Over the years, it has been my pleasure to worship with many brothers and sisters in many different locations in the United States. If I asked someone to visit these congregations and describe them to me in two words or less, there would no doubt be a great variety of descriptive labels. Some of these terms would likely be: Liberal, charismatic, institutional, non-institutional, fundamental, one-cupper, mainstream, non-cooperative, Holy Roller, legalistic, anti, instrumental, non-instrumental, conservative, contemporary, traditional, unorthodox, orthodox, normal, post-modern, and I am certain a number of other monikers I have not included. Certainly not all of these congregations are standing in the truth. God’s desire is that they all walk in truth for His Words will judge them in the final day (John 12:48).
Consider this in regard to labels: most people hate to be labeled by others. One reason is the desired label of an individual is quite often not the same as the one applied by others. Often times, the label may be considered offensive or even meant to be derogatory. Once a label is affixed, it is possible the label may never be retracted or diminished in use whether accurate or not. Labels can also often be confused. For instance, one might call a congregation “liberal” and in that classification others may view it as synonymous with Holy Roller, post modern, and contemporary when nothing could be further from the truth. The same could be said for the term “anti” being viewed as synonymous with non-institutional, non-cooperative, or one cupper. Labels are frequently affixed with minimal knowledge of the body they supposedly represent. The damage they do may be small or it may be great. Brothers and sisters in Christ, though in error, may take such offence from the applied labels that they no longer would be willing to engage in dialogue with the labeler. Those hearing the label without knowledge of what an individual or group practice, may have such an immediate reaction in their hearts that they do not attempt to gain clarification on what and why something is really believed. When avoidance is exercised, truth cannot be taught and individuals cannot repent. This would apply to those being labeled, the labeler, and those who act or fail to act based upon preconceived notions of a label. Understand a brother and sister may be in error, but that does not make them a leprous, practicing sinner (Acts 18:24-26, 2 Peter 3:9). If there is a mind to study, then the door cannot be shut by man (Matthew 7:7).
Imagine the use of the terms “liberal”, “mainstream”, or “anti”. Do you have a specific image in your mind? Certainly you do. Humans tend to categorize things in their minds so we can understand them in a more simple fashion. Categorically speaking, the term “liberal” in the realm of religion is often understood as a loosening of a standard. Thus, a “liberal” congregation is one viewed as having loosened the standards of scripture enabling more activity than authorized. A “mainstream” congregation is often viewed to be representative of most congregations and therefore generally adherent to authorized Biblical practices. An “anti” congregation is often viewed as against certain activities and therefore, restricting itself to less than what the Bible is believed to authorize. Having imagined the suggested terms, ask yourself which label you fit under. Do you think a “liberal” considers himself “liberal”? or is it possible he sees himself “mainstream”? Does a person considered “anti” view the “mainstream” as “liberal”? One person’s “mainstream” may be another person’s “liberal” or “anti”. A man’s classification or view of individuals or congregations means nothing. Consider the next three paragraphs and the terms “liberal”, “mainstream”, and “anti”.
A congregation may be labeled “liberal” by some men or congregations because it uses Power Point projection to display songs for the congregation rather than use books. Is the use of Power Point unauthorized by scripture? Man has general authority to sing in worship (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). They have specific authority not to add to God’s word or take away from it (Galatians 1:8). The use of Power Point is not an action which adds to the action of singing or takes away from it. Many Christians have labeled others “liberal” in the past because of the use of white boards, pitch pipes, song books, PA systems, and other aids which do not add to the action of worship. Without the backing of scripture, labels are worthless.
