turned into barriers keeping people out instead of serving as bridges welcoming people in. This should be the desire of all our hearts. Jesus should never be relegated to the sidelines. Nor should we ever cleave to anything other than his sovereignty and his grace. Never should our institutional and traditional heritage refuse lost and broken people (which is all of us). But often, it’s this that is lost. More often than not, the good news of great grace and everlasting forgiveness is what gets lost in translation when we try to uphold traditions and labels over everything else. Ask yourself: What’s more important, protecting your hymnals or seeing souls saved? What’s eternal, the style of dress the pastor dons each Sunday or the saving message of grace?
Make no mistake: this isn’t some sort of “universalist” drivel — not all roads lead to heaven. But Jesus himself declares that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and that “No one comes to the Father except through [him].” (John 14:6) It’s him, it’s Christ; not a label. It’s Jesus, not religion. “There is only one way of salvation,” writes John Angell James, “and that is, not Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, Methodism, nor Congregationalism; but repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (xiii) Indeed, as has been said elsewhere, “the prerogative of our Christian faith, the secret of its strength, is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person. This is what has made it strong, while so much else has provided weak, that it has Christ for a middle point, — that is has not a circumference without a centre, — that it has not merely a deliverance, but a Deliverer; not a redemption only, but a Redeemer as well; for oh how vast is the difference between submitting ourselves upon a beating heart; between accepting a system and cleaving to a person.” (Trench, 222)
A system can fall, a tradition can be lost, a rule can be broken — but a person — no — The Person, Jesus Christ can never fall, never waver, never falter. He’s “the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8 ) He’s “before all things” (Col. 1:17), the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending,” that “which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8) He’s the never-ending Savior. His grace is an interminable fountain of undying love. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Ps. 90:2) Bank on him, lean on him, cling to his grace, push further into his gospel. That’s all he’s after, and, after all, that’s what we’ve been created to do. Life is found in a Person, not in a label.
John Angell James, Christian Hope (London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1858).
Richard Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (London: MacMillan & Co., 1880).