If you are a believer, where do you place yourself on the theological spectrum? Are you conservative or liberal/progressive? Far right or far left? Evangelical or fundamentalist? Moderate or some other designation?
I’ve already lost some of you by even asking these questions. You resist and resent these sort of labels. To you they’re not useful and may even be seen as harmful. I have some sympathy for your concerns. And these concerns are broader than just theological labels. Labels in general, whether political, psychological, or whatever, create certain problems. I’ll focus on Christians theological labels today, though.
What are the problems with using theological labels?
1. Theological labels are somewhat arbitrary
What one person means by “fundamentalist” or “liberal” is not necessarily the same as what another person means. The word “evangelical”, in particular, is used in variety of ways and, though generally designating more conservative Christians, is also attached to more liberal denominations. I heard of one preacher accused of being “liberal” in his church, not for doctrinal reasons, but simply because he used a more creative approach to Sunday School than some members appreciated.
2. Theological labels are often simplistic
Years ago, for a school project, I interviewed a number pastors from mainline churches. Having grown up in a more conservative, non-mainline setting, I had certain assumptions about what I would find. I was surprised to discover conservative pastors in more liberal denominations. And even those who held some views I would have considered more liberal were more conservative on other topics. One pastor supported homosexual practice, but then gave a conservative definition of what it meant to be saved. And, of course, it works the other way, those conservative in most areas may be more liberal in others.
3. Theological labels are often used in a pejorative way
In some circles, “liberal” is tantamount to “heretic” or “spiritual compromiser”. In other circles, “fundamentalist” is basically an epithet for “narrow-minded”. As in the previous point, these tend to be caricatures which lack real-life nuance. Once a person is labelled negatively, it colors our overall perception of them and can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see in them what we expect to see, good or bad.
4. Theological labels tend to play down our commonalities
I recently attended an extensive training course with a group of pastors who were generally out of more liberal denominations than mine. What I discovered, if we stayed off of a few controversial topics, was just how much we had in common. We resonated on a number of scriptural norms and in our love for the Lord. There was significance reverence for God’s Word and a mutual concern for one another.
5. Theological labels tend to limit active involvement with other believers
Even if we’re not of the more militant, separatistic persuasion (“we’re the only true church”), it’s easy for these labels to cause us to pull back from praying for, praying with, sharing with, and ministering with other believers, even those fairly close to us on the theological spectrum. We focus mostly on our own denomination and our own church. My hometown can’t even maintain a general ministerial association, though there are pockets of inter-church involvement.
6. Theological labels can become confining intellectually and spiritually
For the record, although I tend to fit conservative theological categories, I am not committed to conservatism. I only want to conserve what is biblically sound, both theologically and practically. And let me add that “biblically sound” is not the same as “biblically necessary”. A lot of our traditions, though useful, and biblically acceptable, are not necessarily the only biblically sound way to go. There’s room for holy variation. Furthermore, each part of the theological spectrum has its strengths and weaknesses, as does each church and each individual.
Each of us should have freedom to review and challenge our group’s tendencies, not only in regard to weaknesses, sins and theological errors that creep in, but also because culture changes and what worked well twenty years ago may not work as well today. Believe it or not, the church has been constantly evolving throughout history, in a frequent state of ferment, sometimes degrading, but often improving. There are really no “good old days”. Everything is not worth conserving.
So what am I saying – that we should drop all theological labels and limit ourselves to simply calling one another “brother and sister” or “fellow-believers”? No. In the first place, that’s not going to happen. Human beings can’t resist categorizations. In the second place, theological labels, used carefully, have some usefulness. They can give us an overall sense of the tendencies and beliefs of various groups; at least a sort of starting point to help us understand one another broadly. This leads to a second question:
How can I respond wisely to theological labels?
1. I respond wisely to theological labels when I recognize their limitations
Denominations and those individuals within them do not fit neatly into a single label. Be careful of your assumptions – especially the negative ones. Don’t just repeat what you’ve been told, especially when it comes from others who are critical – too often, these portraits are simplistic – straw-men or caricatures. From this follows the next suggestion.
2. I respond wisely to theological labels when I do my homework
If you want to understand, the Methodists, or Episcopalians, read not only critiques of them from outsiders (thoughtful, balanced critiques, not just attack literature), but read their own material; hear what they say about themselves in their own words. Equally important, interact with real people within those movements. Find out what they believe personally, and what their group looks like from the inside. You’ll discover that no group is monolithic, that is, that not all Methodists or Episcopalians agree with each other or with their denomination’s formal statements.
3. I respond wisely to theological labels when I don’t assume motivations
It’s easy for more liberal believers to assume that conservatives are judgmental or lack compassion. And it’s easy for conservatives to assume that more liberal believers have little respect for the authority of Scripture or have only a lukewarm love for God. None of these are necessarily true. There are serious followers of Jesus Christ all across the theological spectrum. And there are truly loving, caring believers in every group.
4. I respond wisely to theological labels when I speak the truth in love
Having read all I’ve written to this point, you may assume that I’m implying that we need to avoid theological confrontation at any cost, stay neutral, and hand out lots of hugs. It’s true that I’m trying to tone down a lot of unhelpful stereotyping and attacks. However, as the New Testament makes clear, theology does matter. The Bible warns against false prophets, false teachers, and sinful tendencies in the church. Paul tells us to “. . . correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.”(2 Tim. 4:2). Christ’s church, at every level, needs to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is a place for the prophetic voice, for “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Without this loving but truthful dialogue the Church is lacks the necessary instructive and self-corrective dialogue.