Why Do We Need Religious Labels?
I am often asked why I still call myself “evangelical”—by people I consider evangelicals in my sense—which has nothing to do with politics but is solely a spiritual-theological posture mostly among relatively conservative Protestant Christians. My stock answer is: What’s the alternative?
One answer I receive is “Christ-follower” or “Jesus-follower.” I point out that all people who call themselves “Christians” and many who clearly aren’t Christian call themselves that. “Christ-follower” and “Jesus-follower” call for explanation: “What kind of….?”
Another answer I receive is “Who needs religious labels anyway? Why not just be who we are and let people call us what they will?” I point out that many people simply do need labels and want them and they cannot always be avoided. People naturally need categories and categories always give rise to labels.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I recently finished editing (and basically re-writing) a very old and standard reference book entitled The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Abingdon Press). This will be the fourteenth edition when it is published his year. Notice how I called it a “reference book.” But why categorize books, anyways? Someone might say “Oh, ‘reference books’ aren’t interesting and only libraries buy them; let’s drop that category.” Impossible or confusing.
And within the Handbook denominations (whatever they call themselves) are categorized. One of my main jobs as the new editor was to re-organize the volume into more correct categories. (But I make no claim to have done so infallibly!)
Why not just list denominations by alphabetical order (which the Handbook will do in one section) and leave it at that? Because we want our readers to understand and find the Handbook easy to use and comprehend. But as the new editor I bent over backwards to explain the categories in revised essays leading into the descriptions of the denominations in the categories.
Categories require labels and we cannot do without categories. Go into any bookstore and see. I could give a hundred other examples where categories and labels are inescapable.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about and it is at least somewhat realistic; I have had conversations like this. “What kind of church do you attend?” “A Christian church.” “But of course; what I mean is what kind of Christian church?” “A Christ-centered one.” “Huh; are you just trying to put me off and not be helpful or what?” “Okay, a Protestant one.” “C’mon, that doesn’t tell me much; please be more descriptive.” “Okay, a Baptist one.” “Uh huh; what kind of ‘Baptist one? Aren’t there 57 varieties of Baptist?” “Well, yes, you’re right.” “So tell me what kind of Baptist your church is.” “We call ourselves ‘moderate Baptist.’” “Why?” “Because we have a woman pastor and most Baptist churches don’t allow women to preach.” “Well, that’s interesting; so your church is ‘liberal’, huh?” “No, I said ‘moderate’ to distinguish ourselves from ‘liberal.’ There are some ‘liberal’ Baptist churches and my church isn’t one.” “Why? What distinguishes your Baptist church from ‘liberal’ Baptist churches?” “We believe the Bible is God’s Word and that Jesus Christ was and is God incarnate and that miracles really happened and still do sometimes happen.” “Oh, then you’re a ‘charismatic’ Baptist church.” “What did I say that gave you that idea? No, we aren’t.”
You get the point. Inquiring minds want to know and they don’t want to sit or stand through a long, confusing set of denials and explanations. They always already have categories and labels in mind even if they don’t really understand or use them correctly.
Inquiries such as this become “teachable moments,” but most people aren’t going to sit or stand through a long set of evasions.
Here is what I would say to that inquiring person—asking about my church. (And I know it’s basically correct because I’ve heard the pastor and other leaders of the church use these categories and labels.) “My church is a moderate, not fundamentalist or liberal, Baptist church with an evangelical spiritual and theological ethos but we are not into partisan politics and do not associate ourselves with what the media describes as ‘evangelical’.” Then I would wait for more questions if they are forthcoming and answer them as honestly and fairly as possible.
All religious labels have problems and call for explanation. And yet they are inescapable. Sometimes I worry that some people who want to escape them all are lazy, or hiding something. (But I know that is not always the case; many, especially millennial Christians, truly just do not care about religious labels. I just keep trying to tell them that eventually, somewhere and sometime, in some situation, they will have to use some and whatever ones they use will require explanation. There are none that are self-evident to all people as to their meaning.)
But, having said all that, I admit that I am a categorizing and labeler because I have an analytical mind; my brain must be hard wired that way.
I once went to a counselor for a problem I was having and over a period of months he tried his best to convince me to “just observe” and not analyze things. Impossible for me. He advised me to go into the grocery store produce section, for example, and just observe the wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables and don’t compare or contrast them or judge anything. Just set the little analyzer in my mind aside and only observe and enjoy the sight. Impossible; I couldn’t do it.
So I admit this need for religious labels might have something to do with my mind, brain, and personality. But I don’t really understand how the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) of the world, including for me especially the religious world, can be observed only without some categorizing for the sake of understanding.
I will end with this question and invitation to serious commenters who follow the rules here: What alternative to “evangelical” do you use and does it require no qualifications or explanations when you use it to explain what kind of Christian you are? But be warned! I will think of questions that will require you to explain…. (Please read the “Note to commenters below!)
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