It has become a very common practice among congregations labeled “mainstream” to have teen classes outside of regular worship hours. Bible study is extremely important for the growth of Christians (I Peter 2:2, 2 Timothy 2:15). This is a standard of scripture! Christians are to know the truth (John 17:17). Yet, under the guise of getting to know God, a vast number of these teen classes are social gatherings disguised as bible study. There is certainly nothing wrong with Christians gathering together socially day by day (Acts 2:46); nor is there anything wrong with encouraging the saints when they are gathered (Hebrews 10:24-25). The problem with many (not all) of these gatherings, is they are trying to draw teens to the Church with social activity instead of scripture. “Gather for pizza night [game night, basketball, movie night] and learn about God!” How foolish God must seem for not drawing in potential Christians with parties, but instead relying on the power of the gospel to save (I Corinthians 1:21). Yet, consider this: because a congregation is seen practicing something that is certainly not authorized, should it immediately receive the term “liberal”? Most folks would hopefully disagree with such a hasty labeling, but should agree that the practice of growth through social means should be corrected. Understand, there are a great number of congregations who practice an action in ignorance while being otherwise sound in scripture. When such actions are observed, God’s standard needs to be examined and the practice stopped. However, labeling a congregation based on a singular action (such as a social gathering under the guise of a Teen Bible Study) has a great possibility of being a wrong conclusion. It is no different than attempting to condemn an elder based on one witness (I Timothy 5:19).
Now consider a congregation labeled “anti”. They may be labeled so because they do not give funds out of the Church collection to organizations which run orphan homes. Why do they do this? Others may see this practice and immediately assume they know why this practice is being followed. Their belief may be that the congregation thinks that orphans should not be cared for by the Church collection. However, it is possible the congregation completely supports aiding homes with orphans where the eldership is under control of how the funds are spent. Much like the supporting of missionary societies, many elderships cannot find Biblical authority in giving money to an entity which would hinder their ability to determine what is ultimately done with the funds given. Do they object to the caring of orphans? Absolutely not! Their concern is a misuse of the funds and thus, a lack of good stewardship. A quick labeling of an action before clarification of why it occurs often results in a false conclusion. The first problem presented in the labeling of a congregation is assuming the reason why they are practicing something. The second problem is assuming if they practice one action the same as other groups that they are the same as the other groups. These are both unwise assumptions. Some congregations have a Sunday evening service while others do not. Should it be assumed that one is more devoted to God than the other? Should they be labeled though no knowledge of why they are taking such an action is known? There are a great number of congregations that have practices which may be considered “anti” or “liberal”. Knowing God’s standard and knowing why a congregation is practicing a particular action is very important before it should labeled and considered in error.
It should be asked, how many “check marks” does a congregation receive, before they are labeled liberal, mainstream, or anti? Is it one? Two? Ten? Does a single point of error mean the congregation should be avoided like the plague? The Bible directs any point of error should be admonished and studied for correction (Matthew 18:15-17, James 5:19-20), but when are they certified as “X” type of congregation? Man seems to label and act without knowledge quite often. Labeling is often inconsistent and may even be based upon spats which happened years ago or by the opinion of one man or family. The Bible itself has a pretty good labeling approach. A man is either in sin or he is not. He is either following the will of God or not. The issue is not arbitrarily assigned based on emotions or how egregious or harmless a practice is. The Bible does not make mistakes about labeling what a man is doing. It is either right or it is wrong. The Bible does not make assumptions about a life; it simple directs a man how to live it.
While labeling is a common practice in nearly all aspects of men’s lives, if undertaken, it should be done with great care according to God’s standard. God has organized congregations to be independent of one another, yet, in the unity of the faith. They have local elderships which are called upon to lead their congregations according to the word of God and keep them from evil (Acts 20:28). This is done in a variety of ways and though the decisions may be different at times, they are not necessarily in error. In regard to labeling, if it is done without scriptural backing, it is worthless. If an entire congregation is labeled in regard to a singular action, the label has a great chance of being incorrect. A label based on assumption is a poorly conceived one. Brothers and sisters in Christ are to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24). If they are found to be in error, Christians are to rebuke one another in love as God rebukes man through His Word (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, Revelation 3:19). Labeling rather than coming to the aid of an erring brother or sister is not according to the standard of God’s Word. With patience, caution, and consideration, let us always approach our brothers and sisters, seeking to grow and to unite in Christ.