Labels and Lenses

When I was in college, a story made the rounds about a student who asked a preacher who was a frequent chapel speaker to meet with him. The young man wanted permission to date the preacher’s daughter—not in the sense of taking her to lunch or a basketball game, but in the sense of pursuing a serious relationship.

As the student and the preacher sat down together, the preacher said, “Well, son, are you a Big B baptist?”

The young man responded, “Well, sir, I am a Big C Christian.”

The preacher was not amused.

I don’t know whether the guy got to date the girl or not.

That story may have been the campus version of an urban legend. But it stuck with me because I have known “Big B Baptists.” Some friends, associations, institutions were not only distinctively Baptist, but aggressively Baptist.

In one group discussion about doctrines that Christians could differ on, one man had a hard time placing mode of baptism in that category. All of us in the discussion felt that immersion was the best mode and most in line with Scriptural teaching, but we agreed this wasn’t a decision that would make us question a person’s salvation. We understood how people could believe in other modes, even though we didn’t agree with them. But this man struggled with that thought, though he finally conceded.

I’ve known people who were “Big R Reformed” Christians or “Big C Calvinists.” My first introduction to Calvinism was from college Bible majors who constantly wanted to debate election vs. free will. One was even asked to leave campus, not because of his beliefs, but because he was “sowing discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:19), constantly stirring up debates. I know some on Facebook like that now.

Of course, not all Reformed people are that way. But I’ve seen some that do not speak of the Christian community, but the Reformed community. They only buy books from Reformed publishers and only quote Reformed writers and preachers.

These defining labels aren’t limited to theological persuasions. I’ve unfollowed some sites that were “Big I Introvert” sites, even Christian ones. Reading about introversion has helped me understand the way I am made and the way I think and react. But some sites are so immersed in looking at life as an introvert that they can seem antisocial. I can lean that way, so I needed to stop feeding that tendency into my thoughts.

And, of course there are many other labels through which people define themselves and look at life. There are “Big R Republicans” and “Big S Sports fans” and “Big E Enneagram” experts (followed by numbers and wings). There are “Big M Moms” who can talk about nothing but motherhood, making single women feel left out of the conversation.

Labels aren’t bad in themselves. My husband’s father worked in a grocery store and was allowed to bring home cans which were missing labels. When Jim’s mom said she was making a surprise for dinner, she wasn’t kidding.

When my husband and I looked for a church to attend here, we wished that church websites would label themselves more distinctly. We put our preferences in our browser’s search bar and got hundreds of responses. The ones we looked into sounded almost the same, even down to their statement of faith and constitution. If they were trying to make themselves sound generic, they were going to disappoint some who came and found they held certain positions. They were also going to miss out on those who wanted to find churches that held particular positions.

So labels are helpful, even good and necessary. I use some of these labels myself.

But labels can lead to two problems.

One problem is looking at everything, especially Scripture, through the lens of our label instead of looking at our label through the lens of Scripture. I’ve known people who did not come to their positions from their reading of Scripture, but from books they read and sermons they listened to. Then they began trying to fit Scripture into their theological grid rather than adapting their theology to Scripture.

In one book I read about introversion in the church, the author said that the reason Jesus climbed into a boat once to speak to the crowd was because, as an introvert, He wanted to put some distance between Himself and the people. That would have been the author’s motivation in the same circumstances, and he projected his thinking onto Jesus’ actions (even though he later wrote that Jesus was the perfect balance of introvert and extrovert). I think that Jesus chose that venue rather because it was the best place for the crowd to see and hear Him.

The second problem is this: what label do we want to be known by first and foremost? When people see our names, do we want their first thought to be, “Oh, yeah, she’s an Enneagram 6” or “staunch Republican” or whatever?

Before people know my personality type or theological persuasion, they need to know that I love God and want them to know and love Him, too. Though I have several sub-labels, I want my biggest labels to be “Christian,” “Christ-follower,” “child of God.”

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1a).

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)