I was talking labels the other day and, asking why someone would rather be an Anglican than a Presbyterian, added the hasty coda, “I’m not saying I actually am Presbyterian.”
Later I wondered why not. I make an hour-long commute to a Presbyterian church every Sunday and help lead a Presbyterian Bible study. I went through membership classes, an elder interview and made a public commitment to be a member of a Presbyterian church. If I moved anywhere else I would look first for a Presbyterian church. Of the theology I loosely hold, most of it is Presbyterian. I even joke about being born Presbyterian—my discomfort with changes in Sunday routine, my inhibitions where clapping is concerned. And here is the real test: I would baptize my babies.
But if a pollster asked me my denomination (like they asked 54,000 Americans in the latest huge landmark survey of religion in America), I apparently would have balked and said something like evangelical—just like 45 percent of American Christians did. This survey found that more Christians are reluctant to identify with a denomination, choosing terms like evangelical or non-denominational instead. While the number of Christians has gone down, the number of self-described non-denominational Christians has risen from 200,000 in 1990 to 8 million in 2008. The number of self-described evangelicals has gone up from 546,000 in 1990 to 2.1 million in 2008.
I guess I’d be among those Christians with my tiptoeing around that label, Presbyterian. Why is that, when I’m actually far more Presbyterian than what I think of when I say the term, evangelical? I chose my church for a reason—because the whole denomination seemed to have more solid fare than the bubbly pop that passes for nourishment in most “evangelical” churches.
I suppose I might tell a pollster evangelical because Presbyterians are so wildly different. My brand of Presbyterian is not remotely related to other brands of Presbyterianism—but my friends know all that, and they know my particular brand, so why tell my friends I’m “not actually Presbyterian”? I suppose it might be because I’m not sure if I’m Calvinist—but I’m not sure that I’m not, and no one ever said I had to be Calvinist to be Presbyterian. It might be because some denominations are changing so fast that I don’t want to be married to one until death do us part; but my brand of Presbyterianism is post-split and stolid right now.
But all of that is part of it. Claiming a denomination means finding out if you are a Calvinist or not, which takes time and a deep commitment to seeking truth. Then it means making a long-term commitment not just to a local body but a body bigger than your local body. It means submitting yourself to the authorities in that body, but it also means fighting for the body’s integrity and well-being when the authorities are wrong; and keeping them accountable means more study and time and commitment to truth. “Being” a denomination means losing yourself in a larger body. Isn’t that what Christian living is about?
You hear some Christians dismiss “labels” as sub-spiritual as if, once we’re truly enlightened, we’ll move past all of that to a peaceful utopia peopled with Christ-followers. (And that is how they talk about it—in enlightenment terms, with those who cling to labels still living in the Dark Ages of barbaric internecine Christian warfare). But at least in my case and, I’d wager, many others, not “being” a denomination is just a case of intellectual and spiritual sloth.
It would be a nice ending if I said, "So I'm a Presbyterian." In fact, I wrote that very ending. But I deleted it because after all of that, it seems a little flippant—like slapping on a label just to escape the "spineless" label I currently wear. Labeling myself for the sake of "being" something is just as lazy as not labeling myself at all.
So here’s hopefully the honest ending: I'm going to be thinking harder and studying more. (But I won’t be clapping in church.)
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