Don’t Run From Theological Labels

There is a paradoxical problem in our culture where on one hand we need to allow for more nuance and middle ground – especially in political discourse – and on another hand, we need to be more bold about assigning ourselves to specific categories. Regarding the latter, I think theology is a big area where people fall short of this.

The subject of politics, for example, is pragmatic and solutions-based by nature. Yes, it rarely deals with things outside the realm of morality, ethics, and human rights . . . so we cannot totally abandon our commitments to truth and consistency when we’re involved with it. But my point is that these subjects don’t demand as much of us as theology does. When we’re on the subject of the God of the universe – what His attributes are, how we relate to Him, and how He relates to us – we aren’t trying to appease other people or manipulate circumstances to some advantage or find solutions to tangible (and temporary) problems. We’re approaching something that is greater in depth, breadth, and weight than the whole of humanity together. We’re concerning ourselves with Ultimate Reality.

This is why it grieves me to see so many people reject theology – even in the Church, whose overarching purpose is to know and love God as thoroughly as humanly possible. We only hurt ourselves in the end when we love and proclaim a God who isn’t the God of Scripture. We harm our witness more by compromising on boldness, conviction, and consistency in theology than we do by upholding these things. There is no area of life where it is more important to find consistency and conviction than this one.

Despite this, I understand that it’s appealing to avoid theological labels. And some of reasons for doing so (few, I would argue, but they do exist) are indeed backed by good intentions. Nonetheless, we ought to reevaluate our hearts when we find ourselves actively avoiding labels, because there are legitimately negative implications to this that I feel are worth mentioning.

1.  Rejecting theological labels means that people aren’t able to evaluate our positions with clarity unless we take the time to hash out every minor detail of them.

It’s true that an essential part of mature, intellectually honest dialogue is taking some time in the conversation to understand the other party’s true perspective. It is never helpful to come into a conversation with the assumption that you have nothing to learn about the other person’s position. However, on the flip side, this tendency on the part of all sinful people can be used as an excuse to hide behind a wall of nuance and mystery instead of confidently engaging with people who don’t agree with us.

Not all assumptions are inherently negative. It is rare that we are going to have discussions – especially on controversial topics – that last the amount of time it would take to gain an exhaustive understanding of one another’s views. This means we must be able to make fair, respectful generalizations about one another if we are to accomplish anything in a conversation besides making endless clarifications. If we are discussing soteriology, it brings a helpful level of clarity for you to know that I ascribe to Reformed doctrines. Likewise, if we are discussing issues of church authority, it would be helpful for me to know if you are Roman Catholic – or if we are discussing spiritual gifts, it is helpful to know if you are Pentecostal. When used respectfully and humbly, these kinds of assumptions do not hinder productive conversation; rather, they allow us to jump from the basics (which labels are meant to silently express) to more in-depth subjects that do require deeper inquiry and clarification.

2. Avoiding theological labels means that we are less inclined to seek consistency.

Again, there is a caveat to this: I am not saying that everyone who rejects the use of theological labels does so because they are consciously unconcerned about being consistent. But if our theological positions are so nuanced that we cannot adhere to any labels, we are likely accomplishing inconsistency more than we are accomplishing maturity, integrity, or charity. If we are ascribing to twenty different viewpoints from twenty different theological traditions that conflict with one another, it is inevitable that we’re comprising in one or more important subjects.

3. Avoiding theological labels only achieves hollow tolerance rather than true, God-glorifying unity

I wrote an entire article for Whole Magazine last year about the popular (and misguided) fear that doctrine – and by extension, labeling – only serves to divide the Church, which you can read here. But in short, I think one of the biggest mistakes the contemporary Church has made regarding its approach to theology is its proposal that all ideological boundary lines are bad and should be avoided. Frankly, this is ludicrous. If we don’t have ideological boundary lines, then we don’t have ideologies to begin with. Just as nations and roads have boundaries that define what they are, so also our positions on life’s most important subjects ought to be definable; and labels exist for this very purpose. 

As with any inherently good or neutral thing, sinful human beings do use labels to abuse and manipulate one another. This problem is not exclusive to secular issues, either, or else there wouldn’t be any need to write this. People are more than capable of oppressing, slandering, and even murdering other human beings because of the labels attached to them.

And as people are created in the image of God, they are more than the sum of their labels . . . even theological ones.

But labels can also help us understand one another, especially in the realm of theology. They can act as bumper guards that let us know when we are veering into something that doesn’t align with our other professed beliefs. They allow us to challenge one another to be bold and consistent concerning the things of God – things that have eternal implications on our thinking, speaking, and living. They provide us with communities of likeminded people (and often it is in these communities that we are most likely to see the errors and shortcomings of the labels we enthusiastically tag ourselves with).

This is how God designed the Church. We aren’t supposed to operate in blind uniformity or in careless ideological licentiousness. We are one Body – united in the hope of Christ and the essentials of His Gospel – who sharpen one another with our oft-conflicting convictions as iron sharpens iron. Don’t make this exchange out to be an ugly thing.

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