Calvin Brown is the Executive Director of The Renewal Fellowship.
Often I hear the plea that we should never label people. There is a sense that to call someone a liberal or an evangelical or, for that matter, a Presbyterian, instead of just a Christian is to do them untold damage. We are told that we need to take each person as an individual and never ever reduce them to a mere category. Certainly I realize the truth and the pain that gives rise to such cries. But in refusing to use labels we have to start all over in every relationship with no recognition that we have anything but our naked humanity in common. When I go to Assembly and know I am surrounded by those who call themselves Presbyterians I feel a kinship and an immediate openness that I may not feel in a crowded conference of the same size named Canadian Dentists for Flossing. That is not to say that I do not need to be open to what the dentists are saying and indeed learn important things from them but I simply do not have the same sense of kinship. Name-calling is important as the Bible clearly teaches. To name something as Adam named all the animals is to acknowledge their existence and to determine a relationship with them. To name the name of God is important because what we call God carries with it an understanding of the character and the relationship we have with God. There are those who do not want to give God a name. They prefer that everyone give God a name that suits their own needs and their own understanding. They further claim that any name will do. What they do not understand is the importance of name- calling. There are false gods as well as the true God. If we want to worship the God of the Bible we need to call him by the name he gives us and not some name we think is appropriate to our needs or the needs of others. We ought not to deny Christ or rename him and still call ourselves Christians. That is confusing at best and perhaps even dishonest (see Deut. 5:11 and Acts 4:12). It is akin to me calling you Sam (when that is not your name) because I feel I want to talk to a Sam. I may even argue that it doesn't matter because Sam is as good a name for you as the one you asked me to call you by and by which all your family and friends call you. The problem is that what I call you is not who you are either as you prefer to be named or known to the community around. It may be true that each time I use the word Sam I can explain that you are someone's spouse and describe where you work and what you look like and your hobbies and interests and any other facts I know about you but surely that would be obtuse in the extreme. Name-calling then is as important way in which communities can identify and understands the one being referred to. Name-calling as descriptive is a great social blessing.
Name-calling or naming things however, is not good when it is used simply to write off others or demonize others but it is helpful when we want to have a beginning point for conversation. When I tell people I'm a Calvinist it should indicate a set of beliefs and understandings and worldview that are distinct from other worldviews. It is a great beginning point. That does not mean that I would never disagree with John Calvin but it means that in the main we are of one mind. Once I'm introduced as a Calvinist the one I'm speaking with has an immediate advantage to understand where I'm "coming from" and in any conversation that follows we can further clarify if the need arises.
I think it is important to recognize that although some do not like name-calling because they feel it separates in unhealthy ways, others in fact simply lack the courage of conviction and fail to stand for anything. As Jesus describes them they are neither hot nor cold and he found that revolting. There are some who for political reasons do not want to identify themselves as conservative or liberal — one doesn't get chosen for positions when they take a stand. This is merely opportunistic and promotes self-advancement, not the welfare of the church. It should be exposed for what it is. Authentic name-calling however is a healthy and useful prerequisite for true dialogue and growth. The following guidelines are important:
1) Name-calling is primarily descriptive, not judgmental, and so terms that are descriptive are used, not terms of judgment. That is not to say that God will not in the end judge some things and some acts as worthy of condemnation but our name-calling needs to be descriptive. For example we may use the word "fundamentalist" to describe those who have a certain understanding of biblical things in a literalistic way and affirm traditional Christian doctrines. That word is descriptive, not judgmental, although we may consider fundamentalists as those caught up in an error. The word should be used merely descriptively and so is useful as a beginning point of discussing a certain lifestyle or point of view. What we have allowed, however, is the word to describe what some consider to be an attitude of over-zealousness and even narrowness so that even many who indeed hold fundamentalist doctrine shirk from identifying with what once was a fair description.
2) Secondly, do not associate stereotypes with the words. For example, one may have in mind a narrow-minded bigot who buttonholes everyone he meets when you say fundamentalist. This may be completely incorrect. In fact the person may be a kind, considerate worker at the local soup kitchen who is known to be generous to charities and an active member of a Bible study in a local church. We should never use name-calling as a way of demonizing others. This is not helpful in dealing with the real issue. Conversely, one may have in mind a person who is uptight, rude, offensive, inconsistent and overly politically correct when you say liberal but in fact is not that way at all. It is important then to try to avoid stereotypes and use the words only as descriptive of positions or points of view.
3) Realize that name-calling is only a beginning point in a conversation. It is a generalization and so it is only descriptive of an approximate place on a spectrum, not a single point of reference. Vital points in the conversation will have to be clarified. For example, when one call themselves an evangelical that has meaning but other words may need to be used to overcome commonly held stereotypes (either positive or negative). For some the word may mean someone with a real care and conviction to share Jesus as Lord and Saviour; to another it may mean that, but also someone who never drinks, smokes or dances.
I hope that we never give up name-calling but I do hope that we use name-calling as God intended to acknowledge differences and similarities so that we can communicate and function as communities with growing understanding of one another and of all that exists in God's world.
In all this no doubt we all need to pray St. Patrick's Breastplate:
- Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
It is my hope that when the words Renewal Fellowship are used it will increasingly come to mean those who reflect the truth and kindness of Jesus in both doctrine and lifestyle… Those who are truly willing to enter into dialogue and who use names descriptively and not pejoratively. Pray that it may be so as we remember that finally all God's servants will have his name written on their foreheads.
"The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the LORD God will be shining on them, they will reign for ever and ever." The Jerusalem Bible.