Why labels are important

CompositePhotoTwo years ago, we moved from a rather hideous 1970s breeze block house to a detached Victorian former farmhouse. It has lots of lovely features, one of which is a walk-in pantry off the kitchen. One member of our family (who shall remain nameless) has a thing about Tupperware, so several shelves of this pantry have neat rows of containers, all carefully labelled. It is actually very useful—when you need to find something, there it is in front of you. Kitchen life would be a good deal more complicated if we had to lift the lid of everything before we knew what was in it.

But labels are rather out of vogue when it comes to faith and theology. No-one wants to be ‘labelled’—no-one wants to be put in a box (after all, it doesn’t help creative thinking, does it?). Every time a new bishop is appointed in the Church of England, I wait for the opening speech ‘I am not an X, I am here for everyone in the Church’ (though some Xs are, strangely, more quickly disowned than others). In an interview a couple of years ago, Nicky Gumbel notably disowned the label ‘evangelical’ in the name of rejecting labeling.

NG: This may sound pernickety but I wouldn’t describe myself as an evangelical. These are labels, which I don’t think are helpful. If I was going to use any label it would be Christian, and if you push me any further I’d say I’m an Anglican – that’s the family of the Church that I belong to. There’s nothing wrong with any of the other labels, but if you have any of them I want them all. If you’re going to say, ‘I’m Catholic, liberal, evangelical…’ let’s have them all.

But it’s worth asking a few questions about this. First, is it really honest? If you walked in Holy Trinity Brompton, I think you would have a rather different experience from walking into the Brompton Oratory just around the corner. It is all very well saying ‘I am evangelical and catholic’ but HTB really isn’t ‘catholic’ in the way most people would understand it! Conversely, the term ‘evangelical’ appears to have become very flexible, and instead of any recognisable continuity with past evangelical commitments, it is often used to mean ‘I quite like reading the Bible.’

And this highlights another key issue. Do labels create differences between people, or do they function as a way to identify and recognize difference? The rice and the pasta sitting on our pantry shelves are not distinct because we have labeled them; the labels help us recognize the differences that are already there. My theological differences with others don’t arise because I own a different theological label; my label is simply a recognition that I have particular convictions about faith and theology, and not everyone is going to share these convictions.

I quite understand why people might dislike labels—after all, they are easily misused. It is knowledge to recognize that a tomato is a fruit (in biological terms); it is wisdom to avoid putting it in a fruit salad. Labels can mislead, can put unnecessary limitations on someone—and can be used in a power play. I don’t look with envy at the various contests currently being fought across the pond concerning who is allowed to call themselves ‘evangelical’.

But it is as much a power play to say ‘Anyone can call themselves evangelical’ as it is to say ‘Only certain people can’, and the same is true of any label. None of us is immune from the dangers of such strategies, and rejecting labels can be as manipulative as claiming them. Last week on television news, two people were debating ‘that’ issue, and at one point one of the guests turned to the other and commented ‘I value the Bible just as much as you do’. But it was patently obvious at every turn in the discussion that the one thing most separating these two people was the way they read the Bible, and in particular the way that they related it to their own personal experience (or failed to). The claim that ‘We aren’t very different; we have the same label’ actually obscured the issue and stifled proper debate.

And this takes us to the heart of the issue. We seem to be living in times where wider culture finds it increasing difficult to handle difference. We are happy as long as everyone signs up to (some rather nebulous) British values, which of course includes the idea of being ‘tolerant’ and ‘inclusive’. But tolerance appears, all too often, to involve eliminating differences of view rather than recognizing that people have genuinely different views, often for very good reasons. It is only when we recognize these differences that we can offer genuine respect, genuine interest, and a genuine willingness to listen and learn from others.

