Labelled with love

(or ‘Why I am no longer an evangelical’)

I’d known the big, burly guy for less than 5 minutes when out of the blue he blurted: “Are you a Christian?” The out-of-work lorry driver was a new client at the homeless service I work with.  He was a bit macho and I hadn’t quite sussed him out yet.

But he’s noticed something different about me and wants to know more, I thought to myself. There’s an opportunity to share something of my faith with this guy.

So with naïve eagerness, maybe even pride, I responded, “Yes, I am!”

There I was, expectantly waiting for him to tell me how interested he was in finding out more about Christianity. Instead he announced, “Well, I hate Christians”!!

So that was a bit of a conversation-killer…

I can’t remember why he said that now, although he did explain afterwards and we went on to have a good working relationship. But in hindsight, instead of answering directly as I did, I’d like to have asked him, “What do you mean by ‘a Christian’?” or “Why are you asking?”

Returning a question with a question, as Jesus exemplified, can often replace superficial exchanges of words with honest, profound communication, searching out latent truths from the hearts and minds of people engaged in dialogue.

Or I could have replied with: “If, by labelling me as ‘Christian’, you’d think of me as a judgmental, bigoted, fundamentalist Bible-basher, then I hope not. But if you mean someone who’s received the love and forgiveness of Jesus and wants to share it with others, then definitely, yes!”

Many people shun labels, for example when it comes to medical conditions, people groups or religious affiliation. Labels can be misunderstood or run the risk of defining a person wholly by a single part of his/her life or personality.

For me, belonging to Jesus – or being a child of my heavenly Father – is my primary identity, so to be labelled as a ‘Christian’ is pretty acceptable. But what does that mean?

To some, the term ‘Christian’ can mean someone who’s been christened or has some affiliation with the Church of England, or even someone who’s been brought up in a ‘Christian country’.

Originally, ‘Christian’ (meaning Christ-like) was a term of contempt by those outside the faith towards Jesus’ early followers, who then thought, “Actually, we quite like this label” and it stuck.

Similarly, ‘Jesus Freak’ – coined as a pejorative term in the late ‘60s – has been embraced by many Jesus-followers since and became the title of one of the greatest contemporary Christian tracks of our time, by DC Talk:

What will people think
When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak
What will people do when they find that it’s true
I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak
There ain’t no disguising the truth

If someone labelled me a Jesus Freak, even derisively, I’d take it as a massive compliment.

In years past, to distinguish myself from people who call themselves Christians just because they were christened or British or something, I’ve described myself as a ‘committed Christian’ or as ‘born again’. Or I’ve thought of myself as an ‘evangelical’.

What arrogance! Who can call themselves a ‘committed Christian’? Answer: only a hypocrite!

God is committed to the people he made – in fact so committed that…

he entered our dirty, broken, hurting world as a human being.

A servant.

Who gave up everything.

Including his power.

His rights.

His life.

Giving himself to the most horrific form of death.

Tortured physically

Mentally

And spiritually.

All so that we could receive the free gift of spiritual life, eternal life, at his expense.

That’s commitment! How dare any Christian call him/herself committed? God invites us to receive his gift of life for free, like children opening a Christmas present, like beggars receiving charity. He knows we can’t pay him back, so he doesn’t ask us to.

He doesn’t call us to ‘make a commitment’.

He asks us to keep believing and receiving his love. And to love him back. That’s all.

And of course, if we love him, we’ll do the stuff that pleases him: stuff like loving our neighbour. But to call it commitment is a denial of the Gospel – the good news that he gives us everything good in exchange for all our bad stuff.

So there’s my problem with the expression ‘committed Christian’. What about ‘born again’? Surely nothing wrong with that phrase, is there?

Like many millions of Christians, I’ve experienced the transformative wonder of entering a whole new, spiritual life – being born again, by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus described it. I’m in no way denying that – far from it – but if I label myself a ‘born again Christian’, I’m implying I’m different from, or better than, other types of Christians – as if there even are different types!

And therein lies my main problem with the word ‘evangelical’ too. To call ourselves ‘evangelical’ is to imply we’re better than, say, a Catholic Christian, or our theology’s better than theirs; that we want to distinguish ourselves from that ‘brand’ of Christianity.

But there are also other problems with the word ‘evangelical’ – issues of understanding.

Soon after my initial prayer of faith in Jesus (as described in California Dreamin’), I returned to England from the USA and started going to a C of E church. One of the members there, in telling me about the church, described it as being “fairly evangelical”.

“That’s nice”, I thought, as I wondered what he meant. I’d seen the word on the side of another church in the past and guessed it probably meant something to do with angels. I imagined that evangelical churches might have angelic sounding music, perhaps?!

To be fair, I was just 22 with no previous interest in the world of church. And I wonder how many other people today haven’t a clue what ‘evangelical’ means?

