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In the first part of this series, we began exploring labels people use in society and how these are prone to be misunderstood. Specifically, we will now look more at how Christians should be aware of how they are coming across to the outside world and what they can do to make communication as effective as possible.
1. Bi-lingual Believers
Given the fact that so much of what Christians say is susceptible to being misunderstood by the world, believers ought to almost have two languages: one they use when speaking to the outside world and a separate language, used among insiders. That is not to say we should be pretentious—we might perhaps need to have two languages; we certainly do not need to have two faces. Sometimes Christian leaders are interviewed in the wake of national tragedies and it is appalling at how little discretion they use when talking to the secular media. If a pastor wants to speculate to his congregation that a terrorist attack is God’s judgment on a group of people, that’s one thing. It’s a whole other story if a pastor alludes to this on CNN. One would have to be sadly naïve to be unaware of how horribly such comments are going to be twisted. There are certain things that believers can say to each other that they simply shouldn’t say to unbelievers who are going to misunderstand.
If a Christian small group wants to call the Lord’s Supper the “body and blood of Christ” that’s certainly acceptable. But it would be unacceptable if the small group used this same terminology while doing evangelistic work among a remote tribe whose besetting sin was cannibalism. If members of a Christian assembly greet each other as “Christians” that’s certainly acceptable. But it would be unacceptable to do this among a group of Jews who define the term “Christian” to mean “hater of Jews.” This is nothing other than common sense. Isn’t this what Paul meant by “becoming all things for all men”? When Paul preached to Jews, he began by quoting the Old Testament; when he preached to Greeks, he began by quoting Greek poetry. A missionary must speak the language of the people he’s seeking to reach, and he must avoid putting up unnecessary stumbling blocks. The gospel is offensive enough—we’ve no reason to make it even more offensive.
The lists of potentially offensive words surrounding Christianity are many and there’s only so much that can be done about this without stepping out of the boundaries of orthodoxy. Some take offense at God being called “Father”—it sounds too patriarchal. Some are offended by Christ being called “King”—again this sounds too patriarchal. The Church, of course, ought not to support sinful oppression of women and it ought not to lead men to “lord it over” their wives. God is a Spirit, not a body, and therefore is neither male nor female. But the masculine terminology surrounding the Godhead is not completely expendable. One of the fastest growing religions in America today is Wicca, which worships the goddess, the “Great Mother.” Some Christians who are pushing for neutralizing or feminizing the terminology surrounding the Godhead perhaps don’t realize how important it is that the Christian Deity be clearly and unashamedly distinguished from the “goddess” worshipped in Wicca. Charity and discernment is needed.
We shouldn’t unnecessarily offend, but at the same time, we cannot describe God more adequately than he has described himself in Scripture. If the language of Scripture itself offends, we must pray that hearts will be open to understanding the Scripture (our hearts included), but we don’t have liberty to change the Word.
2. The Theoretical “Upside” of Labels
Do labels have an upside? In the past, the merit of a religious label was that it enabled one to succinctly express what they believed without having to give a long, drawn out speech. With words being drained out their meaning, this is less the case than it used to be. Nevertheless, labels can still be helpful. If you met someone who believed that:
1) the only valid form of baptism was immersion for people who had expressed faith in Jesus, 2) the Lord’s Supper is a memorial to Christ’s death and resurrection, not a sacrifice involving his actual body and blood, and 3) when a person becomes a Christian, they are “eternally secure” and can never fall away and lose their salvation, such a person could avoid having to spell out all these numerous specifics by simply referring to herself as a “Baptist”, since all of the above doctrine have typically (certainly not always, but typically) been hallmarks of the Baptist tradition, and definitely of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Or if you met someone that believed that:
1) the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the head of the visible church, infallible in his teaching concerning faith and morals, 2) the Virgin Mary was sinless, remained a virgin throughout her entire life, and currently intercedes for believers that call upon her, and 3) there are seven sacraments, and that among these, there is A. baptism, which when administered to infants, cleanses the child’s heart of original sin and puts them in a state of grace, and B. the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, which is a participation in the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ, the same body that was crucified and the same blood that was shed on the cross, such a person could avoid going into such elaborate specifications and immediately align himself with all of the above doctrines simply calling herself “Roman Catholic” since all of the above doctrines have historically been key teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The same point could be made regarding Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Methodist, etc… Each of these traditions has doctrines or emphases that are unique to their particular communion, and labels bring these distinctions to the forefront.
The reason labels can be good things is that they enable people to briefly get to the heart of the matter, expressing what they believe, without having to drag the conversation out in a flood of doctrinal bullet points. If we shed labels, the only way for a person to clearly spell out what they believe would be for them to give a monologue each time they’re asked what branch of Christianity they’re most aligned with.
It’s unfortunate how certain words have begun to be used to categorize people when, if the words retained their actual definition, they couldn’t be used for anything of the sort. Think of the main branches of Christianity in the world: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, or evangelical. 1) “Catholic” means “universal”, 2) “orthodox” means “right-teaching” and 3) “evangelical” means “gospel-believing.” Biblically, every believer in Jesus Christ is catholic, orthodox and evangelical—that is to say, all believers are obliged 1) to see the church as a universal institution, nothing merely parochial or local; 2) to uphold right teaching which is in line with Scripture, and 3) to believe the gospel.
In the past, the media has tried to make a distinction between Christians who call themselves “born again” and other Christians. But the new birth, in Jesus’ language, is simply an analogy for the conversion experience itself. So shouldn’t every believer be “born again”, orthodox, evangelical, and catholic? Imagine, for instance, a church that isn’t concerned with God’s worldwide kingdom, a church unconcerned with right teaching, a church that doesn’t believe the gospel, and a church that doesn’t believe in the new birth experience.
In closing, human language is an inadequate means to fully convey truth. That’s why church services consist of preaching the “spoken” word, and sacrament, the “gospel in symbol.” If we’re trying to spread the Christian faith, one of our only means in doing this is the spoken and written word, and yes, it will be misunderstood. But just because words can be abused doesn’t mean they ought never be used. The Scripture itself is constantly in danger of being misunderstood, but that doesn’t mean we have liberty to shelve it. When we read the Scriptures, we’re reading the same book read by and misinterpreted by the Sanhedrin to justify putting Jesus to death. If we read Scripture, God will try to nourish our soul with it, but at the same time, the devil will be trying to give us indigestion. The apostles didn’t abandon Scripture because it had wrongly been used to execute the Messiah—instead, they reclaimed the Scripture and taught their disciples that the Scriptures are, from start to finish, actually about Jesus himself.
As far as whether believers should use or discard the label “Christian”, there is simply not a “right” answer—it depends on the situation and the effect the word will have on hearers. Just as Paul never said it was simply “right” or “wrong” to eat meat sacrificed to idols—it was a matter of conscience, especially the brother or sister with the sensitive conscience. We shouldn’t just expect the world to understand or care about our religious language—we should instead make the sacrifice involved in learning to speak clearly, truthfully, and lovingly. As Paul said, we ought to be “all things to all people.”