This is why I find particularly odd the idea that I need to disown my label or my tradition in order to be ‘here for everyone’. Is it really not possible to respect, value, even encourage someone in their own tradition without leaving go of mine? Is it not possible to empathise and support someone else with whom I have genuine differences? It could be argued that I can only exercise empathy when I recognize how different the ‘other’ is from me. Empathy is about entering into the different and distinct world of the ‘other’, not imagining that we inhabit the same world as each other.

In the New Testament, there are two words for ‘other’. One of them (allos) means ‘another like the first one’ and this is the term Jesus uses when he talks of ‘another Counsellor, the Holy Spirit’ (John 14.16). But when Paul encourages his readers to ‘think of others ahead of yourself’ (Phil 2.4) he uses a different word (heteros)—another who is not like me. Over the years, I have learnt many things from people who are not like me. Learning from them has changed me, but it has not made me identical to them. I have, for the most part, retained my identity, but incorporated the insights of ‘others’ and valued their wisdom.

In our walk-in pantry, proper labeling makes differences clear, and allows us to find what we need and use the right ingredients at the right time. In faith and theology, proper, careful and thoughtful labeling can help us recognize difference, respect other traditions, and foster conversation. That doesn’t mean that everyone who owns a label speaks for everyone else with that label; we remain individuals with our own views.

In case you hadn’t spotted it, I am an evangelical. What’s your label?

(This article first appeared in Christian Today on 22nd January 2016.)

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30 thoughts on “Why labels are important”

  1. Vive la difference, ( hoping school boy French is ok)

    Very good article, thank you

    Is there a danger that if we accept a label we come to take on its perceived characteristics, becoming the thing others want us to be rather than where we feel God may have us be?

    As for what am I, in a recent interview it was the question I struggled most with, in preaching the style is evangelical with an absolute heart for souls saved, in sacrament I am distinctly Catholic (high church) in theology liberal. I suspect that means post modern!

    • Thanks Paul. I guess some people might find accepting a label constraining…but I am not sure I ever have.

      I don’t think I had space here to address all the issues involved—but one of the implications for me is that labels do have content, and there is always a debate to be had within a theological tradition as well as between theological traditions.

      But saying ‘we are all everything’ eliminates both of those…

    • recognizing differences is good. labelling is bad. don’t know where paul said it but he said there is no male or female slave or free in christ. labeling onesself is o.k. its when others apply labells to others are bad. it is a well known fact sociologically and psyvhologically that labells can create what is known as the “self fulfilling prophecy effect” (which i belive jesus has the power to break , especially if he liberates the one doing the labelling in the first place. for example: i am well aware that i have been labelled a “nutter” and this labell which has been put on me and to which i to some extent believe does to some extent drive my behaviour or at least the extent i use being a “nutter” as an excuse for my sin. thankfully this is getting less and less through the lord’s refining power and especially the last month or 2. The study which highlighted the self -fulfilling prophecy effect was done in the 70’s on a large e population of school children. it found that children who were labelled “failures” at school did less well in exams and ultimately became the “failures” the teachers said they would become. i believe the resulsts influenced the idea of positive reinforcement in education nd other institutions. BUT THE MOST POSITIVE REINFORCER OF ALL IS CHRIST AND HIS OFFER TO COME WITHOUT MONEYOR PRICE!!!XXX

  2. I’m not quite sure it’s as simple as that. Words change their meanings over time – gay, for example. Labels, I think, come to signify the features of the largest group of people who use it. At one time I was very happy to be identified, and to identify myself, as evangelical. But sadly, “evangelical” has come to mean some kind of hetero-patriarchal right wing fundamentalism, and so I choose not to use it. Of course I know that the stereotype is not accurate, but I’m not sure the label “evangelical” is worth saving just for itself. Could it not be that in the interests of Christian unity we should sit light to, or even lose labels?

    The culture of our time is a different matter. As you suggest, people resist labels because they can’t handle difference, and yet until we actually see others as different from us we can’t understand them, or their perspective. Labels allow a nuanced understanding – you probably have more than one kind of pasta in your larder – that isn’t possible without them. And if we don’t recognise people who are different from us, then we run the risk of regarding ourselves as “normal” and therefore others as :deviant”.

