I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels; how they are used, and how they are misused. Watching the recent debate over the Washington shutdown this past week, I was struck by the way labels were used in the attempt of some legislators to pigeonhole others. And after 21 years in ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that the church participates in this same destructive exercise. We rightfully lament the gridlock going on in D.C., but admittedly, the immature behavior of both Republicans and Democrats in my back yard is a reflection of our larger national propensity to prejudge others and depend on labels rather than relationships. I find it ironic that in a day of civil rights legislation and anti-discrimination laws that permeate our culture, human prejudices are still just as strong as they have always been.
Now, I’m not against using labels. Labels can give us a sense of where people are coming from. They help us understand the philosophical rationale for decisions made, commitments kept, and why people care about the things they care about. But at the end of the day, a label doesn’t mean much unless it is understood in light of a person and that person’s context.
A personal example will illustrate this. I’m an evangelical Christian who believes in an inerrant Bible, a literal Adam and Eve, and the virgin birth, substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m also a complementarian that believes the Scriptures commend male pastoral leadership in the home and in the church.
But although I believe in a literal creation, I plant no flags in the ground regarding exactly when God spoke the created order into existence. I’ve read those who believe the earth is 6000 years old, and I’ve read those who believe the earth is tens of millions of years old. My position is that, since I wasn’t there, I have no idea.
Additionally, although I am a complementarian, I believe women are called to every manner of ministry in the church, including the teaching ministry. I find nothing in the text that prevents a woman—under the guidance of her pastor—from teaching the Bible, planning missions strategy, leading ministry efforts in the church, or teaching in a seminary or other institution of higher learning.
I could go on, but these two issues alone are enough for some people to say that the phrase “evangelical” doesn’t fit me. On one occasion about ten years ago, someone actually referred to me as a “liberal.” That was a first!
A few other examples of labels are:
Baptist: There has been much discussion over the last couple of years about what it means to “truly” be Baptist. But which kind of Baptist are we speaking of? Paul Tillich was an existentialist theologian who eventually denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, yet he called himself “Baptist.” Jack Hyles taught that women should always wear dresses and never cut their hair, and he called himself “Baptist.” Westboro "Church" (using that term loosely, I know) in Kansas promulgates a message of hatred for homosexuals, soldiers, and the United States as a whole, and they call themselves “Baptist.”
Living in Maryland, when I identify myself as “Baptist” it is likely that the person I’m talking to might invoke any one of the above expressions. I don’t live in the south where even the dogs and cats are members in good standing of the local Baptist Church. I live in a place where we are about as numerous as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and viewed with essentially the same degree of suspicion. So the only way for someone to really know what I mean when I apply the label to myself is to get to know me.
Liberal. This is a word that often gets tossed around carelessly, especially if your goal is to make someone else look bad. Problem is, not all forms of liberalism are bad! Most of the “liberal arts” universities in America were started by Bible believing Christian groups. Furthermore, the domain of society this term is applied to makes all the difference in the world. Are we talking about political liberalism? Theological liberalism? Social liberalism? Educational liberalism? Each of these terms has an historical definition that separates many of them out from the usual perception of the “left-right” spectrum.
Muslim. Over the past two years, God has opened the door for me to interact with many new friends in the Muslim community. In that time, I’ve learned much about the lives and faith of these precious people, and when I watch FOX News, the Islam I hear described bears little resemblance to that practiced by the people I’ve come to know and love.
To be sure, Muslims of the sort described on our nightly news programs do exist. But Islam is a global, and thus diverse, faith. It is practiced through Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi expressions in dozens of countries around the world, and among 1.6 billion people worldwide. Consequently, a Muslim living in Instanbul, Turkey is probably very different from a Muslim living in rural Afghanistan, the North African desert, or among the immigrant communities that now live in various major cities throughout Europe and the United States. Think about the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in the Balkan region of southern Europe and a Pentecostal preacher in south Alabama. Both are “Christian.” That same sort of variety exists in the Islamic world as well.
Calvinist: Again, which kind are we talking about? Guys who don’t believe in evangelism? John MacArthur students committed to sound exposition? Those who minister in the tradition of Spurgeon? Dortians? Amyraldians? “Whiskey Baptists?” Those labels too can be highly confusing and polarizing.
Conservative. The 2012 Republican primary season ensured that this term was worn slick. What exactly is a “true conservative” or a “strong conservative” anyway? By the standards of some, William F. Buckley, who is arguably considered the father of modern political conservatism, would be considered a moderate today. And if ever there was a term that meant so many things that it means nothing, it’s the term “moderate.”
Is it possible to be theologically conservative yet educationally liberal? History proves that it is.
So where am I going with all this? Here is my big idea: If the labels we use to categorize others can themselves have so many different expressions, then the only way I can truly get to know another human being is to spend time with them and build a relationship. Investing part of your life in a venture as risky as getting to know another human being can sometimes be messy. Sure, its easier to simply label people and move on. But in the end, that approach cheats us out of the tremendous blessing of sharing life, and for Christians, sharing our faith.
For Christians, this is an imminently important issue. We have, to a large extent, capitulated to the cultural propensity to use labels as a device to pigeonhole people and isolate ourselves from them. Then we wonder why we have such a difficult time connecting with our communities and the world. If we don’t build bridges, we will never share Jesus. And you can’t build bridges to culture without building relationships with human beings from every walk of life.
Use labels as reference points. Use them to understand someone’s personal background. But get to know people. All the labeling in the world is no substitute for sitting down with another human being and hearing from them directly. Plus, it’s the only way we can substantively engage the world Jesus died to save.