The Problem With Labels

The longer I live, the more I detest being labeled. I resent being labeled by the region of the country that I live in. Typically, those of us in the South have labels for Yankees (oops, there’s a label), and those in the North have a label for those below the Mason Dixon Line. The danger is that we tend to judge someone by a preconceived disposition that may have no basis in fact.

Now before I go any further, there are some labels I’m proud of. Not all labels are bad. I’m proud to wear the label of husband and father. I rejoice that God called me to wear the label of pastor. I’m grateful when someone labels me their friend. I am unashamed to call myself one who is committed to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. These are good labels.

When it comes to labels and religion, everyone wants to fit you into their system of preconceived ideas. Often when I meet someone and they find out what denomination I serve, they turn me off before they ever get to know me. I have great distaste for those who want to label me by a denomination. Not every church in my denomination is the same. In every denomination there are churches that tarnish the name of that particular persuasion.

While I am Southern Baptist by heritage, I am born again by the grace of God. Denominational labels are the result of man’s divisions and design. I’m not ashamed to be a Southern Baptist (well, not all the time), but I don’t want to be classified with those who think our denomination can be traced back to John the Baptist. Charles Spurgeon said, “I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked, what is my Creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’”

I am confused by those who think changing a label will change the contents. Churches are no longer willing to be called by their denominational label. They fear that the name “Baptist” or “Methodist” will offend people. Churches by the thousands are changing their name to “_______ Community Church,” saying it connects more. Every time I think of community, I’m reminded of the community my wife and I lived in when we were in seminary. We had a Prostitute living on one side of us and a rock band on the other side. Not much of a community to me. Personally, I didn’t feel “at home.”

Let’s be honest, we’ve all been in “community” churches that were cold, indifferent, and unfriendly. You can change the name, change the carpet, change anything you want, but if you don’t change the heart, nothing changes.

Baptists have made dozens of changes trying to come up with a name for Church Training that relates. You can call it Church Training, Discipleship Training, Vitality through Videos, Seminars on Successful Living, The School of Discipleship, or Classes for the Really Committed, but people still won’t come. Church staffs and laity have wasted countless hours trying to rename something, thinking a name change would draw a crowd. If the material isn’t good, they aren’t coming. If the horse is dead, dismount. A name change won’t breathe any life into a corpse. Unless there is life, there is no reason to attend. No one should attend a meeting based on what it once stood for.

If our churches want to wear the label “church,” we’d better make sure we are the right kind of church. People say, “I want to be a part of a New Testament church.” I ask them, “Which one?” Surely not Corinth. Corinth was carnal. Do you want to be in a church that Jesus says makes him nauseated? Sad to say, that’s a label the church in America has been given by those who witnessed the hypocrisies and moral failures that cascaded upon us in the 1980s.

I don’t like the label “religious programming.” Most of what I see on religious TV reminds me of “As the Stomach Turns.” If I see one more gaudy woman—who dresses more like a woman of the night than a minister’s wife—I may do what Elvis did and shoot my television. There are TV “ministries” (and I use that term loosely) that aren’t biblically based. They are basically on the air to raise money. All that glitters is not God. The world is not impressed with glitter, but they will take note of godliness with power.

You can call something “gold,” but if there’s nothing but sand inside the box it won’t sell. The world will see right through it. A label is supposed to be a promise of the quality of the product. Coke doesn’t sell well because of the name; it sells because of the product. Products that sell are products that live up to their billing. They produce what they promise.

Some people think that a church’s label must carry it. No, the church must carry the label. We have to do what we say. If we say our goal is to touch the world, then when people walk in the doors they better see evidence of us doing just that.

The world might say, “They are busy as a bee,” or “They’ve got great activities,” or “They have some great musicians.” All that is well and good, but do they see Jesus in us? When they walk in our doors are they greeted with a divine kind of love that reflects the person of Jesus?

If you see a police officer or someone wearing a badge, it should remind you that you’re in a safe place. If you enter a church where the ushers wear a badge, does it send the signal that you are about to be ushered into the House of God? When you meet someone with a greeter’s badge, are you welcomed and wanted or just handed a bulletin? When you meet a deacon, do you see a man filled with the Spirit, wisdom, and faith? At most churches, they’d find a man standing outside the church puffing away.

In the first century, the name “church” meant something. Now you have organizations that call themselves churches, but they are not. They have the label, but they lack the evidence of the presence of God. I hate it. Why? Because people lump all churches together. If they’ve seen one church full of hypocrites, they think all churches are full of hypocrites. If they’ve been to one church that was unfriendly, they might assume all are.

The world will not be shaken, stirred, or transformed by our labels. They will only change when they see lives that live up to the Scriptures. They were first called Christians at Antioch. After observing the early church for a year, the only label the world could come up with was “little Christs.” They saw Jesus in the church. Sad to say, but that’s probably the last thing the average church would be tagged with today.

Unfortunately, because we’ve disobeyed the Scriptures by failing to live holy lives and walk our talk, the label the world gives us is “hypocrite.” Churches that lack the power of God are a dime a dozen and not worth half that much. God help us. God forgive us for being the “House of the Holier than Thou”—nothing more than a bunch of Bible bangers with the heart of a sawed-off Sadducee.

Roy Gustafson said, “The Holy Spirit never gathers to a denomination. He never gathers to an ordinance. He never gathers to a doctrine. He never gathers to a ritual. The Holy Spirit of God always gathers to the Person of Christ.” I’m not attracted to labels. In fact, I hate them. I am attracted to people who are like Jesus. What attracts you?

One thought on “The Problem With Labels

  1. “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.
    I should be glad of another death.”- The Closing lines of T.S Eliot’s poem titled “The Journey of the Magi”.

    Pastor Catt, you have always impressed me with your poignant wit. To answer your question,’what attracts me?’….True shepherding in a church. I so detest how modernity is forcing the traditional church into a typical corporate structure. I am attracted by a church whose congregation speak into the lives of others, who watch over the lives of others and care for their well being. A church where believers meet, living life together and loving the Lord together. This is NOT a reference to Shangrila or Utopia!
    I am attracted to a church that is built on a biblical model which is focused on the Great Commission: who are desperate for God for a revival, the transformation of culture, evangelization of the lost, sacrificial callings to prayer,who have a spirit that makes them accepting of all the people and creating intimacy with God. They also have to always be prepared financially to take the gospel to other places.
    Sorry Pastor Catt, i have never met a Pastor who met my minimal/watered down “labels”. Even though they are mere mortals, i used to think any pastor would treat me the same if i were in say…Italy,USA,Gabon,Belize etc. The pastors i have met in my lifetime are cold,indifferent and apathetic. What a contrast from my “going” stereotype.
    There are abusers of Christianity, i understand that, that is why i did not completely turn away from Christianity. I am looking for a more “robust” Christianity, now that attracts me. Thank you once again Pastor Catt for your powerful insight.
    Divided by miles. United in love.

    From Africa with love,
    Langat Kibet,
    Nairobi,Kenya(East Africa).

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