A few weeks ago, a friend of mine referred to me as a “protestant”. I’ve been mulling this over since then. It’s not a term I’m particularly keen on. It stemmed from a comment about christianity, and this chap, having grown up in Northern Ireland, had a dichotomy in his head: you are either catholic or protestant.

I’m certainly not a catholic. But I don’t really see myself as a protestant either. The term implies an ongoing protest. But the seeds of that protest are no longer seeds; it’s grown up, flowered and produced some very good fruit.

Although the catholic church took a backward step recently with the reintroduction of indulgences, on the whole the Council of Trent and Vatican II have resulted in a modern catholic church which is different (I hesitate to use the term ‘reformed’ – for obvious reasons) from that which Calvin disagreed with and which Luther wrote his 95 theses about.

The label was useful for a time, but I’m no longer sure it is needed. The negative connotations it brings, accrued due to un-Christlike behaviour on both sides of the dispute, are more of a hindrance than anything else. A dispute that may rumble on in some corners but for the most part is now history.

This is just an example. There are many other terms, in different walks of life, where choosing to label ourselves (either individually or as a community) may serve a useful purpose for a time. But what happens when that time passes?

I still listen to CDs. At one time, I put sticky labels on some as I knew they would be muddled up with other people’s. Afterwards, I tried to remove the labels. Bits of the paper front stayed stuck and the glue left a sticky residue. It makes me think about whether or not we really have the long term in mind when we apply labels to ourselves (or even, against their wishes, to others).

Last night, I was at a lecture given by Tom Wright at King’s College London, about his new (and very big) book on Paul. At the time of writing this, I’m at about page 470 – a little over a quarter of the way through. In the talk, and something evidenced in the first 6 chapters, is Paul’s emphasis on unified identity in the Messiah (in Christ). It’s a label I’m happy with, but more labels than that may serve to divide us, even if their original purpose was to unify a sub-group.

  • Are there any labels you have used that you now regret?
  • Are there labels you use to describe yourself and others that you think are helpful in the long term?

n.b. this was written off the cuff over lunchtime. Please forgive me for any typos.


4 responses to “Labels

  1. Love the CD label analogy!

    Labels are also something other people place on us. Protestant is one example! Methodist another. And actually … so is Christian. And while it can be a handy way of identifying one another it can also be a way of drawing a line between you and me and ensuring that we can never really be one.

    • Where I get in a muddle is with the drawing of lines not between those “in” and those “out”. This is most noticeable in the psalms. At times, I think the psalmist can be quite nasty about those he sees as “godless”.

      I’d like to say that the evangelical in me doesn’t like to see others as outsiders, preferring a more open approach; yet to use the label of ‘evangelical’ is to fall precisely into the trap I want to avoid.

  2. Really useful post, Sipech. Evangelical indeed is one of the most divisive in my experience. Now I feel need to use ‘progressive’ Christianity to explain position briefly but don’t like it at all. ‘Emergent’ even more esoteric !

    • I find myself agreeing a lot with those who self-identify as emergent, but I honestly don’t really know what it means. If anything, ‘missional’ seems to be the new ‘evangelical’.