Labels…

Labels have their place.

I suppose.

However, labels often can be divisive. Particularly theological labels. Instead of throwing around labels for ourselves, why don’t we spend more time talking about the issues that the labels are supposed to reflect?

For example, if I walked into a group of people and said, “I’m an egalitarian,” what would that accomplish? What would people hear me saying? Invariably, some of the people would not understand the term. Others would nod their heads in agreement, wanting to claim the same label for themselves. Others would squirm uncomfortably, having certain understandings and assumptions (some correct and some incorrect) about egalitarianism in general. If this were to occur, what would I want to be claiming for myself? I might wish merely to say, “I believe women can teach in the church.” If that’s all I were saying, then I’m not necessarily saying anything that a complementarian would not agree with. Or I might wish merely to say, “Men and women are equal in the sight of God.” But, as it is, many people would hear me saying all sorts of things. Some would hear me acknowledging that I think homosexual marriage is legitimate. Some would hear me saying that I think women ought to pastor and be elders of churches. Some would hear me saying that wives should rule the roost. Some would hear me making claims about my political leanings. And again, some would not hear me saying anything intelligible at all because they don’t understand the term. Let’s not pick on egalitarianism/complementarianism only. If I walked into a group of Christians and said, “I’m a Calvinist,” what would people hear? Some would hear me saying that I don’t think evangelism is necessary because God’s already chosen who will be saved, so it doesn’t matter what I do. Some would hear me saying that I think John Calvin is the greatest theologian in church history. Some would hear me saying that I don’t think people have free will. And again, some would not hear me saying anything intelligible at all because they don’t understand the term.

So, let’s stop throwing around labels so quickly. We are too quick to make assumptions about people and things based on labels that we claim. Let’s get this out in the open: labels claim certain things. Some of the things a label may claim we may not intend to claim for ourselves. Sometimes we take on labels because we’ve heard the opposite position and we aren’t convinced that it’s true. For example, a person may claim to be an egalitarian because they just don’t think the complementarian position is the best way to understand the relevant passages of Scripture that discuss (as the complementarian sees them) different roles for men and women as part of God’s created order. But this is no reason to claim, “I’m an egalitarian,” without examining the claims egalitarianism makes for itself as a summary of beliefs. Every label has underlying beliefs, interpretations of certain passages of Scripture, and commitments, and we ought to be more careful about claiming a label without investigating very carefully all of those beliefs, interpretations of certain passages of Scripture, and commitments to be sure that we want to buy “the whole package.” And let us certainly not run into the trap of saying, “The Bible just isn’t clear on this issue.” Now, I’ve heard both complementarians (though fewer) and egalitarians (many times) make this statement, and it boggles my mind! This is a slippery slope, indeed. Once we start saying that the Bible isn’t clear on certain issues that we have disagreements about, do we not run the risk of sacrificing more and more of the Bible’s teaching along the way, saying that things aren’t as clear as we thought they were? And, in the first place, if the Bible isn’t clear on this issue, then why claim either label?? If the Bible isn’t clear on this issue, then that ought to mean that it supports neither position, so why accept a label that you think has insufficient biblical support? But, I think this is typically a smoke-screen of sorts, to alleviate disagreement. And, while we’re on this issue, how can we say the Bible is unclear on an issue that it addresses in so many different passages? Maybe people who say this are only thinking of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16 (both of which, I agree, are very difficult passages, perhaps among the most difficult in the Bible). But what about Eph. 5:22-32; Col. 3:18-21; 1 Pet. 3:1-7; Gen. 1:28; 2:7-24; 3:1-24; etc.? These passages, among others, address the issues from a fundamental level, and they ought to give enough data that no one could claim that the Bible is not clear on this issue, and claimants of both labels ought to strive to understand each of these passages in their own respective contexts and conclude how he or she ought to live in light of what they claim/command. Furthermore, to suggest (particularly in an overtly condescending tone of voice) that “it’s just their interpretation” automatically (and arrogantly) discloses that you believe your interpretation is the superior interpretation…which you already made obvious by claiming the label and all that it claims!! This is no argument at all; again, it just sidelines the real issues, which are wrapped up in the passages of Scripture themselves! Can we actually discuss the different interpretations to see which one makes more sense of the data, which seems to be more faithful to what the text says?? By making this claim, you’ve made it seem like you do not, in fact, care about the issues; you’re just wrapped up in the label! But, I digress….

Labels can be useful. They do provide us with a concise way to refer to a larger body of beliefs. But we must be more careful about how we use labels. Particularly in public forums, we ought not simply throw out labels and make sweeping claims with them. Rather, let’s do the harder, more significant, more potentially unifying work of discussing together the issues behind the labels. So, let’s get together and talk about why a person might want to claim the label “egalitarian.” Let’s open the Bible to those passages of Scripture and see if the egalitarian position holds its water, justifies its claims. Let’s strive to be as consistent as possible in our theology. And let’s not discount another person’s thoughts because they claim a particular label. Let’s talk together and strive to conform our thinking to the teachings we find in the Bible, and if someone else has a better understanding of the data than we do, let’s be humble enough to acknowledge it and change our minds to conform to Scripture. So, we might have to repent (change our minds and our behavior) for some of the beliefs we’ve held and the labels we’ve claimed. Our theology informs and affects our behavior, even if we’re not aware of it, and we ought to live in light of our beliefs. But may our beliefs, and thus our behavior, be formed and shaped and directed by the Bible, God’s revelation of himself, pointing us to Jesus, crucified, buried, raised from the dead, and now seated at the right hand of God interceding for believers, and calling us to live as he lived on this earth (1 Jn. 2:6).

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