I was recently reminded of a powerful lesson that the labels we use to define us have great power to separate us. There are all sorts of labels I use to describe my faith; Christian, not Jewish or Muslim; then I define church – protestant as opposed to catholic or orthodox and so on down the label food chain past denominations and on to theology – evangelical, Baptist, charismatic are three labels I often use for myself. It seems the longer I go on in church leadership the greater the number of labels there seems to be – take your pick from the following: missional, complementarian, egalitarian, Calvinist, Reformed, Arminian, pentecostal, spirit-filled, gospel-centered and on and on and on.
Sometimes all you’re looking for is a descriptor that helps people understand you – it’s like trying to find your town on a map. “Oh that’s where you’re from”.
Other times these labels, which can express deeply held convictions blind us to what we have in common. Even though what unites is far greater our gaze is inevitably drawn to our differences. Few people it seems are hard-wired for unity.
Using extra-biblical labels can be dangerous – once people think they know where you’re from they may not want anything to do with you. Terms become either a badge of honour or a term of insult or perhaps as in the case of ‘evangelical’ no longer useful.
It is the lazy way to find friends and allies, labels function as a short cut so I can quickly identify whether or not to make an effort. Genuine relationship requires that we work much harder at examining what unifies us and the implications of our differences. Do these differences that mean we cannot make disciples together because we disagree over sin, salvation, baptism, the work of the Spirit or are there ways we can serve one another as brothers and sisters in Christ?
I wonder how often I’ve missed the opportunity to build friendships that can usefully serve the church through the lazy attachment of a label and perhaps if I had the chance, I’d push them off the bridge.