Spanish speaking people get acquainted differently than English speakers. When an Anglo would ask, “What’s your name,” the question stated in Spanish is, “How are you called?” We humans seem to need a label for everything. Tagging something or someone seems to eliminate the need for discussion in any detail. If I tell you that Bob is a biochemist, you may be clueless as to what he actually does to earn his paycheck, but you’ll also probably be far less inclined to ask. Sometimes we refer to this process of categorization as “pigeonholing.” As we apply such technique across the broad spectrum of our experience, so we use it to identify (or misidentify) people’s belief systems.
Take for example the atheist.
Everyone knows that atheists don’t believe in God, right?
And that places them all in one box, right?
Atheists come from every imaginable demographic, and there are probably at least a few from backgrounds that most of us wouldn’t imagine. They all have only two things in common: they are living human beings and they don’t believe in a supreme being or beings. Even the second of these similarities may have wide variations. But aside from such instruction as Paul’s examples of being “all things to all men” and his speaking to the Athenians in terms familiar to their own culture, the Bible gives us a lot of latitude in relating to nonbelievers. Atheists, agnostics, polytheists, monotheists, ad infinitum are all biblically qualified together as “lost,” as opposed to those who are “saved.”
It is the identification of the redeemed elect of God that requires the most caution, for the sake of accuracy. Commonly throughout the world today, anyone who attends church, or ever has, or claims to believe in one God, or the Trinity, or Jesus Christ, or the virgin Mary, or who even wears a cross or an ictheus as jewelry, or a T-shirt with a religious symbol or saying on it, is considered a Christian. Many are called Christians who simply live in a geographic area known as a “Christian” community, region, or state. In other words, mankind’s definition of a Christian is skewed into numerous angles. But what is God’s view?
The word translated “Christian” is found only three times in Scripture, its obvious purpose being to label the followers of Christ. Its first occurrence (Acts 11:26) was in Antioch, where “the disciples were first called Christians.” Note that this nickname was not self applied by the believers, but others gave them the title, most likely as a derogatory term to separate them from “normal” people. Then at Caesarea, Agrippa used the sobriquet “Christian” mockingly in addressing Paul, who was a prisoner there. Finally, Peter says, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:16), clearly showing that the label is applied from outside the community of saints, for intended reasons of shame and disgrace. It seems odd that over time believers have adopted the disgrace of the epithet as a beast adapts to its master’s halter.
Paul’s cautioning is stronger still, as he serves notice to the Corinthian church, “there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or “‘ follow Cephas’, or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11b-13). In so saying, Paul highlights the inadvisability of believers’ labeling ourselves for the convenience of others or even for our own ease of reference. This he bears out with the shocking revelation that it may be as damaging to call oneself a follower of Jesus Christ himself as to be self dubbed the follower of a favorite preacher or theologian. I.e. our Lord declares it equally inappropriate for us to call ourselves after our most darling of Jesus’ disciples, e.g. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, etc., or to describe ourselves as “Christians.”
Finally, consider Jesus own words on the matter of how we are called: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). Observe that He doesn’t deny their claims of great works done in His name, but simply declares that He never knew them, nor (He implies) they Him, for they were “workers of iniquity,” pointing up two key factors in the business of wearing labels:
First, it matters not what we think of God, but what He thinks of us, and, second, whatever we may call ourselves means nothing in light of the terminology by which our Lord identifies us. In the final analysis, no matter what account we give on our own behalf, we are who and what He says we are—no less and certainly no more.