Labels Among Christians

Believers in Jesus Christ as Lord are known by a variety of labels, some contradictory among themselves and often divisive. Yet our God is the author of differences. Believers must grow to know and respect differences among themselves. Differences can be of God; division can be of Satan.

Church (Matthew, 70s/80s AD)
The word church is a translation of the Greek ekklesia and the Hebrew qahal. The word is used only twice in the Gospels, in Mt 16:18 and Mt 18:17. The Greek and the Hebrew mean God's people, called, convoked, formed by Him as the object of His designs. The word generally means the constitution of the community of those who will be sharers in salvation.
Christian (Luke, 70s/80s AD)
The term "christian" is used to denote the followers of Jesus Christ. Acts 11:26 records that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were called Christians for the first time."
catholic (Ignatius, 110 AD)
This term is the same word found in the Apostles Creed ("I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"). The word comes from the Greek, katholika, which means universal. It was used as early as the end of the 1st, early 2nd century by Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110).
Catholic (c. 400 AD)
This word denotes the Roman Catholic Church and its believers. The technical use of the word to denote the Roman Church seems to have been established by the beginning of the 3rd century. The Catholic Church rightly uses the word in that its beliefs and practice have been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is what is truly and properly catholic.
Greek Byzantine (5/6th cent.)
This label signifies Eastern and Greek speaking Christians and their theology. The term is used today to indicate Greek speaking Christians who are in union with the Bishop of Rome and accept the authority of Rome.
Greek Orthodox (1054)
This label signifies Eastern and Greek speaking Christians and their theology. The term often refers to those Greek speaking Christians who broke with the Bishop of Rome in 1054 and no longer accept the authority of Rome.
Protestant (Luther, 1483-1546)
This label denotes those Christians who trace their origin to the Reformation precipitated by Martin Luther in a move to reform the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Their aim was to restore the Christian faith as it had been at its beginning. In a word they "protested" the abuses in faith and practice found in the Church during the Middle Ages.
Reformed (Zwingli, 1484-1531; Calvin, 1509-1564)
This label is used for those Protestant Christian believers who follow the doctrines and polity of the Protestant Reformers Zwingli and Calvin rather than the Lutheran tradition. A chief distinction is in the belief in the Eucharist: their faith holds a memorial view of the sacrament.
Revival (1700s)
The term "revival" (and "revivalism") was applied to the reaction against intellectual and formalistic tendencies in Protestantism in the 18th century. Revivalism stresses conversion and a concern for the poor. It denotes the popular movement among Christians that makes a direct appeal to emotional religious experience. Methodism founded by John and Charles Wesley best typifies revivalism. Adventist churches and Holiness churches are examples of revival churches in the United States today.
Evangelical (Spenser, 1666; Wesley, 1738)
This label denotes a movement in modern Anglo-American Protestantism with European roots which emphasizes personal commitment to Christ and the authority of the Bible. The word "evangelical" simply means pertaining to the Gospel (euaggelion = good news). The largest U.S. Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, embraces evangelical tenets. Others include Pentecostals, the Charismatic Renewal (including Catholic Christians) and Black Baptist Churches. A major evangelical publication is Christianity Today.
Pentecostal (1906 in USA)
This label denotes both the faith and practice of those who profess belief in the experience of holiness and Christian perfection. This perfection is climaxed by an "infilling of the Holy Spirit" as evidenced by speaking in tongues as experienced by the Apostles on Pentecost in 30 AD. Pentecostal beliefs are drawn principally from Methodist and Baptist tenets, and are usually fundamentalist. The Church of God of Prophecy is an example of a Pentecostal church.
Fundamental (The Fundamentals, 1920)
The label "fundamental" is a label first used in the 1920s to denote the return to essential (hence fundamental) Bible truths. The fundamental truths professed are: the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as atonement for the sins of all people, the physical resurrection and second coming of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of all believers. Some denominations which are fundamentalists are the Southern Baptists, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Four Square Gospel, Church of the Nazarene, etc.
Non/Interde- nominational (late 20th cent.)
These labels are used to distinguish those professing Christians who follow generally a fundamentalist and/or evangelical lifestyle. While they eschew the labels of historical denominations, their labels have become the new denominational labels. They adhere to a Bible-only rule of faith and morals and dismiss the doctrinal conflicts which spawned the historical Protestant Christian denominations.
This label comes from the Greek word, charismata, meaning spiritual gifts. The Charismatic Movement is an international, interdenominational Christian revivalist movement. Believers have been filled or baptized with the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are then received such as tongues, prophecy, healing, interpretation of tongues, etc. (1 Cor 12:8-10). The movement appears to have found its contemporary manifestation through the Pentecostal Churches in the early 20th century. The Catholic Charismatic Movement traces its roots to university campuses (e.g. Notre Dame) in 1967. Today the Franciscan University of Steubenville is a center of Catholic Charismatic activity. The movement received Papal approval in 1975 from Pope Paul VI.
The term "traditional" is often used to denote those believers who look to a long standing belief or practice within the Church as essential to their faith life. Literally, to be traditional means to "hold fast to the truths which have been handed down to you". In Catholic Christianity today, to be traditional often denotes the period of belief and practice before Vatican II, and to those who hold tenaciously to the unrenewed faith and practice of Church life before Vatican II.
The term "orthodox" is applied increasingly today to those Catholic Christians who are faithful to the biblical, historical and theological foundations of the teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome and the bishops of the world teaching in unity with the Bishop of Rome. Orthodox Catholic Christians are perceived as both conservative and evangelical.
The label "conservative" is usually applied to that Christian faith and practice which focuses on a very strict and narrow interpretation of both Biblical and Church teaching.
When the term "liberal" is applied to Christian faith and practice what is usually denoted is a loose and broad interpretation of both the Bible and Church teachings. Today, the accent on the so-called "social gospel" is often viewed as a liberal emphasis on faith and practice.

Christians differ by denominational and non-denominational labels also. As individuals and groups disagreed with each other they often broke faith fellowship to begin and continue their own faith fellowship. The study of history presents a story of increasing differences among Christian believers and a proliferation of denominational labels.

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By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Catholic Biblical Apologetics, © Copyright 1985-2004, Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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Last Updated: July 17, 2004