Denominational Labels Can Be a Good Thing

I’ve been asked this question a few times, and it is a good foundational idea for why I write these blogs the way I do. The basic question: why do I talk in terms of denominations? All things said and done, aren’t we all Christians and that’s all that matters? To that I’d say, it depends what you mean. I get that idea for sure. I very definitely agree that Anabaptists are not the only Christians. I will still call all Christians – Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Mainline, Anglican, Pentecostal, any other category I missed – my brothers and sisters.

I also freely acknowledge that I am quite likely wrong in some of my opinions. That is why I typically try to present other sides of the argument, usually before presenting my own, as I did with my blogs on baptism. I may not find those arguments convincing, but you might, and who am I to declare perfectly correct biblical interpretation? I would rather you hear the other side than just mine. I know that we agree on far more than we disagree on, and I know that the things we do disagree on are usually of less significance than the things we agree on.

I also know that the labels are not always entirely accurate. I generally agree with the core concepts of the Mennonite Church and the Anabaptist tradition in general, but there are probably some fine details I don’t. I know that everybody is different, and everybody’s theology is different. So yes, it is speaking mostly in generalities. No label can completely speak for every fine detail, hence why you’ll still have a fair bit of debate within denominations about things outside of their core statements.

With that all aside, I still argue for the value of the label. Labels can create division, but divisions happen at least as easily with the theological differences that aren’t labelled.  I would actually argue that labelling them has the potential to solve a lot of division problems. A Calvinist and an open theist may be discussing something, and their viewpoints clearly provide a different framework on things. If they insist that they are both Christians and that’s it, they’re just going to get frustrated with each other, unable to communicate their differences effectively. We can’t go to the either end of the spectrum either, and say that my side is all that matters, but the simple fact of it is that we do have differences, and it makes more sense to name them so you can discuss openly. Think about this as if it were with your biological brothers or sisters.  You are still family, and you probably have more in common than different, but there are some differences. It wouldn’t work to try to deny them because it might make division. And in a healthy family you are free to debate lots of issues, but at the end still know that you’re family even when you agree to disagree. Yet we seem to have more trouble acknowledging this with our spiritual family.

Similarly, I would argue that although a generalizing label may miss some of the fine details, it is still progressing conversation far faster than spelling out the fine details one-by-one. Labels are a tricky thing. I did a fair bit of focus of my undergraduate degree on psycholinguistics, and one of the fundamental principles of language is that it is arbitrary, used as a way to communicate some concept. The word itself is not that important. The word “God” doesn’t carry meaning in and of itself – it carries meaning because it was assigned at some point in evolution of languages to this concept. It is not about the word “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist”, but referring to those things allows people to understand that I identify myself with those concepts. This can result in over-generalizing, or in confusion, but essentially the alternative is to not use language which isn’t really possible. Those generalizations also allow our brains to process a vast amount of data.

So I say that we should own who we are, including what we think theologically. I agree with almost all of the Mennonite Statement of Faith, and with much of Anabaptist thought in general. Maybe you don’t, and wherever you’re coming from, let’s talk about it. Maybe we agree on some things and disagree on others, and maybe we’ll never agree on some things, but whatever the case, don’t be afraid to lovingly and honestly say who you are. Let’s build a healthy family of the church, denominational differences and all.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.