Label Products, Not People

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At a recent get-acquainted meeting for area pastors and religious leaders, each attendee was asked to state his or her religious affiliation and give a short introduction to the group. One person, whose church is not considered part of mainstream Christianity, shared that many people consider her church a cult. Despite this conclusion, I feel that she is a better example of the teachings of Christ than those who freely administer the cult label.

Labels can be helpful for products, but not for people. Categorizing is too often accompanied by criticizing, condemning, or seeking to convert others whose beliefs differ from our own. History offers numerous examples of the tragic effects of branding people for alleged unorthodox beliefs. This approach spawned the Holocaust and the Inquisitions. True to Jesus Christ’s chilling prediction to His disciples, "the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service" (John 16:2). This sober warning remains for all generations of spiritual vigilantes. Jesus has not deputized anyone to separate the sheep from the goats.

Even the apostle Paul had to learn that bitter lesson prior to his conversion to Christianity. As he later admitted, "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women" (Acts 22:4). At the time, he considered this to be religious zeal (Philippians 3:6).

Religious persecution is a sober reality in a world divided against itself (Matthew 5:10-12, John 15:18-20). Jesus warned, "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). Being a victim of persecution often goes with the territory of being a Christian (II Timothy 3:12); being a persecutor does not. Jesus teaches us to love everyone, even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45). How much more should we love and seek to understand fellow believers, despite our differences of belief. Paul the zealot was an instrument of intolerance and violence. Paul the Christian was an agent of understanding and peace. "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another" (Romans 14:19).

The live-and-let-live message of Romans 14 has long been one of the most neglected teachings of professing Christianity. In his book, The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer eloquently argues, "We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.... Our sharp tongues, the lack of love between us--not the necessary statements of differences that may exist between true Christians--these are what trouble the world." Labels are fine for products on the shelf. But human beings are complex creatures whose diversity defies description. Any person or religion that does not respect the rights of others to worship God with beliefs different than theirs, runs counter to the teachings of Christ and the values upon which the United States was founded.