If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at church websites these days, you’ll notice that every congregation attempts to define themselves in some way or another with labels. These can be denominational labels found in their church name (like Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic), or words that communicate where they stand on certain points of doctrine (like Reformed, Charismatic, or Complementarian), or phrases that capture the kind of culture that exists at their church (like “Open and Affirming” or “Not Your Grandma’s Church” or “Relevant and exciting”). Such labels are often utilized to make sure one’s church stands out above all the rest. Other times, they can be used to make sure one’s church stands out against all the rest. Regardless of intent, labels help churches clarify who they are.
While labels are helpful, it is important for us to think through our use of labels and consider some of the tensions and problems that churches face when attempting to clarify who they are.
Labels Are Required
After 2,000 years of church history and heresies, conflicts and schisms, Christian churches are virtually required to use labels. They are a wise and helpful way to let people know what exactly they can expect when attending your church. We can’t just identify as “Christian” since that word can mean so many different things to different people these days.1Anthony L. Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013), 37-38. Even so-called “non-denominational” churches that try to avoid labels because they “just love Jesus” still align to some degree with a denominational tradition by virtue of what they believe and how they worship.2John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 20. So, either you can be honest and forthcoming and choose your labels up front, or you can let your preaching, liturgy, and “core values” expose who you are.
Labels Have Baggage
However, as helpful as labels can be, there’s a catch: every label has baggage. Over time, they come to mean different things to different people. Denominational labels, theological positions, and cultural catchphrases come with all kinds of unhelpful connotations, assumptions, and ways of misinterpretation. For example, here are some of the labels we use to describe ourselves at ECC and how they have been (re)defined or (mis)interpreted:
- Christian = (1) A Roman Catholic Church; or (2) a science-denying, intolerant, bigoted church that preaches against drinking, smoking, and listening to rock and roll.
- Protestant = A troublemaking church that hates tradition and doesn’t play well with others.
- Reformed/Calvinist = An arrogant church that worships John Calvin, believes human beings are robots, and that God is cold and capricious.
- Baptist = (1) An old-fashioned, dispensational, KJV-only church that teaches you can go on sinning because “once saved, always saved”; (2) a dead church that isn’t Spirit-filled; or (3) a style of music.
- Evangelical = (1) A church that is an extension of the Republican Party and worships its candidates, or (2) a non-denom church with a vague name (that sounds more like a weed shop than a church) that is seeker-friendly, “experience”-driven, quasi-charismatic, gospel-assuming, and doctrine-lite.
- Complementarian = An outdated, corrupt, and abusive church that believes women are inferior to men.
If this is what these labels mean, then of course we aren’t any of those things. But this illustrates the problem that comes from the baggage of labels: should use them, or lose them? If we continue to use these labels, we run the risk of being misunderstood and criticized. If, in an effort to prevent misunderstanding, we don’t use these labels, we will still be misunderstood and criticized by those who think we should use them!
Therefore, churches must think carefully about which labels they use and which labels they believe are worth fighting for despite potential misunderstanding, slander, and unwanted associations.
Labels Are Not Everything
While the baggage with labels may be unavoidable and expected, the problems with using them are exacerbated by the fact that everyone is being trained to think in terms of labels alone. Rather than doing the hard work of learning what a church actually teaches, getting to know the shepherds and the flock that make up that congregation, and examining the fruit it is producing, all we care about is the label. This uncharitable and anti-Christian way of thinking is because, as Alastair Roberts points out, we have developed “highly polarized and tribalized characterizations of people and are constantly framing everything in terms of such polarizations.” And the more we are on social media, the more we are “susceptible to such polarized and tribalized thinking.” Here are two examples where we see this play out:
- If we use the term “evangelical,” the post-evangelical left will assume we are simply MAGA Christian nationalists (which we are not). But if we don’t use it, the Christian nationalist right will assume we are “woke” (which we are also not).
- If we say we are concerned with “social justice,” we will be labeled as woke. If we don’t say we are concerned with social justice, we will be labeled as racist oppressors.
These labels, which are in fact biblical concepts, have unfortunately been hijacked by political movements and are now used as signals of what a church believes about public policy. But rather than seek to understand what a church means by their use of them, we are content to slap a label on them, write them off, and call it a day. In our social-media-obsessed age there is no room for nuance, for establishing common ground, for patient discernment, or for charitable understanding.
Since labels are required and have baggage, and since we are being conditioned on social media to only care about labels, there are several things for churches and Christians to consider. For starters, churches should still use labels and think carefully about the ones they believe are worth fighting for. But we should not hold them so close that we can’t see past them to recognize other faithful congregations. And we definitely should not assume that we know what another church means by their use of a certain term or phrase. We should believe the best about our brothers and sisters until proven otherwise (1 Cor. 13:7).
For Christians, there is much more to a community of faith than its labels, so don’t put all your stock in them. Don’t merely listen to what others have to say about a church or a pastor and make hasty judgments, especially voices on social media who are incentivized to be uncharitable in their efforts to grow their platform. Don’t write off a church or ministry based on the labels you prefer or that you have heard other people use to describe a church. Your evaluation of a church should not be based solely on its labels but also its doctrine and its fruit.
Above all, get to know the church and its people! Don’t let the polarized and tribal thinking of social media lead you to assume the worst or the best about others. Inquire, communicate, seek understanding, be charitable.
Matt Bedzyk serves as lead pastor at Emmanuel Community Church where he has faithfully served in many capacities for most of his life. He received his Master of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt and his wife Brianna have three children: Lorien Grace, Owen James, and Vivian Jane. In his spare time, you can find him reading, brewing coffee, enjoying music, and supporting Manchester United and OG esports.
- 1Anthony L. Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013), 37-38.
- 2John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 20.