Picking your label.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 August

Everybody wants to reserve the right to define themselves. Or redefine.

Years ago I joined an internet forum. As you do, when you wanna interact with like-minded or similar-minded people, and you can’t find a whole lot of ’em in your hometown, so you try out the internet. They’re a lot of fun for the first couple years, but I find they invariably deteriorate. They’re so interested in getting more members, or new members, they start letting in the cranks, and cranks ruin everything. Those of you who are cranks know what I mean.

Anyway, after the numbers got up there, the moderator asked that we all re-introduce ourselves for the sake of the many newcomers. “Please tell us your religious background.” How would you label yourself?

A lot of us took the opportunity to be really vague about it:

  • “Student of Christ.”
  • “Disciple.”
  • “Catechumen.” (Seriously.)
  • “Worshiper of the King.”
  • “Christ-carrier.”
  • “Jesus person.”
  • “Grateful believer.”
  • “God-chaser.”

Honest to goodness, I didn’t think I’d joined a group of hippies.

Lefties, you know what I’m talking about. I ran into it all the time in college. Join a group, ask the members of the group what they call themselves, and just about every single person has chosen a different label for themselves. They customized the definition to whatever they wished it would be. ’Cause it’s all about them, isn’t it? Even in community.

I used to see this all the time on Facebook, or any of the other social media platforms where there was an “About” page which invited you to state your religion. Some folks went with the usual “Christian” or “Jewish” or one of the denominations. But lots of ’em, sometimes for fun and sometimes because “Christian” wasn’t enough, would put “Lover of JESUS!!!” or some such. Caps and three exclamation points means you really mean it.

Back to the internet forum. I got specific, because I wanted there to be no question where I was coming from—and if there were, it would only be because people didn’t understand the terms. I went with “Christian / Arminian / Pentecostal / Assemblies of God.” From the general to the specific: Religion, theology, movement, denomination.

Some of the others were specific as well. If you identify with your denomination, or you’re in leadership, you tend to. If you don’t care for it, you tend not to join its hierarchy. (Although there are exceptions: At my last church, we took an informal survey of the people’s attitudes about membership, and asked how they identified themselves. One of our elders identified herself as an attendee. No, there was no box to tick; she wrote the word out. Not an elder; not even as a member. There’s commitment for ya.)

The rest of the forum members picked the usual vague terms we find among bloggers, Twitter users, authors, survey respondents, and average church attendees throughout Christendom. It signified they wanted to be unique. It also signified just how much the other terms don’t work for them.

Is “Christian” a vague term?

One of the forum members said the reason he went with “disciple” was ’cause the term “Christian” isn’t specific enough. Anybody can call themselves “Christian”—but what do they mean by it?

I get what he’s talking about. Loads of people call themselves “Christian.” Including people whom the rest of us would argue aren’t Christian. You know, heretics like Unitarians and Mormons. I once heard a Muslim claim he counts as Christian ’cause he also believes in the Prophet Jesus (blessed be he). I’m betting, however, he doesn’t say “Christian” when his fellow Muslims ask his religion.

Generally we find pagans who think they’re Christian because they like Christ. Or like parts of Christ. Really, they don’t know or follow many of his teachings. Don’t believe anything in the creeds. Aren’t sure any of the stories in the gospels are true. Sometimes don’t even accept him as historical. But they love the idea of Christ Jesus, so they call themselves Christian. They’ll even go to our churches. Even become clergy! But they’re fans. Not followers.

It’s why I tend to refer to such people as “Christianists.” They like the trappings of Christianity, but don’t know Christ… and Christ doesn’t know them. Mt 7.23

It’s also why, for the past decade or so, certain Christians have been labeling themselves “Christ-followers.” They figure there are so many posers in Christendom, that the label’s been so befouled by phonies, they’re gonna re-brand. They’re the true followers of Christ. Not those hypocrites.

They remind me way too much of this guy in Jesus’s story of the Pharisee and the taxman:

Luke 18.10-12 KWL
10 “Two people went to temple to pray: One a Pharisee, the other a taxman.
11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed this: ‘God, I thank you!—
because I’m not like other people. Thieves. The immoral. Adulterers. Or even like this taxman.
12 I fast twice a week. I tithe everything I get.’”

They’re not interested in redeeming the brand through their own good deeds. Just in standing apart from the crowd and saying, “God, I think you!—because I’m not like them.”