    • Thanks, Liz—but I wonder if you example actually supports my case!

      Both in etymology and in history, ‘evangelical’ means shape by the evangel, the good news as it is recorded in the NT. If, for many people, it means ‘hetero-patriarchal right wing fundamentalism’ then that is both shocking and an important loss.

      So how can the term be reclaimed for its proper, beneficial and important meaning? By people like you and I retaining the label, and using it in its proper sense.

      I don’t think that losing labels fosters unity, because losing labels doesn’t mean losing difference, but it does mean losing the vocabulary to talk about our differences.

      I love the fact that different kinds of pasta are featuring in this discussion so often!

      • From that perspective it does support your initial argument, I guess. But then do I have to qualify what kind of evangelical I am if I want to remain a credible feminist? Or do I use the label and let them work it out? Not so much a different shape of pasta, but inherently different – like gluten free!!

  3. “…it was patently obvious at every turn in the discussion that the one thing most separating these two people was the way they read the Bible, and in particular the way that they related it to their own personal experience (or failed to).”

    Meaning, I presume, that you agree with David Shepherd (presumably an evangelical) on another thread when he said that he “recoils at Andrea’s facile caricature of scriptural truth”?

  4. It’s interesting these days how the label ‘evangelical’ has come to mean, as you say, someone who kind of likes the Bible. I’ve been having a conversation on Facebook about the media’s use of the description “leading evangelical” … quite a few people have been described recently as a “leading evangelical” who look absolutely nothing like what I would call an evangelical (let alone a leading one). It seems that everybody wants to describe themselves as an evangelical at the moment.

    Part of the problem with labels like this is that it lends the impression that there are different kinds of Christian, of which ‘evangelical’ is one expression among many. But, as John Stott said:

    “At the risk of oversimplification and of the charge of arrogance, I want to argue that the evangelical faith is none other than the historic Christian faith. The evangelical Christian is not a deviationist, but a loyalist who seeks by the grace of God to be faithful to the revelation which God has given of himself in Christ and in Scripture. The evangelical faith is not a peculiar or esoteric version of the Christian faith – it is the Christian faith. It is not a recent innovation. The evangelical faith is original, biblical, apostolic Christianity” (Make the Truth Known)

    I would rather not use the word ‘evangelical’, to be honest, and I would be very happy if we didn’t have to use labels like that in the CofE. Frankly I’d be content if those within the CofE actually believed what the CofE actually teaches and leave it at that.

    • Well, I sympathise with that. And I have known Stott’s contention for some time—and I would at many levels want to make the same contention.

      The only difficulty with it, expressed in those terms, is that it suggests that anyone who is not evangelical is not actually a Christian. I am not sure Stott intended that, but I think some of his followers did!

      Actually calling myself evangelical does the opposite; it creates space for others to be Christians in different traditions. I think being evangelical means believing some essential truths, but it doesn’t mean thinking that I have a monopoly on all truth.

      • I don’t think Stott intended to say that only evangelicals are Christians, but rather that to be evangelical in the proper sense is simply to be Christian. That’s how I would want to put it, I don’t have a window into other people’s souls or their motives.

        However… Gresham Machen argued in ‘Christianity and Liberalism’ that liberal Christianity was essentially a different religion, and I think I agree with him. When we have debates here about marriage I’m often struck that people have such a different perspective and worldview to mine that the two are irreconcilable. In a nutshell, I think ‘liberal Christianity’ is an oxymoron, whereas ‘evangelical Christianity’ is a tautology.

        Someone else commented about not holding too lightly to labels, and I think that’s probably right – labels can serve a purpose but once we start to put too much stock in them I think their value decreases. Still, 2 Tim 2:19, “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.’”

