Labeling Christians

Religious man with Holy Bible at Place of WorshipHow many times have you heard someone say they believe in God, but they are struggling with faith and they are turned off by “the Christians” they have known? It seems a pretty standard statement these days.There are many reasons to be put off by “Christian” people…

but I am not sure who the “Christians” are to which they refer.

There are many people who call themselves “Christian”. That self-label may describe a political bent (God, guns and country). It may be a familial heritage (father, grandfather, great grandfather – “it’s just who we are”). It may describe a philosophical and moral stance (“if you don’t work, you don’t eat”; “God helps those who help themselves”; and other quasi-biblical codes). It may be a cultural thing (“Yeah, I am Christian. Aren’t you?” – kind of like being Caucasian in America). It could be describing the religious zealot (the self-righteous, Bible wielding, arbiter of faith).

The label does not really mean much by itself.

The early followers of Jesus were given the “Christian” label by other people. Today that label is not very precise and may be more confusing than anything. Someone using that label may picture a religious zealot beating someone over the head with a 500 pound Bible, while another pictures someone fidgeting in church Sunday morning while painting the town red Sunday evening. Another person may conjure up the apparition of black-robed, stern faced Puritans burning hapless “witches” at the stack or beefy, metal-clad Crusaders grinning madly while wielding bloody swords. Still others may imagine Saint Francis kindly tending to a menagerie of creatures or Mother Teresa’s soft, weather-lined face looking on the world’s vulnerable poor with piercing compassion. Most of the images are caricatures.

We have hard time seeing real people when we label them.

To be fair, people label themselves, and the actions and words of people who label themselves “Christian” have an effect on people who encounter them. For many, that is a negative experience; for many, it is a positive experience. The difference lies in what type of person is encountered.

We tend to cast a wide net from our experiences and tend to pin labels on large groups of people based on those limited experiences. (People from other countries tend to assume that all Americans are like the few that they have encountered, for better or worse.)  We also tend to characterize people from the descriptions of those people other people give us, good or bad, true or not.

The bottom line is that Christians, like other people groups we label, may not be who we think they are.

It is true that some Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven. In fact, early Christianity was called The Way, probably due in some respect to the words of Jesus when he said, “I am the way, the truth, the life and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6) Not all Christians believe that in a religious, dogmatic sense. People who label themselves “Christian” in a cultural or familial heritage sense are unlikely to ascribe any dogmatic emphasis to that statement. Even many religiously pious, self-identified Christians do not hold dogmatically to that view. Others may hold to the view in some morally superior sense that is equivalent to the moral superiority they feel for the United States of America.

Other self-described Christians believe that Jesus was God and meant, literally, that there is no other way to salvation. That does not mean they have any belief in their own moral superiority or that they take any pleasure in the thought that other people may not know the Way. In fact, these Christians, in my experience, have a greater sense of their own moral limitations than the average person seems willing to admit, and they have genuine compassion for people who do not have same sense of assurance of God’s love and forgiveness that they feel and have experienced.

The fact is that the label, “Christian”, is not all that helpful. It sweeps too broadly and covers a very wide range of people who may have very little in common (other than the label, itself). Another thing about labels, when applied to people, is that it does not accurately describe the substance of a person – any person. We tend to reach our own conclusions about people from seeing the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. We see people as they appear to us, but God sees the hearts of people. “God does not see what man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)

Jesus tells us through parable that “the Church” itself is filled with people who are His and people who not His. He said:

“God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too.

“The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’

“He answered, ‘Some enemy did this.’

“The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’

“He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’” (Matt. 13:24-30 MSG)

This says something to believers and unbelievers alike. For one, it indicates that not everyone who calls himself or herself is “good seed”. I do not mean to be flippant or callous; these are the words of Jesus. If we ascribe any truth or importance to what Jesus said, we must take His words seriously. For the person who is currently an unbeliever, whether agnostic or simply uncertain, when you look at “Christians”, you may be looking at wheat or you may be looking at weeds. The same is true for believers. We have enough challenge to run our own races; what time and effort do we have to spare to separate the wheat from the weeds. Jesus tells us that God will not even separate them until it is time for the harvest, lest He destroy the wheat with the weeds.

I call myself a Christian. I suspect you already know that by reading this. I write this primarily for the unbeliever. I understand that the references to the Bible may not be as instructive to an unbeliever as to a believer, but they are to me. If you are curious about God, but you struggle with “Christians” (or at least people who calls themselves Christians), I encourage you to get to know some of them. Be open. consider that many people may carry that label, but that label is not necessarily indicative of the same reality in everyone. Find the Christians who seem to exhibit characteristics you might expect to find in someone who takes Jesus seriously and see where that takes you. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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