In the vestry of the chapel I grew up in, from conception through til I was 10-ish there was a poster that said “Labels tie your child down” and had an image with a child struggling to walk because there were lots of huge luggage labels tied to him.
Labels, when applied to us, and as a way of meaning that people don’t have to get to know us, are a bad thing, without a doubt. But I also think labels can be a good thing, as a means of self-identification, and specifically within the Christian world I think labels, when we apply them to ourselves help us in the cause of Christian unity.
In most cases, labels highlight differences. I am an Arminian because someone else is a Calvinist; Someone else is conservative because I am liberal; someone is a complimentarian because another is an egalitarian, some are charismatic because others are not, I have a friend who needs to say he’s an inerrantist because not everyone is. I don’t know about other people, but often me and my friends will pre-fix a statement during a chat with “Well, I believe xxx, so” usually the xxx is something the other doesn’t believe. (for example a Roman Catholic might say to me “I believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary”).
I see two key advantages in describing ourselves in this way 1) it keeps our disagreements graceful 2) it reminds us of what we agree on
Disagreement is a natural part of life, and it is as natural part of being in a faith community. I am reminded of the clips from The Life of Brian where there are disagreements over what various items Brian leaves mean, and how his “disciples” ought to follow him best; Christianity is no different, we produce a variety of of biblical interpretations, a range of doctrines and numerous ways of running churches. No doubt somewhere in that melee is “the right answer” but there is no way of knowing for certain. Using labels reminds us of that; it highlights that there is disagreement and that we cannot know the answer. When someone introduces their ideas by saying “I’m a Universalist, so …” it reminds me that there are ways of reading the bible beside my own, and so inspires me to extend grace and courtesy to their ideas.
The use of labels also helps us recognise our own tendencies or preferences. Whether it is because when I acknowledge I am an egalitarian I have to admit to myself at times this will colour my understanding, or whether it is because when someone describes themselves as Charismatic it pushes me to recognise I am not that Charismatic and so acknowledge I am more skeptical than others. These tendencies or theological preferences are not necessarily bad things (although we need to check they don’t over-colour things) but we need to be aware of them if we can learn from other Christians and so we can make sure that they don’t affect things adversely.
Secondly, labels remind us of what we agree on and they do so by highlight divergent opinions. If you can put a label or a caveat on it, then there is a range of opinions on it. If not then it is something we can agree on. You don’t get “Jesusists” – those Christians who believe in Jesus as opposed to those who don’t; because we all believe in Jesus. If we can’t label it, then it must be pretty commonly shared, at least as a rule of thumb.
So what of those who reject the use of labels? There are plenty of them “well, I’m just a Christian really” is a common phrase. Sometimes this comes from a desire to be known for making individual, evaluated decisions, rather than accepting the normal position of this group or that group. I know Calvinists who agree with all of TULIP but who don’t call themselves that because their doctrines were reached by reading scripture rather than working through mnemonic. Which is a very reasonable position to take. Although, of course those of us who use labels tend to have gone through the same process. In these situations I respect people’s decision not to label themselves, but hope they can acknowledge how their position affects their understanding of biblical texts or of life situations.
Another, more worrying, situation, which thankfully is rare, is that people reject labels because of a narrow view of what we must agree on, or a short-sightedness of how we disagree. They think that because they believe x, or y, everyone else must also, and to not brings into doubt whether they are a Christian. This is a slim but worrying trend we must oppose.
790 words later, and this all sounded a lot greyer than I thought it would, but oh well, I have said I’ll try and embrace that, so feel free to use the comments button lots. How am I wrong? Where do you disagree with me? What do I take too far or not acknowledge?