Labels can be dangerously misleading. Consumer advocates insist labels must be policed. They must accurately describe the product and not trade in ambiguity as a way of making outrageous claims. ‘Organic’ or ‘Fat-free’ or ‘No artificial additives’ must mean what they say.
One of the problems with labels is that when they begin to succeed everyone wants to claim them. For a while everyone wanted the big red tick of the Heart Foundation. Manufacturers stretched the truth in order to gain the ‘Made in Australia’ logo. A label or logo originally intended to make a clear differentiation — between cardiac healthy foods and the rest, between goods manufactured and owned by Australians in Australia as opposed to imported or partly imported goods — was claimed by some on the other side of the differentiation. They wanted to be included under the label without conforming to the original definition. And so the meaning of the ‘Made in Australia’ logo was stretched so far that it was almost meaningless. New labels needed to be invented to do what was intended at the beginning.
In the field of theology and church life labels are almost inevitable, unhelpful and vulnerable all at the same time. Martin Luther famously went into a rage when those who endorsed the theological reforms he had been advocating were labelled ‘Martinists’. Yet ‘Lutheran’ became a shorthand way of distinguishing the theological system associated with Luther and Melanchthon from the ‘Reformed’ system associated with Zwingli and Bullinger and Calvin. ‘Anglican’ marked out recognisable doctrinal and ecclesiastical territory in the beginning — shunning Catholicism on the one side and the Anabaptists on the other, with debts to both the Lutherans and the Reformed. Most notorious of all, perhaps, ‘evangelical’ started out as the descriptor embraced by Luther for the new theology — its origins and shape were tied to the evangel, the gospel. Its classic use was in the eighteenth century, when it differentiated those concerned with conversion, preaching and the transformed life from those whose commitments were more institutional or sacerdotal. More recently, ‘complementarian’ and ‘egalitarian’ represented clearly defined positions on the question of gender roles, especially when it comes to the exercise of Christian ministry (including the propriety or otherwise of women preaching to mixed congregations of men and women).
Theological labels can be unhelpful because they often elevate incidentals at the expense of primary commitments. Back in 2011, the Southern Baptists were apparently considering a change of name which wasn’t ‘regional’, so that they would’ve been able to ‘maximise our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century’. Labels can also be used inappropriately as a way of distancing ourselves from others with whom we have differences of opinion. Of course such differentiation is not always inappropriate, but sometimes in the highly charged and politically overlaid arena of theological discussion, labelling ourselves or others can simply be an expression of a partisan spirit or sheer ungodliness. We might not be able to do without theological and ecclesiastical labels but we do not always use them with care either.
Each of these labels has been vulnerable to distortion over time, especially when they begin to ride a wave of popularity or if they are seen as the self-descriptors of those with power and influence. In the wake of Time Magazine’s ‘Year of the Evangelical’, almost everyone, it seemed, wanted to call themselves an evangelical in America in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Men and women who would never endorse the solas of the Reformation described themselves as ‘evangelical’. Time and again over the last thirty years there have been calls to abandon the label altogether because those claiming it are so diverse as to render it meaningless.
A personal anecdote might help here. My Christian upbringing has taken place in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, which unambiguously delights in the label ‘evangelical’. With our debts to the Clapham Sect, to men mentored by Charles Simeon and those who came after him, to J. C. Ryle and W. H. Griffith Thomas, to Billy Graham and John Stott and Jim Packer (not to mention the home-grown leaders who have served us over the past two hundred years), we know exactly what we mean by the word. Yet when in my 30s I travelled across the world to study, I was a little taken back to find that the evangelicalism I’d grown up with was known in the U.K. as ‘conservative evangelicalism’. Later, one English theologian described it as ‘highly conservative evangelicalism’. And with each added adjective two things were happening — the idea of a definable set of theological commitments was replaced with the image of a spectrum of opinions and what had once been universally recognised as the central commitments were moved from the centre out on to one edge of that spectrum.
What once was clear over time can become rather hazy and ill-defined, and it is not at all surprising that the calls come to abandon the terminology altogether. Reformed theology/Evangelicalism/ Complementarianism — all these, we are now told, admit of a range of opinions: conservative and liberal, hard and soft, thick and thin. And yet at one time the opinions some claim are entirely acceptable and part of a legitimate variety within the family were most decidedly labelled unreformed not reformed, liberal not evangelical, or egalitarian not complementarian. The larger field of reference allows some who want to be known as reformed while holding unreformed theological convictions to do so, and the same is true of the much looser use of ‘evangelical’ and ‘complementarian’ too.
Thankfully there is no ‘theological consumer watchdog’ to police the use of theological and ecclesiastical labels. However, it would help our interaction with each other if we were bold and honest enough to be transparent in the way we use them and then to be gracious towards those with whom we disagree.