I don’t really like labels in Christianity, because on the surface, they seem to divide people who are Christians. That can be true. But it is also true that labels can be helpful when talking to people who are not Christian, but say they are. In today’s pluralistic, postmodern, theological buffet-type culture, we must be able to distinguish our beliefs from other false ideas about Christianity.
To say to someone, “I’m a Christian,” is biblically correct, and should be sufficient (it would have been in the first century). At the same time a friend might say to me, “I’m a Christian,” but it’s evident that they are no more a Christian than I am an oak tree. How can I make sure that my misguided friend understands the difference in our beliefs?
Consider this analogy. I ask my friend what being Christian means to him. He says, “I go to church. I pray before meals. I try to be a good person.” Then he asks me what being Christian means to me. I say, “I am a born-again, Evangelical. That means I believe the Bible is the infallible, authoritative word of God and that the only way to be forgiven of sin, escape the wrath of God, and have eternal life is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ , who died on the cross and rose from the dead.”
When I defined being a Christian for myself, I put a label on myself (I use the word “label” here kind of loosely). I labeled myself as an Evangelical (I could have even included the word “Protestant” in there too). But the important thing is that I gave the label a precise definition. The term “Evangelical” was practically synonymous with “Protestant” during the Reformation era. The two main issues during this time were authority and justification. The Catholic Church believed authority belonged to the Pope, and that justification could be purchased through indulgences. The Reformers believed that authority was in the Word of God, and that justification was by grace and faith alone in Jesus. This mean they protested (Protestant) against the false doctrines of the Catholic church, and identified themselves with the evangel (the true gospel of Scripture).
Because some people believe that Jesus is no more than a great moral teacher, and that the Bible is just a grab-bag story book with some good insights, we must be crystal clear in communicating what being “Christian” really means. And sometimes, whether we want to or not, lableing ourselves might be helpful.