You’ve got to label food these days. It makes sense. In these days of pre-packaged, pre-cooked food, you naturally want to know what’s in the package. So it’s a bit of a shame when it tells you you’re eating cow when all the time it’s horse. The remedy is not to ditch the label; just make sure it’s telling the truth. Labels are essential for consumer confidence and even, at times, to stay alive. For let’s face it: nuts can kill.

But people are different from Findus Shepherd’s Pie or Heinz Ravioli, believe it or not. You need a novel to even begin to describe a person – we’d expect nothing less from someone made in the divine image. But we all use them – we can’t avoid them. I think I’m just pleading for more circumspection. labels on twitter

I was on the fringe of an interesting little twitter discussion prompted by a question from Vicky Beeching (see right). Hers was a useful question. And I completely understand where Andrew Brown (the Guardian’s online religion editor for Comment is Free) is coming from here. But it’s got me thinking (though probably too much).

So, first things first: I am what you might call a classic or conservative evangelical. Yeurgghh… shock horror… unclean! But wait! Don’t draw conclusions… yet.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when we use labels of ourselves, we always intend the best we can by them. And we thereby seek to gather the like-minded around us. But when we use them of others (especially combatants and those we disagree with), we often mean the worst we can by them; whereupon they have degenerated into manipulative and polemical shorthand.

But human complexity (quite apart from the wonder of God) is such that while they have their uses, we can’t stop there. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that reducing people to a label is to deny that they truly are an ‘other’ worthy of respect. To express love (as opposed to control, derision, contempt), we should use labels (if they’re needed) only to start conversations and never to end them.

So let’s have a go at this: where might you start (though not end) with me (although I fear I’m creating all kinds of hostages tofortune by doingthis – please be gentle! I’m not actually wanting to get into heated debates about using any of these terms, I merely want to make the overarching point very clearly):

  • I’m not “Liberal”: but that doesn’t mean I’m never liberal, nor that I think that liberality is necessarily negative. After all, divine grace is itself the most liberal gift of all.
  • I’m not “Catholic”: but I do seek a catholic (in the true sense of the word) understanding of the gospel, the church, the kingdom. As Paul said, there is one church, one baptism, one lord. The problem comes when that all gets identified with a single denomination or institution.
  • I’m not “Orthodox”: but I do value orthodoxy (as well as orthopraxis) as a worthy, even essential, aspiration.
  • I’m not “Charismatic”: but I’m utterly conscious of a dependence on the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Food-labelsBut it’s perhaps a sure sign of the complexities of these things that labels themselves need qualifiers now (as Vicky’s question suggested). So:

  • I’m “Evangelical” because, in short, I stand in the grace-gospel and the scriptural testimony of that gospel; but this doesn’t prevent much of evangelical sub-culture bringing me out in hives or that it infallibly deserves assent. However:
  • I’m not “Open” evangelical because I don’t closely adhere to some of the assumptions (as I understand them) of those who have adopted the label; but hey, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to listen. It’s a clever term, isn’t it – because you can own it and suggest that those who disagree with you are ‘closed’ (or equivalent antonyms of any other labels mentioned).
  • I’m not “Post-evangelical”, because I’m still one (though see next bullet). Having said that, I read (and profited from) much that Dave Tomlinson wrote in his influential book The Post-Evangelical (even though I obviously have rejected some of the conclusions). I am not an out-and-out modernist, and I agree with many post-modern critiques of it. That doesn’t mean I wholeheartedly buy into it, even though my fear is that too much of evangelicalism still is (see previous posts to that effect).
  • I’m a “conservative’ evangelical” because that’s sort of a box that fits. But not really. In fact, I actually hate the qualifier and prefer “classical evangelical”, but that doesn’t help many people. But to be clear, by being “conservative” I only mean holding to what was best from the past, rather than seeking to preserve the magisterial reformation in aspic. In fact, to be truly conservative evangelical is to wave the “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” banner.
  • Etc etc etc.

But there you can see what I’m doing already – using the labels I want in their best sense. I need to work hard to ensure I don’t use others’ labels disparagingly or reductionistically. Which is tricky, is it not?

Anyway – enough random, half-cocked burbling. We can’t avoid using labels. But please never allow conversations, let alone relationships, to be boxed in by them. Because otherwise, you’ll always assume that the group you disparage as being a “bunch of Xs or Ys” will inevitably (in your view) always contain nuts. When actually, when you get to know them, you might just have to realise they have a point.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Kip' Chelashaw

    Good post and very insighful. Reminds me of a great J I Packer quote:

    “That the term dogmatician has nothing to do with dogs does not, I trust, need saying. But when exegetes and dogmaticians get together it is noticeable that they tend to sniff suspiciously at each other, as dogs do, uncertain whether they can be friends.”

  2. Simon Vibert

    Some good thoughts here Mark: I think the main point, which your blog reflects, is that there is value in defining who we are/what we believe and by seeking to define this we inevitably find ourselves denying certain things as well as affirming others. Merely to do this goes against the suspicion of the age, namely that shere act of labelling is wrong. But, withtout rancor, I think that it needs to happen!

  3. Tanya Marlow

    Labels to start conversations, not to end them – love that thought. And you’re exactly right – when we use terms of ourselves we think of the best of them, but often with others we’re thinking f the worst. Language is so slippery, isn’t it?

    Maybe that’s part of the reason why God gave us doctrine within story rather than in the abstract, so we could be clearer of the meaning? Often we think the opposite is true, that mathematical style doctrine equations are the clearest way of expressing our faith: this post has reminded me of the value of story.

    So – can you label me?
    I grew up knowing that God had healed me supernaturally of a brain haemorrhage ad by the time I committed my life to him as led and saviour in the back garden at the age of seven, I felt like we were best friends anyway. I wanted to show my commitment to him so I asked my church the best way of doing it. They said I couldn’t get baptised, as I wanted, but I could get confirmed – but only when I was thirteen. I was indignant – didn’t they know how long I had been a Christian already?

    I got confirmed, I led worship at my church youth group, I led Sunday school. I had periods of doubt and anger at God and felt alone in that. I went to university and discovered that some people didn’t think women could teach the Bible to men. I also discovered a great love for studying and teaching God’s word. I spent a year or so believing that women could not lead churches or preach, and then looked into it further and the evidence of the Bible convinced me otherwise. I married a preacher guy and we went to the church that we thought had the best opportunities to reach people who didn’t know Jesus.

    What am I?
    I am a child of God, a follower of Jesus, a lover of His word. I like those labels best 🙂

    1. Tanya Marlow

      Nb stupid typing error – obviously I committed my life to Christ as Lord and Saviour, not led and saviour…!

  4. Lauri Moyle

    Terms are contextual as well. I particularly appreciate Marilynne Robinsons essay in her collection Death of Adam entitled, Puritans and Prigs. Part of what I like about the essay is her review of what the term Puritan has come to mean and what the term represented over 200-300 years of American history. Part of my problem with the terms ‘open’ and ‘post’-evangelical are that they are so young, relatively flat contextually and perhaps most importantly they are current terms. Yanya’s point about the importance of how a term relates to the story in which the term is found. That being said I am at the moment completely happy to be understood as being a Puritan perhaps (if this is possible) in the humanist tradition found in Erasmus and others. (sometimes we need to resist others terms)

  5. Dave Roberts

    Thanks, mate! You put it far more eloquently than I could ever hope to have done! Bless ya!

  6. Anthony Smith

    My wife has a nut allergy, and we take it as a rule that anything that says “May contain nuts” can safely be assumed not to contain nuts! Maybe that’s relevant here?!

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