So yeah, it’s why I tend to define self-described “Christ-followers” as smug Christian snobs. People who think they’re better than other Christians. Forgetting the point of Jesus’s story is how we who exalt ourselves will be humbled: Lk 18.14 If we imagine ourselves better Christ-followers than lowly “Christians,” we have another think coming.

Same with any other re-definition we adopt. The point of accepting a label is so we can make it more clear about who we are. Not to draw circles round ourselves, and insist these circles aren’t part of your Venn diagram.

Me, I figure the proper definition of “Christian” is one who follows Christ. Not likes Christ; not someone who has a loose connection with him; not someone who picks and chooses where to follow him and where not to. (Though, to be fair, we do that.) The ideal is included in the label. If we don’t meet it, we’re a sucky Christian… and yeah, I’ll accept that label for myself, ’cause often I am a sucky Christian. I’m trying though.

The “[pupil] of Christ.”

Most of the other new labels are simply variations on “Christ-follower.” People’re trying to describe their relationship with Jesus in terms of what they are to him, or what they do.

Hence “Disciple of Christ,” or “Student of Christ,” or “Catechumen of Christ,” or (for those who wanna show off their Hebrew) “Talmid of Christ.” The thinking, appropriately, is we’re still learning from Jesus. As we should be. It’s a lifelong instruction.

But not to sound too cynical: Most of the time, the reality is we’re students of whoever’s stuff we’re reading, or listening to, most.

I’ve got friends who have every single one of Richard Foster’s books. Others download every Rick Warren sermon they can find. A former roommate constantly watched Joyce Myers’s website videos. A guy at work simply loves Ravi Zacharias; another can’t stop quoting C.S. Lewis. Theologian friends are obsessed with John Piper, N.T. Wright, Roger E. Olsen, R.C. Sproul—even long-dead church fathers. Fellow bloggers always have some author they can’t get enough of. All these folks will undoubtedly identify themselves as followers of Jesus, but more than anything else, they’re mimics of Foster, Warren, Myers, Zacharias, Lewis, and so forth.

Try this test: Pick your favorite Christian teacher. Heck, pick two or three favorites. Do you have any beliefs independent of—or even contrary to—any of them? If you’re truly following Jesus instead of them, you’ll inevitably have to. ’Cause only Jesus is infallible. But I’ll betcha the only contrary positions you can think of… have started to appear once these teachers started to fall out of your favor. Like a person you’ve been dating, who previously could do no wrong, you’re finally starting to notice the flaws which were always there.

Yeah, I know from experience. Young seminarians fall into that error quite often. Usually we grow out of it. But sometimes we don’t. (Or aren’t allowed to, ’cause those favorite authors were the guys who founded our denominations. Gotta feel sorry for those Presbyterian ministers who suddenly realize they no longer agree with John Calvin; or those Lutherans who realize Martin Luther was sometimes wrong. Now what do they do?)

The “[ministry] of Christ.”

Others describe themselves in terms of their ministry. Most commonly it’s “Minister of Christ,” but sometimes “Servant” or “Slave of Christ,” or “Deacon of Christ,” or (if they wanna sound papal) “Vicar of Christ.” Depending on the term, it can either smack of humility… or it’s another handy way of reminding everyone what your fivefold ministry anointing is: “Apostle of Christ” or “Prophet of Christ” or “Evangelist of Christ”—but “Teacher of Christ” is gonna have to be replaced with “Christian teacher” if we’re gonna keep up the illusion of humility.

Okay, so you’re a Christian minister. Well, good; we’re all supposed to serve him, and do good deeds.

There are other participles which further zoom in on the particular ministry. I’ve seen “Lover of Christ,” “Obeyer of Christ,” “Seeker of Christ” (hope they find him), “Carrier of Christ” (makes him sound like a virus, though), and “Worshiper of Christ.”

My only beef: These things are maybe too limiting. Relationships, real relationships, have to be more than one-dimensional. Especially our relationship with Christ Jesus.

Worst case: These folks are being totally honest about their relationship with Jesus, and it is one-dimensional. The “Lover of Christ” loves him like music fans love a rock star, and buy his T-shirts and other gaudy baubles from the Christian bookstore. That’s how they feel closer to him; not by following him, nor obeying him. The “Worshiper of Christ” too: They love worship music, and they’ve never realized there are any other ways to worship him. (And can’t feel him unless someone turns up the bass.)

