(Photo: Dan Delzell)
If you are a Christian who prefers to stick with definitions which are found in the Bible when explaining your faith to others, try doing this sometime. Ask the spiritual leader at your church, "Is it fine if I never use our denominational label, but instead only identify myself as a 'Christian' when talking to others about my faith?" The answer you are given will tell you a lot about the amount of spiritual freedom in your congregation.
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) In the Bible, those who are born again through faith in Christ are defined with words such as: "believer," "Christian," "disciple," "saint," "brothers," "sisters," and "the church." These are some of the designations God chose to use in His Word when defining you as a follower of Christ. There are plenty of other descriptors which get used by Christians that are man-made and are not listed in the Bible.
It is not a sin to use some man-made words to define yourself and your spiritual beliefs and practices. You have the freedom as a believer to use such words if you so desire. There are plenty of born again people who in good conscience say things such as, "I am a Baptist," or "I am a Catholic," or "I am a Pentecostal," or "I am a Calvinist." This can certainly be done in a way that does not cause offense or too much division within the body of Christ.
But having the freedom to use such definitions is a very different thing than feeling the pressure to use them. Are you in a church that would frown upon your choice to always use "Christian" or "believer" rather than your denominational moniker? Are you concerned that a denominational label often gets in the way of the Gospel being presented without unnecessary clutter? If so, you are one of millions of believers around the world who feel the same way you do on this issue.
All denominational labels carry baggage. Many times there is some good baggage. Other times there is less desirable baggage. The less desirable baggage may be related to people who use that label to teach doctrines or promote behavior which do not reflect biblical Christianity. In any case, the label will often muddy the water and confuse the person you are trying to reach for Christ. Hence, you are reluctant to use a definition which is not found in the Bible and might easily be misunderstood. It could easily overshadow the real message you are wanting to share.
As Christians, is our message about a denomination….or a Person? Is it about having someone subscribe to all the doctrinal distinctions of one particular denomination….or is it about a person committing his or her life to following Christ even if they do not agree 100% with every secondary doctrine of one denomination? Are you more interested in building your "brand," or more interested in making disciples who are free in the Lord to make plenty of personal decisions such as these according to their own conscience and their understanding of Scripture?
Are you driven more by a denominational agenda….or led more by the Holy Spirit? Why would God waste His time and dilute His message by promoting your denomination above the rest of His church? That is not God's agenda. His agenda is clearly spelled out in His love letter to His children. The Bible contains words….words which are very important to God….words that are more important to Him than man-made words, and certainly more important than man-made organizations. The church is the body of Christ. Your particular local congregation may or may not be a part of God's church on earth. It depends upon what you teach, which in turn greatly influences how you live.
A cult seeks to bind the conscience of its followers on all matters, including secondary issues. A Christian congregation that is flowing in the Holy Spirit is one where disciples are free to believe the Bible and to define themselves according to their conscience, as long as it does not conflict with the Word of God. No pressure is put on them to conform to only one way of viewing secondary issues. (see Romans 14) There will also be no pressure in such churches to use a manmade label in defining yourself and your faith.
Show me a spiritual leader who is filled with the Holy Spirit, and I will show you one who makes more of the word "Christian" than the word "Presbyterian," or "Lutheran," or "Catholic," or "Baptist." Why? Because the Holy Spirit chose to use the word "Christian" in God's love letter to us. It was not an accident. That word was used intentionally. People chose to use that word to describe believers in the early church, but God is the One who chose to place it in His Word. Therefore, it is a holy definition for believers today. Our man-made denominational definitions do not improve upon God's words. God's definitions are much better. Spirit-filled believers always want to stick with words from Scripture far more than man-made labels.
The Holy Spirit inspired St. Peter to write, "If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1 Peter 4:16) You are not being disloyal to Christ by wanting to identify yourself as a "Christian" rather than with a man-made moniker. In fact, it honors the Lord to place His words about you far above man's words which tend to point to one earthly organization. Many religious people feel some pressure to promote their unique label, but Christians should feel no such pressure. If your spiritual leader or an organization pressures you to use their moniker, that should be a red flag to you right there. What other man-made traditions are they trying to wrap around your freedom in Christ?
Why do so many believers become seemingly obsessed with a particular moniker? Very simply….because their spiritual leaders over the years have stressed the perceived importance of it. This emphasis gets passed on from one generation to the next. That doesn't mean that God was stressing the importance of the moniker….it just means that some spiritual leaders were choosing to make a big deal of it in the advancement of their organization. Doctrine is critically important. Denominational labels are not. One unites Christians who believe the Bible....the other tends to divide Christians from one another. Jesus prayed for His disciples "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in You." (John 17:20)
If a denomination has not added or taken anything away from the teachings of the early Christians, then why this obsession with some contemporary moniker? Why does one "brand" have to receive so much focus? Your label is a relatively new word compared to the words in the Bible which define born again people. The word "Christian" is far superior to any man-made label for believers.
Many of these denominational labels tend to suggest an emphasis upon only one or two aspects of Christian theology, and how that group sees itself as being somewhat separate from other believers and other Christian groups. There are a variety of reasons to be very careful about which labels you use to identify your relationship with Christ and His church. Some labels will promote a human organization. Other labels will promote the Lord's true church around the world made up of all born again people.
If you are more interested in your "brand" than in the Lord's global church, you need to rethink your position and see if God is the one promoting your moniker. You will discover that God does not promote these labels. It is man who does so because some believers tend to think their group has "one up" theologically on the other Christian groups. How sad and misinformed. It actually reveals a great weakness in that denomination and a blindness to what the Holy Spirit is actually doing in thousands upon thousands of Christian congregations around the world.
Hey….if your denominational label does something for you, then I suppose you will go ahead and use it regularly. You are free in Christ to do so….but please don't force your agenda on all other believers in your church. Christianity is not a cult….and your label will disappear when believers go to heaven. So it might be a good time for you and I to start learning how to live without it….at least some of the time. You know….baby steps.
Some people learn to live without it completely in this life. For others, the struggle seems greater and they appear unlikely to shed this weight until they get to heaven. Eventually, every born again person loses their moniker and recognizes our complete unity as believers through the blood of Jesus which was shed for us on the cross. In heaven, no one will boast is his denomination or the uniqueness of those secondary doctrines his group emphasized on earth. The only boasting will be about God and what He has done for His children.
So use whatever biblical or man-made definitions you choose to use for yourself….but just realize, your denomination is "the vast minority" within Christ's church. Go ahead and knock yourself out with your label if that floats your boat….but please don't knock others out with it. Give disciples within your group the freedom to stick with God's words when defining their spirituality and their faith. Otherwise, you may inadvertently be promoting a "cult-like" atmosphere within your religious organization. Man is very good at that sort of thing. God is very good at promoting freedom of conscience. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17)