        • But then what is the definition of “evangelical Christianity” and “liberal Christianity” and is there anything other than these two?

          As you say, there seems to be a clear divide in Christianity in our time. For me the divide is characterised by whether you think

          1. we keep the law by the act of loving (God, neighbour, enemy, spouse, children, etc)


          2. we love by keeping the law (as defined by the OT and clarified by the NT)

          I think these are obviously not two strict poles of belief, but most people emphasize one over the other and I wonder if 1) attracts ‘action’ type personalities and 2) attracts ‘thinking’ type personalities?

  5. Two points. First, you elide Nicky Gumbel with Holy Trinity Brompton. HTB may be evangelical and distinct from the Oratory. But Nicky Gumbel may in fact be happy with worshipping in a variety of styles. So I wouldn’t be questioning Nicky Gumbel’s honesty on this basis.

    Secondly, you say: “Conversely, the term ‘evangelical’ appears to have become very flexible, and instead of any recognisable continuity with past evangelical commitments, it is often used to mean ‘I quite like reading the Bible.’”

    I would also note that ‘evangelical’ is now sometimes used to mean ‘someone who agrees with my interpretation of the Bible’ rather than to do with any commitment to its truth, inspiration or other areas. To remove this from the obvious contentious point, I believe Tom Wright has been accused at various points of not being evangelical because of his understanding of Paul.

    As you say, there are power plays not only in rejecting labels, but also in attempting to define who is and who isn’t included.

    • While I agree that labels can be used to exclude unfairly, Jonathan, sometimes, a biblical interpretation stretches the text so far it breaks. If someone’s engaging in eisegesis, they have, de facto, abandoned biblical authority.

      This is why the affirming position’s failing in Christian circles. You really have to torture the text to get it to support gay relationships. The few exceptions — mainline churches in America; Lutheran churches in Scandinavia — are progressive bodies that already played fast-and-lose with scripture, and in any case, prefer to evade the question and talk about the movement of the Spirit.

      That’s why I’m happy to say that I’m a liberal. If I’m going to disregard parts of the Bible, I ought to have the courage of my convictions, and be honest about what I’m doing.

      • James, you probably know I disagree with you. You don’t have to ‘torture’ the text to support gay relationships. The argument is methodologically very similar to that that led to accepting lending money at interest, first suggested by Calvin. Some affirming positions play fast-and-loose, but so do some non-affirming positions (I’ve seen some horrific exegesis of texts against gay relationships). But Ian probably doesn’t want yet another thread about this.

        The more interesting point is who decides when an interpretation becomes ‘fast-and-loose’. What are the boundaries for different labels, and who polices them, and on what authority?

        • I agree that focusing on general issues of interpretation is far preferable!

          Ultimately, exegetical boundaries are decided by evidence backed by the consensus of experts. To illustrate with an extreme, it’s not a legitimate interpretation to claim that John’s Gospel isn’t referring to Jesus of Nazareth as the Logos, and only the dogmatically post-modernist would (or could) disagree. Words mean things, and interpretative latitude isn’t boundless.

          Most examples aren’t that clear-cut, of course; but we can at least say the X reading’s very unlikely, and if people persist in it, evangelicals, who hold to biblical authority, can reasonably say that the interpretation’s a de facto renunciation of that doctrine. Which is pretty much what’s happening with the hot button issue.

          • Interestingly, I am with James Byron on this one.

            I don’t think there is a single person or authority that ‘polices’ these things. But to call oneself an evangelical, surely there has to be some clear continuity with historical understandings, and some sense that one identifies with others who so call themselves, in a convincing way.

            I don’t think that is the case for an increasing number who use the term, and I think it is odd that people want to own it when it is s unconvincing.

            Yes, Tom Wright has been questioned on this—as have I. And the answer here is to look at the issues, look at what is at stake, and make a convincing case.

          • I think some people are surprisingly calling themselves “evangelical” *because* they want to reclaim to mean “believing the good news of Jesus Christ as recorded in the NT”.

