by: Clayton King, Ministry Founder + Evangelist + Author
Let’s say you had just heard me preach, either at our Crossroads Youth Camps or at a local church. You would probably not remember every word I said in the sermon, but you would most likely have an impression of me based on the small snapshot you got in my message. The words you may use to describe me could include;
Southern. Outgoing. Enthusiastic. Funny. Loud. Outdoorsman.
If you heard me on a regular basis, like the students at Liberty University do, you would probably include some other words to describe me;
Family man. Long-winded. Conservative. Sports fan. Coffee drinker.
You wouldn’t mean to, but you would be using those words to label me. I do the same thing with people everyday. It’s how we navigate the thousands of introductions, interactions, and relationships we have with people throughout the course of our lives. This is not a bad thing, so to speak, because it helps us make sense of our world and the people that are a part of it.
As Christians, however, it is important that we look beyond labels when we talk about our sisters and brothers in Christ. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, is famous for saying, “If you label me, you negate me.” There is an element of truth to the idea that once we place a person into a category, we assume we know everything about them; what they believe, where they stand, and even if they’re a true Christian. This is a dangerous practice that caused harm in the days of Christ and causes harm today.
During His life, Jesus saw how certain labels created division. There were Saducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Rabbis, Zealots, and the Sanhedrin. Paul was also in the middle of the “label wars.” During his ministry, there were Judaizers, Gnostics, Gentile converts, and followers of Apollos.
Fast forward to our day. We love to label people as well, both in the culture and in the church. We call people liberal, conservative, moderate, libertarian, Calvinist, Arminian, Pentecostal, Evangelical, environmental, vegan, granola, atheist, agnostic, traditionalist, tolerant, open-minded, old-school, and progressive. We even like to differentiate between Apple and Android (for the record: I’m a Mac guy)!
As a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s hard for me to push through the tendency to quickly label a person, because that’s the easiest thing to do in a culture where we’re all too busy to take time to ask questions and get to know a person. I’m often surprised after a genuine conversation with someone to find out they were delightfully different from my first impression of them.
The label that matters for me is “Christian.” I don’t want to be primarily known as Reformed, or Baptist, or Charismatic, or Republican (I actually am a few of those, can you guess which ones)? I want to be known as a Christian, first and foremost. And if that is the label that matters, there is one way I will be labeled that way. Jesus Himself said, “And by this will all men know that you are my disciples; if you love each other.”
That’s a label I can live with.