Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Necessity of Labels

Gibbs and Bolger have an interesting section on labels in Emerging Churches. In discussing post-protestant and post-evangelical labels, and having provided evidence of discomfort with the idea of labelling by emerging leaders, they have these two curious questions:

"From a postmodern perspective, the ultimate question is, Why is it important to label oneself as evangelical? Aren't labels simply artificial divisions that make us feel safe or help us to exert control?...What is obvious is that the ecclesiastical or theological label one decides to wear is of far less concern to emerging churches than how one relates to the gospel and culture." (p. 39)

Labels are of course short-hand, often single word, descriptions. We can use them negatively, but that is the use we put them to not their inherent meaning. I may call someone "egalitarian," or "arminian," simply to give an accurate recognisable description of their position. Of course I may whisper that word quietly to someone in a sentence that goes "hey, you know that he is an egalitarian don't you?" (assumption: don't trust his theology). I have no desire to defend the reverse situation where the attention is drawn to the label but with little concern to live up to it.

If Adam was to name the animals I cannot see why it is inappropriate to distinguish ideas and groups by calling them by different names when they are, after all, different things.

I cannot tell from the context if Gibbs and Bolger agree with the second question themselves or if they are merely stating it as the outworking of the postmodern perspective. Either way I bet they feel safe that the contents label on their soft drink corresponds to what it actually contains. Likewise you won't find someone who has issues about theological labels drinking from a bottle with a skull and cross bones on it. It is not true that labels are about exerting control. They can be about that, but again that is a use that they are put to. And even this isn't inherently negative. It seems to me that the New Testament is littered with verbal indicators of the danger of false teachers (wolves, dogs, gangrene etc.). These images convey to us the danger of bad theology.

And, thirdly, once you define the gospel it is inevitable that you will rule out some other views as being non-gospel, another gospel, or a different gospel. We cannot escape labels. Neither for that matter should we want to.

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