Ever since the first Jesus followers were tagged with the title “Christians,” labels have been a point of description and controversy throughout the 2,000 years of our movement. From Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians to the kaleidoscope of labels birthed by the Reformation, we Christians have created, lived, warred, and died within an environment of labeling each other.
Now it seems as though our denominational labels are not enough. Granted, this is not new for many of us, but it continues the church’s downward slide to irrelevancy. For some time now instead of being a Baptist, I must first identify myself as a Cooperative Fellowship Baptist. More recently within my own Fellowship, I am discovering that this particular layer of labeling is no longer sufficient. Apparently, I now must identify myself as either a conservative, moderate, or liberal Cooperative Baptist. So exhausting!
You’re going to need a scorecard, or at the very least a flow chart, for the next part.
One of my mentors and former professors, whom I dearly respect, Dr. Roger Olson of George W. Truett Seminary at Baylor University, recently asked “liberal” Cooperative Baptists, as he described them, to please stop using the term “moderate” to identify themselves within the Fellowship. He informed them they are not “moderate” in theology nor practice, therefore they are hurting the movement by identifying themselves as “moderate” when they are in reality “liberal.” How are they hurting the movement, you might ask? Well, it appears “conservatives” don’t like “liberals” and are threatening to leave.
Confused yet? Me, too. Don’t really care? I’m close.
It is for this reason I am moving ever so close to giving up the identifying labels for my faith altogether. While I have been a Baptist all my life, the time for me to set down this label may be on the horizon. What I have discovered as a Christian minister is that current labels are always changing and current labels are never enough. At some point, even the conservative, moderate, and liberal labels will be divided into other labels because someone does not like the other. If we extend this labeling process into the future we will divide ourselves so much that only minuscule and insignificant pieces of the faith will remain. We will be irrelevant to the world.
For the vitality of our faith, we must somehow divorce ourselves from these labels that divide us. As Paul reminded us, we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Why can we not understand that we live under a canopy of Christianity where a myriad of ideas are always shaping and molding our faith? Why can we not open our minds to the reality we are not the creators of truth, but a community of sojourners collaborating to make a more perfect faith in search of it?
More and more, I have been asked what kind of faith community people will find at NorthHaven Church in Norman, OK. For the last several years, I have been describing our church as an Ecumenical community of faith with Baptist tendencies. If I am being asked to now define myself and our church with more labels – no matter the label – then I am finished playing the label game.
For those still adamant in deducing Jesus followers to labels, I will gladly return whatever you deem necessary so not to hurt your shrinking movement. However, I will not return my freedom to be a follower of Jesus as my conscience dictates. Individuals and groups can tag me and our church with whatever label they like: conservative, moderate, or liberal. If you do though, please understand this, your labeling is making the church more and more irrelevant to the world. While we bicker over labels and definitions, the world continues to suffer from injustice, poverty, disease, and a lack of hope. So if possible please keep your labels to yourself, while our church and others like us attempt to engage the world with a love that surpasses any definitions.
Finally, let me make this statement: I am a follower of Christ, imperfect and fallible. I seek to understand the Scriptures as best as my imperfect and fallible mind will allow. I attempt to live out that understanding through missional engagement that I hope honors the Lord I confess. I can’t stop anyone from labeling what I am or what I do in the name of Christ, but you cannot have my heart, my mind, nor my soul. Those belong to Christ.
Labels, no thank you!