In a recent news article about people attending a political rally, one of the participants was asked whether she identified with the group she was attending. She replied by saying, “I don’t like labels.” Indeed. The move toward political independency has been a growing movement for a couple of decades. This is not just a political phenomenon. There is a parallel development in church affiliation. One of the first “laws” one learns from the church growth gurus is that congregations need to market their church as if it were unaffiliated with other churches and to downplay denominational affiliation. There is more to this impulse, however, than mere pragmatism.
Thomas de Zengotita has described one of the great aspects of late modern life with the nouns, “the blob” and “options.” These are expressions of modern desire for autonomy, i.e., the freedom from accountability to an extrinsic, external, fixed authority. Consider the way life has changed in the last 40 years. In 1971 there were only three television networks. Personal computers were not yet widely available (the Altair went on sale in 1975). Car phones were restricted to successful businessmen. In many ways it was another world. We were not constantly in touch with one another. Boredom (lack of entertainment) was a fact of life and most of us had relatively few “options.”
For those born in the wake of Reagan affluence, in the midst of the technological transformation of late modern life, options and choices are assumed. These are also the children of no-fault divorce and the fragmentation of the nuclear family. These factors, among others, have conspired to make it more difficult for them to make choices, to make a commitment. To choose one thing is to exclude another or to make a costly mistake. In some instances, fear of losing out has led to kind of paralysis.
Parallel to these socio-economic developments has been another, religious, aspect. Among American neo-evangelicals there has been a reluctance to embrace labels. There has been strong drive among to emphasize a personal relationship with the risen Christ but the list of Christian doctrines considered necessary for the faith has been gradually shrinking for decades. The doctrine of the church and identification with particular ecclesiastical and theological traditions rarely made the list. Evangelistic crusades were trans-denominational and personal, immediate, religious experience of the risen Christ was front and center.
It is interesting that, when it comes to religion, American evangelicals eschew labels when they are quick to identify themselves with lots of other admittedly less important causes. As baseball gears up again one hears from Cardinal fans, Cub fans, and Yankee fans. I do not know of baseball fans who do not identify with some team. Computer users regularly identify themselves as “PC users” or Mac users.” Some people like Fords. Others buy only Hondas. If we think about it, we label ourselves almost constantly.
More than a few evangelicals have said to me over the years, “I don’t like labels. I just believe the bible and love the Lord.” Well, whether one likes it or not, that is a form of the historic pietist tradition. Whether one embraces the label, if one holds the pietist position, one is a pietist. This raises the question of the relationship between names and the thing named. In our, late modern, age there is great suspicion about names and their relation to the named. We have been told for decades that the relationship is purely arbitrary. Thus, we become suspicious names (labels) as an attempt to exert control over people, as an attempt to limit choices or freedom.
To be sure, taken to an extreme, labels can become partisanship. Paul warned the Corinthian church about this very danger. Nevertheless, Paul also identified himself, he labeled himself, despite the potential dangers attached to labels and names. He identified with the Pharisaic doctrine of the bodily resurrection. He identified himself as a Christian. He identified himself as a Jew. These are all labels and limits. As a Christian, he could not be something else. As a Jew, he could not be a Gentile. As a believer in the resurrection he could not be a Sadducee.
Fear of labels is really fear of limits but we Christians should embrace limits and labels. After all, when we were baptized, we were given a name. When we were brought to faith, we were given a new name. Those who have been united to Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, have died to sin. Death is a limit but so is resurrection life and what a glorious and wonderful limit it is.
The good news is that, despite our selfish and rebellious refusal to accept limits and to make choices, our Savior made choices. He chose every moment of his life to obey his heavenly Father in our place. He accepted limits. God the Son took on a true human nature. That human nature is finite. Jesus wept. He grieved. He suffered. He died. He made commitments, for our sakes. He fulfilled the commitment he made to the Father and he finished it. He was raised on the third day and he is interceding for us and he has committed the ministry of his Word and grace to a divinely instituted but quite human institution: the visible church.
When we make a choice, we do give up options or possibilities but when we trust the Lord with our choices we accept the commitments that come with Christ’s benefits. The ministry of the Word and sacrament must come to us from somewhere, from someone. Those places and those persons belong to some tradition. As such, labels are inescapable. To identify with an ecclesiastical or theological tradition is a limit but some limits are healthy.