As Christians, we are quite familiar with denominational labels, but are they proper? Is it right to identify other Christians as “Lutheran” or “Wesleyan,” when such labels are absent from the Bible, and carry the name of mere men? Is it right to identify other Christians as “Evangelical” or “Fundamentalist,” when such labels can give the impression that somehow we are not all on the same team? In other words, do labels do more harm than good? In this essay, I describe my own approach to denominational labels, using the concept of humble pride.
Labels come from movements, and movements come from men; therefore, the question of labels is inextricably tied to the role of influential men in the Christian tradition. How should we feel towards these men that God used so mightily? If we are proud of them, are we thereby diminishing our worship of God? If we forget them, are we displaying our ingratitude? Even more, if we are ashamed of them, are we indicating a secret desire to start our own movement, to make a name for ourselves? We must have some attitude towards these men, especially those of our own denomination. What should our attitude be?
Thankfully, as in all matters of Christian spirituality, the apostles have supplied the principles we need. In correcting the unhealthy pride of the Corinthians, Paul left us the following three principles for the role of humble pride in maintaining the Christian tradition.
First, we should eschew all self-labels, but not necessarily all labels. In some sense, labels are unavoidable. The early Christians were called “Christians” presumably by outsiders, perhaps in much the same way that early adherents to believer-baptism in England were called “Anabaptists” or “Baptists” (cf. Acts 11:26). To the extent that such labels speak the truth, especially a theological truth, we should accept them without shame or a fuss. Peter counseled, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16). For our discussion here, the pertinent question is: How do we internally and verbally label ourselves? That is our self-label.
The Corinthians were a divided church with many self-labels. Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” while others were claiming Apollos or Peter or even Christ, interestingly enough (1 Corinthians 1:12). In response, Paul challenged them, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). There is only one Christ, and there is only one church; therefore, there should be no divisions in the church due to self-labels. After all, it was not a fundamentalist who died for us, nor were we baptized as a Baptist, but as a Christian. We are all Christians, and our boast should be in Christ alone (1:31).
Granted, the situation today varies somewhat from the situation then. For example, as R. C. Sproul once pointed out, our current labels often express substantial theological differences, in contrast to the doctrinal unity of the apostles. If we truly wish to remove all labels and to identify ourselves as simply Christian, then, in order to be truthful, we should strive to be better united in doctrine. It may be that some of the divisions in Corinth had stemmed from a misrepresentation of the various apostles’ doctrines, for Paul first told them to be of “the same mind” and “the same judgment”–statements that may refer to doctrine and not strictly to attitude (1:10). Even so, it is the last label that warns us that more than doctrine is involved here. How could it be wrong to say, “I am of Christ”? Obviously, if I put forth any other name, I deny the fundamental priority of Christ, and open myself up to a possible identification with another man’s sin (see Matthew 23:8-10, 29-31); but what is wrong with claiming Christ?
The problem is not with the words “of Christ,” but with the words “I am.” Instead of saying, “We are of Christ,” the singular pronoun distances other brothers, as if this ego has more spirituality than other egos. It is an ironic quirk of church history that groups separating themselves as being merely “Christian” end up becoming a new denomination. The solution to disunity will never be the self-assertion of a new label, even if that label is Christ Himself. We should accept the label that we have already received in the Christian tradition. We should not try to assert that we are this or that we are not that, in contradistinction to other Christian groups, for in so doing we become the “This” denomination or the “Not-That” denomination. All such self-assertions are foolish. Self-made titles are a quick road to pride (Matthew 23:8-12). In contrast, if we accept the label we currently have, it will grow more and more invisible in time, as long as our good deeds keep pace with the glory of Christ’s cause (1 Peter 2:12). Eventually, the label may fade away and be dropped altogether.
Second, we should recognize that all Christian leaders belong to us. In addressing the issue of disunity, Paul urged the Corinthians: “Let no one glory in men. For all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, of life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). In other words, Martin Luther belongs just as much to me as to the Lutherans; John Wesley belongs just as much to me as to the Wesleyans.
According to Paul, recognition of this universal ownership is necessary to counteract the wrongful boasting in men that leads to disunity. Instead of boasting in one man, in obvious rivalry to Christ and in contrast to the recognition of all Christians, we should embrace the entire Body of Christ as our own. Furthermore, instead of boasting in no man, which in essence means that we adhere to ourselves alone in blind pride, we should recognize that Christ gave men to us as gifts, refusing to furnish us with all the grace-gifts we need (Ephesians 4:7ff). In truth, we belong to them, and they belong to us. Unhealthy pride is eradicated through interdependence. It makes so much sense. How can there be a party spirit without exclusive ownership? A Christian teacher is no more the sole possession of one group than a community park is the sole property of one citizen.
In practical terms, preachers should regularly read outside their particular denominational tradition, and then express the greater unity of the church through quotations from that reading. Granted, theological differences should be noted; but if the teacher was a Christian, quote him as a brother. Furthermore, in today’s context, fundamentalists should reckon evangelical leaders as their own, and evangelicals should reckon fundamentalist leaders as their own. The old should recognize the young, and the young should recognize the old. We are one in Christ, so let us glory in our mutual possession of diverse denominational traditions within the one Christian tradition.
Third, we should also recognize that there is a time to boast in Christian leaders. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them, “You have acknowledged us in part, that we are your rejoicing, even as you also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:14). Paul was their boast, and he wrote to give them opportunity to glory in him in order to “answer them which glory in appearance, and not in heart” (5:12). At first, this may appear to contradict Paul’s first letter, for he had urged the Corinthians not to boast in men. It is only an appearance. In the first letter, Paul had attacked the personal pride that hid behind the self-labels; here in the second letter, Paul argued for taking pride in true Christian leaders as symbols of Christ. To be ashamed of a true Gospel preacher is parallel to being ashamed of the Gospel itself (2 Timothy 1:8; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20). Therefore, when a Christian leader is being attacked for the faith, we should stand with him and own his name, regardless of his denominational label; for in so doing, we boast in Christ Himself (e.g. 2 Timothy 1:16-17). This injunction is especially obligatory towards those who have led us, who fathered us in the faith, even if we should now disagree with them on certain particulars (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15).
This boasting is the humble pride God favors. It is pride, because we are boasting in Christ, through unashamedly identifying with His servants. It is humble, because we are not boasting in ourselves, nor in our denomination’s leaders alone, but in all the servants of Christ, who Himself gave them to us. May the Name of Christ be praised, and may His church attain to greater unity through the diffusion of humble pride! Amen.