When we announced to the first church we served, in South Carolina, that we were moving to Alabama, someone came up right after church and said, “Here’s the question if you’re moving to Birmingham: Are you gonna say, ‘Roll Tide’ or ‘War Eagle’?”
At that time I was only vaguely familiar with the football spectacle called the Iron Bowl, so the truth is that I wasn’t quite sure what a War Eagle was, but my old friend was right. I soon learned that if you live in Alabama you have to be one or the other. Tide or War Eagle, Crimson or Orange, Alabama or Auburn.
You have to pick.
When we moved to the Magic City, we bought a little house not far from a college campus on Lakeshore Drive, so we made our choice: Samford — Go Bulldogs!
It’s not only in sports that we have to choose. We love our labels and seem to need our “binaries”: left or right, right or wrong, conservative or liberal, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or everyone else.
But what does that mean, given such a binary-only option? What is “Christian” if there are only two options?
Saying there are only two answers implies that there is only one way to be Christian. That claim is obviously false, so it’s understandable why non-Christians might be so perplexed, since the Christian world is divided by Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops and Pentecostal and Protestant traditions.
Within the Protestant household there are Lutherans and Mennonites and Anglicans and Coptics and Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists and Disciples of Christ and Wesleyans and Nazarenes and Baptists, and a couple hundred more. And there are Independent Baptists and Landmark Baptists and Free Will and Southern and National and Hard Shell and General and Particular Baptists within our specific tradition. There may actually be more kinds of Baptists than there are Baptists! And then there are Messianic Jews and Unitarians and Mormons. (Are they “Christians”?)
Even within my Alliance-of-Baptists–affiliated Baptist church on the corner of Ashcraft and Park Road in Charlotte we’re trying to figure out what “membership” means. What does it mean when folks who attended regularly don’t want to join? What are they waiting on? They’re here every week — for years! Don’t they want to be “members”?
Maybe it’s something about the label: “member” or “Park Road Baptist” or “Alliance of Baptists” or “Protestant” or “Christian.”
Do we really need the labels?
Indeed, what do those labels signify? Do they really help? I mean, do they help the Kingdom of God, not just the denominational bean counters?
Our organist wears a yarmulke every Sunday, and though he’s now the director of music and a member of the Conservative Temple, he knows the hymnal backwards and forwards and all the sacred choral literature. And since he was raised Roman Catholic he keeps us on the straight-and-narrow regarding Christian liturgical observance and the lectionary cycle.
The wife of a 70-year-old, life-long member was raised in a Buddhist tradition in Hawaii. She’s never joined the Church, or our church, officially, but I don’t know of anyone I’d rather have representing our congregation — or Jesus, for that matter!
We have a woman who was raised Quaker and, since Quakers don’t baptize, she was never comfortable joining another Baptist church with her fully-immersed husband. Most Baptists require water for membership, and that initiation requirement always implied to her that she’d never really been “Christian” before, but her affirmation is that she’s always been only Christian. So although she’s still dry, head to toe, she’s a deacon in our church now. As far as I can tell, that lack of baptism experience hasn’t prevented her from taking care of her deacon families, leading in worship, teaching Sunday school, or answering any of the other challenges of church membership or leadership.
We also have a young couple visiting regularly with us these days. They were raised Muslim in Iran, though they never really practiced the faith of their families. They came to us because they are “interested in Christianity.” He volunteers with our homeless ministry. And there’s the woman who identifies our church as her “place of worship,” who chaperones youth trips and is active with our young adults and volunteers in our mission programs, but she’s never walked the aisle at our church, either.
There are some who would say we need to ensure more purity in our ranks, that there are historic traditions to which we owe a responsibility. Others might accuse us of watering down the faith. Maybe before someone comes to be a part of our community, volunteers to help the poor, spends the night with the homeless on our campus, visits the elderly, or rocks the babies, we should require some kind of confession of faith as a litmus test: “accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord,” or something like that.
If we wanted to be really serious about that, though, we would all have to have a very clear understanding of (and complete agreement on) what “accepting” means. Even more importantly, each new member would have to have a satisfactory understanding of “Savior” and “Lord” — but, to whose satisfaction?
Further, all of that would require very careful examination, which implies a certain, basic level of intelligence. Which reminds me of the pastor who refused to serve communion to the Down Syndrome woman in his congregation because “she didn’t know what it meant.”
When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I know what it all means, either — “communion” or “membership” or even “Christian.” And it’s not just me. A leader of the Southern Baptist Convention recently announced that he would no longer call himself an “Evangelical Christian” because of the way the name has been abused by some “Evangelicals” and misunderstood by the media.
I’ve been a card-carrying, fully-immersed Baptist for most of my 52 years, and a Christian minister nearly half of that, but call me what you want — it’s clear to me the Church needs to be a lot less concerned about the labels and a lot more concerned about trying to be faithful.