Labels. What’s the use? What’s the point of using a label? Well, the typical reason is for convenience sake. Instead of having to explain what you are all about you simply say a word or two and describe yourself much faster. However, are labels effective? Do they really serve their purpose? I would like to convince you that they typically do not, and, in fact, often can be rather harmful. I would like to look at three different sample labels that will serve as spring boards into some points about the potential harmfulness of labels.
Disclaimer: I am simply using these three labels as examples. I am not sharing my opinions of these groups nor am I condemning the use of only these three labels.
What in the world is Calvinism? Honestly, I have come to realize that very few people know what Calvinism means outside of Calvinists (and sometimes I wonder if some so called Calvinists even know). Allow me to give you a brief description. Calvinism is a system of theology (a way of viewing and interpreting scripture), named after John Calvin (a contemporary to Martin Luther is that helps you identify him) due to the fact that Calvinists believe they are following in Calvin’s theological footsteps. Calvinism is extremely broad, for it is a whole system of theology (not just one doctrine, i.e., predestination, as many people think). The most important characteristics of this system are that it holds to Covenant theology (essentially that the Church is the true Israel) and the five doctrines of grace (the TULIP acronym) which are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. But these are only five doctrines on salvation. However, Calvinism is this and so much more. Yet if you were to ask the average Christian what Calvinism is, what they know of Calvinism, or what they think of when they think of Calvinism you would typically receive two answers: 1) the belief in predestination, and 2) people who don’t witness. First, predestination is only one doctrine out of a whole system in Calvinism. Second, there are those who believe in predestination who are not Calvinists. Thirdly, historically many Calvinists have been some of the most evangelistic individuals to ever live (i.e., Charles Spurgeon). My point here has nothing Calvinism. My point is that the label “Calvinism” is not understood properly by most people. Most people carry with it a bad connotation and misconception, a connotation and misconception most Calvinists wouldn’t appreciate. What can we learn from this example? Labels are often not understood properly. Using them wit those who do not understand them, even if they think or say they do, can easily portray something to that person that is not intended.
My next example is the label (or denomination) Baptist. Now, what exactly is a Baptist? Baptists historically have held to certain distinctives. And although one may find various lists of distinctives, a general idea of the distinctives are soul liberty, believers baptism and actually being born again as a requirement for church membership, each church ought to governs itself rather than an outside authority (such as a presbytery or the state), the priesthood of all believers, the existence of two ordinances (baptism and communion), the Bible is the sole authority in doctrine and practice, and the existence of two offices in the church (pastor and deacon). Some Baptists might read this and disagree with my wording on a point or two points, think I am missing a crucial distinctive, or even think I’ve added one falsely. But I guess, unless those opinions were a consensus, this would only prove my point. My with this example point is that the word “Baptist” is extremely broad, as many labels tend to be. I have been to Baptist churches that host rock concerts and other Baptist churches that condemn any music “with a beat.” Dragging Calvinism back into things, I have been to Baptist churches that despise Calvinism while there are some Baptist Churches that put “Reformed” in their name (“Reformed” means they are Calvinists). Without belaboring the point, Baptist is an extremely broad name. And frankly, if you were a Baptist and you told the average person on the street you were a Baptist, we might have a situation as presented with the first example: they might have an idea of Baptist that you don’t mean to portray. The reason they would have this connotation is because “Baptist” is too broad. It means too many different things to mean anything at all. Sometimes I don’t even think the average Baptists know what “Baptist” means (which is a problem with many peoples’ use of labels, especially denominational labels). By using labels, your just asking to be stereotyped. Your asking someone to associate you with whatever idea they have of that label. That is not a safe practice whatsoever. Labels are often much too broad.
The last example I’d like to use is “Fundamentalist.” So, what is a Fundamentalist? Well, a simply definition of a Fundamentalist is one who believes in the doctrines of historic Christianity (as opposed to liberal views and interpretations). These historic doctrines of Christianity are called the Fundamentals. Furthermore, fundamentalists are militant in their defense of pure doctrine and believe in the doctrine of separation (they are separatists) as a means of maintaining true unity and pure doctrine. My point in using Fundamentalism as my final example is to show that some labels, although not all, are too damaged to be used properly. Some will no doubt disagree with me on this, but I’ll say it anyways. The name “Fundamentalism” is like a totaled vehicle. If you got in a car accident and totaled your car, you wouldn’t get in your car the next day and try to continue driving it (at least most people wouldn’t). “Fundamentalism” is just like that totaled car. It has been associated with too many groups of people who have carried the name Fundamentalist, many of whom have unfortunately hurt the name at large. Even as I write this, just three days ago a segment on a popular station did a documentary on Fundamental Baptist Churches, absolutely tearing them apart. Unfortunately, although I believe the criticism was rather unworthy, situations like this make the name “Fundamentalism” detestable to many people. Don’t get me wrong, Fundamentalism is fantastic in principle. But what it has come to mean to those outside the movement is something far different than what is intended (at least I hope) by those inside. Therefore, from this final example we learned that many labels are simply too damaged and distorted to use.
An Exception Clause
As I was thinking over this issue, I thought it necessary to include what I will call some exceptions to what I have just said. Labels often do serve their intended purpose, and so I will not conclusively say one should never use them. For example, often times in theology or church history books labels are used. In this situation, the reader is expected to understand the intended meaning or do more research in order to understand the label. Further, I believe labels may be used when one is certain readers or hearers will understand what is intended by their use. For example, if a Fundamentalist is around fellow like minded Fundamentalists who know what a Fundamentalist is, using that label is rather harmless. If we never used labels we’d have to “reinvent the wheel,” so to say, whenever we talked about theology. For example, instead of saying, “I believe in progressive sanctification,” one would have to describe in detail what he believed about the nature of sanctification.
Often times, labels are convenient. But the caution is, if recipients do not understand the label, then they are not longer convenient. With that said, I’ll conclude: be careful how you use labels.
* Originally posted on former blog, I’m Calling Us Out.