I’m from the south. Down here, every soft drink is referred to by the label “Coke”. (Probably because Coca-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta). Every Georgian knows that when you say, “I’m thirsty, I’m going to get a coke,” you don’t necessarily mean the beverage with the red and white label. You might be referring to a grape soda, root beer, Mountain Dew, or any other of the members of the fizzy spectrum.
In fact, even buying a Coca-Cola these days can be more frustrating than trying to crack the IRS tax code. You must decide whether you want regular or diet, both of which are available in caffeine-free versions. Then you have to decide which flavor (cherry or vanilla), color (black or ?) and number (zero?) you want that in. It’s enough to drive someone to drinking Pepsi (which I do).
The thing about Coca-Cola however, is that the labels are neat and precise. If I go into the retail grocer of my choice and select the Decaffeinated Diet Vanilla Coke, I can be reasonably sure that I will get precisely that. I have every right to expect exactly what the label says is in the bottle. There is little danger of any spill-over of cherry syrup (that might be grounds for a law-suit if it occurred) or of it keeping me awake half the night.
If only theological labels were as precise.
One doesn’t have to venture far into the realm that is identified as Christendom before they are confronted with a myriad of labels. Denominational labels, theological labels and associational labels are just a few of the names that you may encounter. 99.999999% of these labels are man-made (the one exception being “disciple”). This doesn’t mean that labels are wrong, in fact they can be quite useful at times. At other times, however, they can be confusing.
Most of those who read this blog would probably agree that the mainstream media plays a little fast and loose with the term “Christian”. It seems that anyone who at one time may have attended Sunday School or had a relative who was a deacon will be labeled as Christian by the world. That term has come a long way from its original usage to identify true disciples of Christ.
Sometimes labels are applied with derision, hatred, misunderstanding or just downright mean-spiritedness. At other times, labels are willingly embraced by those who wish to identify with a certain group.
Let me use myself as an example. I willingly call myself a Southern Baptist. We have a stated articles of faith. I affirm those articles of faith because I believe they are biblically correct. Am I happy about everything that goes on the Southern Baptist Convention? Absolutely not. I realize that there are some things being debated within the convention in a manner that does not always cast a positive light on our denomination. However, if I am to call myself a Southern Baptist, I must be willing to accept the bad connotations with the positive points, otherwise I am not being completely honest.
Likewise, it would be disingenious of me to call myself a Southern Baptist but then start issuing disclaimers such as saying that I believe salvation must earned, that God is not omniscient, that my salvation can be lost, etc. If I am going to identify myself theologically and associationally with Southern Baptists, I must be willing to embrace the core beliefs as stated in our articles of faith. Otherwise, I should find another way of identifying my doctrine.
I said all that to say this, if we are going to label ourselves by identifying with a particular group, we should not be surprised when people assume that we share common beliefs with that group. Labels produce expectations. If we don’t want to be identified with a certain doctrine, we shouldn’t adopt the name of the the group that believes it.
Some of you will remember the fiasco in the 1980’s called “New Coke”. It was an extremely bad idea on the part of some marketing execs at Coca-Cola that cost that company very dearly. Why? Because the product didn’t match the expectations produced by the label.
On the other hand, to quote Junior Hill, “If the bottle is empty, it really doesn’t matter what the label says.”