Do Labels Matter?

My previous post on reformed charismatics attracted some really thoughtful, good comments. Before answering some more directly, its made me think a lot about labels, how we apply them to ourselves or to others, how we react to others self-definition and how we expect them to react to ours.

The writer who prompted my original post asked whether by "reformed charismatic" I meant "pentecostal calvinist" or "ex-charismatic" (as in reformed shoplifter!) To which the answer is not exactly the first and not the second. This highlights an interesting point - that when we are pleased to pin a label to ourselves it has positive connotations and denotations for us, but for everyone who wouldn't use the same label to describe themselves it has only neutral or negative connotations. 

There might be a whole variety of reasons for the negative connotation, but the fact remains that a few people may want to load into our self-defining labels everything negative they can think of about us. This morning I asked a young (baptist) church trainee if she would use the word "Baptist" in her self-definition and was surprised at how immediate the negative reaction was. When I probed why she said that for her (Brit) circle, Baptist would be heard to mean Southern Baptist, which in turn equalled "small-minded, right-wing and no fun." Unfair to Southern Baptists? Certainly. But it shows how easily a close connection is forged between labels and caricatures. 

There are different kinds of labels that do different kinds of things:

1. There are denominational labels, eg Anglican or Methodist. They describe a group or grouping to which one belongs, but in the case of a "broad church" don't do any more than that because the label covers a multitude of doctrinal positions

2. There are constituency labels, often denoting a doctrinal or sociological sub-group that I want to identify with by bearing that label. A good UK example would be "conservative evangelical." (Some take this as a purely doctrinal statement about themselves, but I think it works better as a constituency statement, because strictly speaking it is a doctrinal tautology. Conservative evangelical ought to mean the same as Evangelical - scripture and cross centred.)

3. There are some labels to do with praxis or style

4. There are some labels that act as riders to the word "evangelical" to qualify what the individual means by the word. I have written elsewhere that I think that adding riders to "evangelical" is essentially a bad idea because discussion then circles around the rider - inevitably single issue (and often secondary issues) - rather than the central core of what it means to be evangelical. And therefore tend to act as foci for fragmentation rather than for building gospel partnership

It is immediately evident that some kinds of self-definition are much more important than others. Labels that circulate around style or local practise are essentially useless for building gospel work for the evangelisation of the nation, because there is no foundational content to agree on. My view is that labels that are doctrinal and confessional are by far the strongest and most important (and that the big divide at present in the UK evangelical world is no longer charismatic/non-charismatic but confessional / non-confessional).

Therefore if I am going to apply a label to myself I most want it to be one that nails me to a set of clear doctrinal commitments, and the ethos with which I live out and act on those commitments. Then if people react against it, at least what they are reacting against is a clear doctrinal position rather than a nebulous idea (or correct idea!) of what my worst practise may be.

So yes, labels matter. But if we are to use them (and confessional statements) well we need them to have real content, be clear, and to find ways of using them as foundations for fellowship, not foci for fragmentation.

"reformed charismatic" seems like an odd label in these terms. The first word denotes certain historical doctrinal convictions, the second refers to a either a particular theology of the Spirit, or to a particular set of stylistic practices, or to certain concerns about the religious affections (or a combination of these three) depending on who you speak to. The second word is much less important than the first therefore as a definition. The overall phrase seems to get used to more denote a constituency than a theological position - namely folk who are keen on the scriptures, not cessassionist and who want to be doctrinally boundaried.

Comments from Andrew Evans, Martin Downes and Little Mo are particularly apposite, therefore, that the "charismatic bit" must not trump the "reformed" bit in the label. The first descriptor is much more important by dint of being doctrinal. Similarly the need for clear confession in the whole matter of labels is the bedrock of building unity.