Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Label Factory

Religion and politics. There are few things that can incite emotions like those two subjects. Unfortunately, some of the give and take is less than charitable. Indeed, too often, in the midst of the give and take of ideas and viewpoints, it seems inevitable that one side with assign a label to the other. In fact, label making has become something of a preoccupation these days.

I remember the first time I experienced this personally. I was a student at a Reformed Presbyterian seminary in the Midwest. I also happened to be attending an Independent Fundamental Bible Church. What I found interesting was the reaction of the people in each place to the other. It was a lesson in label making that I will not forget.

The people at the church wondered – aloud – why I would attend a “liberal” seminary. In their mind, it just was not possible for there to be a bible-believing seminary that did not conform to their particular understanding of Scripture. Indeed, anything less than fully embracing a dispensational framework for the Scriptures (including a pretribulational, premillenial view of eschatology), was liberal. Now, mind you, the seminary in question was far from liberal, in the strictest sense of the word. The school embraced an inerrant, infallible view of the inspiration of Scripture. They embraced the virgin birth, miracles, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and personal return of Jesus. Yet, they were “liberal” because they disagreed on their understanding of eschatology.

By the same token, some of my classmates at seminary wondered why I would go to a fundamentalist church. They were not using “fundamentalist” in a technical way, either. My classmates most certainly were not referring to an embrace of the historic fundamentals of the faith. Rather, they had in mind a caricature of fundamentalists humorously described as “not much fun, too much damn, and very little mental.” My fellow students could not understand how I could willingly worship with such narrow minded people (although apparently not recognizing their own narrow mindedness).

I am the first to admit that I have – on more than one occasion – utilized the pejorative form of labels. Indeed, I have been a first rate label maker, sadly forgetting the pain and frustration of those seminary days nearly twenty years ago. I remember being so frustrated with the folks at our church for labeling me as a liberal for attending “that kind” of seminary. And I remember the frustration of having my classmates surprised that I knew the music of R.E.M., considering I was a “fundy.” I remember thinking: “I am the same guy. My beliefs haven’t changed.” Yet, one group labeled me a liberal, while the other labeled me a fundamentalist.

John Calvin (please do not label me a “Calvinist” because I am quoting Calvin) once described the human mind as a perpetual factory of idols. While I do not disagree with Calvin, I would like to suggest that the human mind is also a factory of labels. Conservative. Liberal. Fundamentalist. Evangelical. Dispensationalist. Covenantalist. Reformed. Congregationalist. And, yes....Calvinist and Arminian. Certainly some of these labels are useful and helpful. They are, however, easily transformed from a useful and helpful shorthand to a form of pejorative insult when used inappropriately.

I would like to suggest that we strive to utilize labels in their technical form, and not as a pejorative way to describe those who disagree with us. I am not suggesting we not use labels. To do so is silly and unproductive. Labels do have their place. But, let us endeavor to use them accurately and not as a tool for attacking those with whom we disagree. In addition, when someone "labels" us, rather than respond defensively, ask them, 'what do you mean by that?' or 'What does (fill in the label here) mean to you?' I think you will be surprised that many people who use labels do not even know what they mean. They are simply parroting something they heard someone else say. In all honesty, the only label I unreservedly want to have attached to me is "Christ-follower."

Let me know what you think. Have you been a victim of label-itis? Are you guilty of being a label-maker? 

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