So to clarify… “What characterises us [evangelicals] is a passion for the good news of Jesus Christ, which we call the ‘gospel’. The term evangelical itself comes from the Greek ‘euangelion’ which was used by the New Testament writers to speak of ‘glad tidings’ and ‘good news’” (from the Evangelical Alliance).

But in the 21st Century ‘evangelical’ has also come to mean:

“Characterised by ardent or crusading enthusiasm; zealous” (The Free Online Dictionary), as ina new breed of evangelical atheists” (quote from a description on Amazon of a book by Mark Vernon). So now even atheists can be ‘evangelical’!!

I certainly relate to the original definition – being passionate about the good news of Jesus. And for many of the ensuing years after that conversation in the Anglican church, I was a proud evangelical. Proud to be a ‘proper’ Christian, who believed the right kinds of Christian doctrine!

But even apart from the confusion in terminology and the arrogance of implying that our kind of Christianity is better than someone else’s, evangelicalism sometimes seems (to me) to lose the wonder of God’s bigness, with its theology neatly tied up in tidy packages. Sometimes it seems that we think we know God better than he does!

My few decades’ experience of life and people on this planet informs me that God is bigger and more complex than any brand of Christianity’s neat ideas.

There is a newer label that modern Jesus-followers are embracing: ‘Red letter Christians’ – a chiefly US-based reaction against the kind of American evangelicalism that’s intertwined with right-wing politics – a movement which seeks to restore a focus on the teachings of Jesus (printed in red font in some Bibles) and an emphasis on social justice. I have to say that this appeals.

But who needs another label?

I still call myself a ‘Christian’ – with caution in this post-modern, post-Christian society with its many misconceptions about what the term means.

Despite all the above, I’m not vehemently anti-labels. I’m just pro-understanding between people. Pro breaking down the walls.

So feel free to call me whatever you like, but above all let’s talk, let’s seek to understand each other. Let’s ask each other questions, explore each other’s beliefs and discover where each of us is coming from.

I could tell you loads more about what being a Christian means to me, and would love to do so (feel free to contact me by posting a comment or by email), but here’s one massive thing:

I aspire and pray to be known, above all else, for reflecting God’s healing love into this hurting, broken world.

I’d like to be labelled with love.

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8 thoughts on “Labelled with love

  1. Wulf says:

    I suspect that you are still an evangelical, although the value of that label will depend on the context of the discourse. For example, you probably still believe that Jesus, fully human and fully God, lived, died and bodily rose again (which would be a less certain guess if you were a theological “liberal”) and that your relationship is directly with God without the need for an earthly hierarchy of priests and intricate rituals (which would tend to be a more theologically “catholic” position). Me, too, for what it’s worth.

    I know that it is a very broad description but it has some value. After all, while it covers over all sorts of details, it is still true and, in some ways helpful, to say both that “Miles Davis was a jazz musician” and “Louis Armstrong was a jazz musician”.

    • Thanks, Wulf, for the comment. Yes, true, although I think I’m more liberal and less certain about lots of things than in the past, and even if by definition I am an evangelical in my general outlook, I would still shun ‘dividing Christ’ by thinking of myself in that way.

      • Wulf says:

        To some extent, you can’t avoid it. If you claim “I am of Christ”, you are still staking a party claim (not a new problem – see 1 Cor 12:1). That use of a biblical reference of course puts me somewhere in the Evangelical camp too although the label I wear now would probably seem notably faded and fuzzy to a younger version of myself.

        I do think that growing older tends to enrich one’s faith. I’m far less certain of many things but reinforced by ever lengthening years of obedience under grace; those are probably steps in the right direction.

  2. David Henty says:

    You’ve certainly given me food for thought on what being a Christian means to me and the meanings of the terms ‘committed Christian’ and ‘Born again’. I remember being ‘drawn back’ by God to the church after a most emotional divorce 30 years ago. Having returned from Spring Harvest full of the joys of Christ I was approached by one of the congregation and asked “Have you been ‘born again’?”. For some reason I felt most offended as I had been a Christian since I was about 8! Thanks Roger

  3. Wulf, I’ve only just seen your last comment for some reason. I had that passage in mind all the way thru writing this post, and decided deliberately not to specify it. I’ve become a bit of a fan of writers like Jeff Lucas and Rob Parsons who often, beautifully, put across biblical principles without directly referring to the bible, making it less ‘religious’ sounding and more accessible to some.
    Interesting what you say about ‘faded and fuzzy’ – I’m the same. This evening I had a bit of an argument / debate with a man in our church who’s about 20 years younger than me, who was so much more black-and-white than me on some issues. I was left wondering, “Have I compromised so much or am I wiser?” Or both? I don’t know. But definitely fuzzy.

    • Wulf says:

      Splashing verses around can be over done although I think there is a good case for referencing sources of thought (biblical or otherwise). I have, however, realised that “proof-texting” is a fairly empty road – you have to pick sources that add meaning rather than merely echoing similar words.

  4. […] wrote before about the problem of labels in Labelled with Love and, while not wishing to divide Christ or his body by labelling myself as a ‘progressive’ (or […]

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