            Unfortunately the term has been caught up with Christian extremism (especially thanks to American politics) and for non-Christians it would seem to have connotations of xenophobia, misogyny, racism, low intelligence and guns. Please NB I am not saying that to insult anyone, but that is what ordinary people understand by the term, because they have been informed by the antics of the Neo-Cons, the Tea Party, Christian Concern, Tyson Fury, Jerry Fallwell and the like.

            I think this may have occurred because when a famous Christian does or says something that is taken by society to be obviously negative (eg encouraging young people to use their guns against Muslims, saying that Jesus told us to arm ourselves, saying that women should be either housewives or prostitutes etc) it is blamed on their evangelicalism – ie they have a different moral standard to the rest of us. And therefore the word evangelical has taken the blame for all the bad things society sees Christians doing.

            Ian I think you need to be more specific about which “historic” beliefs evangelicals need to believe as A) lots of historic teachings have been ditched by evangelicals and B) the worlds most ancient churches tend to either be Catholic or orthodox and neither are especially evangelical.

            There was a study last year that aimed to define evangelicalism by the beliefs that evangelicals had in common http://www.christianpost.com/news/lifeway-nae-four-beliefs-define-evangelical-christians-150570/

            They defined these as

            1 scripture being the highest authority for what they believe
            2 personal faith in JC
            3 JCs sacrifice on the cross is the only thing that can remove the penalty of sin
            4 only those who trust in JC alone will be saved

            NB if you go with this definition then evangelicals who believe only evangelicals will be saved arent evangelical!

  6. My experience is that faith evolves over time. I came to faith in an evangelical setting and have attended large summer gatherings with modern worship. However, I am finding myself more and more at one with the Prayer Book and at odds with modern evangelical trends. Many of the ills we now face are because of a chumminess with God and a loss of reverence and awe. When you take the Prayer Book communion as I did this morning you are confronted with your utter unworthiness before God and your utter reliance on his mercy. I consider my label to be Orthodox.

  7. I became very aware of the importance of this when I was studying for my MPhil, on trinitarian theology as a basis for exploring the possibility of a more inclusive approach to mission between the Orthodox Church and the evangelicals in Romania. The distinctiveness of the persons of the Holy Trinity is intrinsic: if it wasn’t so, there could be no relationality. So distinctiveness is at the core of our faith, whichever confession we subscribe to. Our Orthodox Archbishop was very fond of saying ‘ in order to have good dialogue with other people, it is first necessary to know yourself.’ There’s a lot of wisdom in that.

  8. As many comments above suggest, ‘evangelical’ now means different things to different people. That’s what makes it no longer useful as a label: one no longer knows what to expect in the Tupperware box.

    (Came here from KouyaNet)

  9. And nobody has spoken up in defence of those ‘hideous breeze-block houses’ that so many of Ian’s readers (at a guess) remember so well …

  10. A couple of thoughts about Nicky Gumbel’s stance:
    – As head of Alpha, he is the curator of a brand which is used in an astonishing array of theological and denominational contexts. I think part of his policy is to avoid Alpha being rejected by non-Charismatic Evangelicals before they’ve used it. I think there is a degree of intellectual dishonesty about that – Alpha is undoubtedly Charismatic Evangelical in terms of its theological leanings – but I can see why he wants to avoid putting barriers in people’s way.
    – In much of the public sphere, the e-word has become synonymous with a strain of American Evangelicalism rooted in early 20th Century Fundamentalism (and therefore has a range of cultural and political distinctives which feel very alien to, say, British evangelicals). It would not surprise me if, in order to avoid being lumped together with the Jerry Falwell types, Gumbel is just veering away from the e-word. I know that JI Packer self-describes as ‘Classical Evangelical’ in order to contrast his low-church Reformed Anglican evangelicalism with American post-fundamentalism.


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