And so on. The “Obeyer” overdoes it on the legalism; the “Seeker” doesn’t really know Jesus, and is trying out different churches and theologies in the hopes he’ll be found in one of ’em; the “Carrier” totes Jesus around… in the form of gospel tracts, and usually the tastelessly awful kind which think they’re being clever.

Best case: It’s more than one dimension. Sometimes two or three. Hopefully four. The participle they’ve chosen, simply describes what they’re working on most. They do realize they still need work; we all do. And to tell you just what they’re working on, they’ve claimed that label. For now.

I’ve done that. In Christian 12-step programs, the custom is to introduce ourselves as “a grateful believer,” to emphasize the fact we’re believers, and glad God is helping us through our issues. (Introduce yourselves as a “grateful believer” in other Christian groups, and it’s a way of waving hello all the other folks going through these programs.) But for a while there, I wasn’t very grateful, so I confessed it by saying “I’m an ungrateful believer. But I’m working on it.” Just trying to be honest. Honesty’s the point of such groups, after all.


Finally I’ll bring up those folks who introduced themselves as “nondenominational.” About half of ’em in the forum were nondenominational.

When all you say is “nondenominational,” I can’t tell whether you mean, “I go to a church which isn’t networked with any denomination,” or “I’m in a church, but its denomination isn’t my denomination, ’cause I’m staying out of it.” Yes, I’ve known people who don’t figure being in a church puts ’em in a denomination. My church is Assemblies of God, but I know people there who don’t consider themselves Assemblies. One figures she’s Catholic, ’cause she grew up Catholic. Another insists he’s Baptist, even though he hasn’t gone to Baptist churches in decades. Me either. But when I did—when I joined a Baptist church 18 years ago—I figured joining the church logically meant I joined the Baptists. And when I moved away, and began attending an Assemblies church again, I rejoined the Assemblies. Why people insist they’re exceptions, I dunno. If you don’t wanna be part of the denomination, don’t join their churches!

Functionally, “nondenominational” tells me nothing about what sort of Christian you are. Are you nondenominational because you don’t approve of denominations? (And if so, is it ’cause you think all churches should be independent, or ’cause you wanna emphasize how all churches belong to Jesus?) Or are you merely going to a nondenominational church, and “nondenominational” is what you say instead of your denomination?

See, a denomination comes in handy ’cause it’s shorthand for several ideas. It indicates, roughly:

  • What beliefs your church emphasizes.
  • Your religious tradition.
  • Your preferred worship style.
  • The religious issues your church, and maybe you, are going through.
  • That you’ve committed yourself to all of the above.

Whereas nondenominational churches imply you’re not committed—to any theology, any tradition, any style, any issues, any people. Heck, depending on the church, not even Jesus.

I know: You may not mean any of those things, and are “nondenominational” only because your church’s network is in denial about being a denomination. My mom’s and brother’s churches fall into that category; they’re both connected to Bethel Church, Redding. I likewise have friends at a “nondenominational” church which is actually very, very Baptist (all their leaders and founders came out of that tradition, and haven’t changed any) but don’t wanna call themselves “independent Baptists” because too many independent Baptist churches are cults.

But really, all this means is your “nondenominational” label is inadequate. Pick a better one.

Mislabeling yourself.

But I hope you see the problems that provoked this rant: Some of our labels were chosen ’cause we think they’re clever, but they don’t describe us very well. Sometimes they describe just the opposite.

Sometimes another person appropriated it first, so it doesn’t mean what we insist it does. This is something I keep trying to tell Christians who insist “I’m not religious”—they are too, ’cause “religious” doesn’t mean “dead religion” like they think it does. If the label you’ve chosen for yourself keeps confusing everyone (“Wait, isn’t that the church that’s full of pedophiles?”) you really need another one.

And sometimes we’re trying to be unique, or stand out, or otherwise stand apart from the crowd like that Pharisee in Jesus’s story. Let’s not go there.

When I first chose to follow Jesus—and every day I choose him since—I’m obligated to set aside any title I’ve ever given myself, in favor of what he calls me. Child of God because God’s adopted me into his family. Disciple ’cause I’m supposed to learn from Jesus. Apostle ’cause he’s sent me on a mission to teach others about him. Prophet when he gives me direct messages to share. Pastor when he gives me specific people to work with. Teacher when I teach. Slave ’cause I’m not in charge; he’s the Master. And heir ’cause in the end, I inherit his kingdom.

I could list all that, but it’s a mouthful, takes up a lot of space, and leaves out a whole lot of other titles and blessings. Best if I just shorten it to “Christian.”