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The Truth About Labels
by J. R. Ensey

“Thou shalt not label!”

Some people use their best stained-glass voice when speaking of labels used to identify where people stand on political, social or religious issues, as if their condemnation of them constituted an eleventh commandment. The Bible, however, still lists only ten as originating at Sinai.

Pros and cons can be offered about identifying labels, but they must be dealt with realistically, not idealistically. Most discussions held about them are couched in idealism—the way things ought to be. Since nothing will be ideal until Jesus returns, we have to cope with the way they are. And labels are a present reality.

They are also inevitable. Virtually every Jewish or Christian leader in the Bible was “labeled” and used labels. They are not inherently good or bad. They can be useful and appropriate if managed in an ethical way. If abused, they can hurt and confuse. Very few, I feel, intentionally try to destroy someone’s character by putting an unpopular or knowingly incorrect label on them.

The most widely used labels today are conservative, moderate, liberal, and sometimes radical. The latter term may be employed to refer to either end of the spectrum. The big question: what are the criteria by which one is judged to be “conservative” or “liberal”? Whose definition is to be used? The truth is, none of us establishes such criteria unilaterally or individually. The philosophies of conservatism or liberalism in any age (and definitions do vary somewhat from age to age) are usually determined by societies, or nations— even groups of nations—rather than a narrow segment of a small organization. So the matter is basically beyond our control.

In The Political Arena

In the latter half of the 20th century, political liberalism in America generally espouses big government, excessive federal spending, a welfare state, abortion on demand, the de-emphasizing of Christian principles, socialistic programs, a feminist agenda, homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle, and an amoral, totally secular climate in public education. Let’s say, for example, that Ted Kennedy generally represented most of these views in Congress. He would be labeled a “liberal.” Those who align themselves with him on such issues would also become known as “liberals.” Even if he denied being a liberal (almost liberal prefers to be thought of as “moderate”), it would still be correct to categorize him that way. Constituents need to be aware of where their Congressman stands on the issues so they will be able to vote intelligently. The media, or some other group who study such things, may apply a label which will assist in that objective.

Political conservatism, on the other hand, generally centers on fiscal responsibility, places a higher value on human life (expressed in a pro-life stand on abortion and euthanasia), esteems free enterprise and entrepreneurial opportunities, encourages morality in public life, eschews increasing federal controls, and promotes a greater focus on traditional family values. Those who support these views become known as “conservatives.” The media and one’s political colleagues (not necessarily his philosophical enemies) automatically provide the label. It’s usually not something he initially applies to himself.

Labeling The Religionists

In the non-Pentecostal religious world, a liberal is generally considered to be one who casts doubt on the inerrancy of Scripture, embraces certain humanistic values, wants be appear “inclusive,” has few convictions about activities traditionally considered to be “worldly,” and is apt to perceive art and entertainment as essentials of spiritual life. He usually espouses a “broadminded openness” toward other religions, often suggesting unbridled interaction with other faiths. If one aligns himself with such liberal causes, he should not mind wearing the label of liberal—otherwise it would appear that is he ashamed of what he is and what he believes.

On the other side of the coin, religious conservatives are known as those who press for the inerrancy of Scripture, promote the principles and values taught in the Bible as they see them, and believe Christ is the only means of eternal salvation. They disdain homosexuality and abortion as sin, and have a lesser regard for the arts in the expression of worship.

What About Pentecostals?

In either the secular political field or in religion, it is safe to say that the vast majority of Pentecostals stand squarely on the conservative side. The media call us conservatives—and we should consider it a compliment—because we espouse conservative values. That should not be difficult to understand. We should never mind being called “conservatives”—that’s really a very positive compliment.

In the smaller context of our own organization, those who espouse traditional lifestyle values, apostolic doctrines (essentiality of the new birth, baptism in Jesus’ name, Oneness, etc.) and pro-life positions on abortion and euthanasia, are known as conservatives. This is totally in line with definitions established in the political and religious worlds. Conversely, those who want to shift toward the relaxing of lifestyle codes (modest attire, women’s uncut hair, no television or movies, and other particulars mentioned in the Articles of Faith), seek more fellowship and interaction with those of other faiths, and push for more “inclusivism” by easing our positions on fundamental doctrines and holiness, are “labeled” as liberals. This approach is often sanctified by affirmations of faith in “revival” and being for “reaching out.” The effect is usually not the church reaching out but the world reaching in.

No one has to stand up and proclaim himself to be a conservative or a liberal—he merely has to align himself with certain issues and it is automatic. To denigrate someone for using an appropriate label is not only recrimination but is excusing in oneself what he condemns in others. The old ad hominem argument is still in wide use today.

New Testament Labels

In Antioch (Acts 11:26), the young church got its first major label: “Christians.” The name stuck. They accepted the label because it aptly expressed their discipleship, their faith, and their commitment to Christlike living. Jesus labeled the religious phonies of His day as “vipers...hypocrites...thieves...whited sepulchres.” Paul railed against Judaizers and Gnostics, warning believers of “the concision...[and] dogs.” Other New Testament writers were also quick to identify dangerous persons and doctrines by labeling them. Jude especially waxed eloquent with labels.
Labels would not be necessary if we all walked by the same rule and minded the same thing, as Paul suggested in Philippians 3:16. But that was not the case then, nor is it now. The apostle went on to say, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For as I have often told you...many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:17,18 NIV). To the Romans he wrote, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them...for by good works and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17,18). Would “mark” involve labeling? Paul certainly did that when he called them “enemies.” Have we been so reticent to do what he commanded, reveling in our diversity and pluralism, that it has contributed to the confusion in many minds?

Summary and Observations

Anyone can tolerate some shade of difference. Approach to evangelism or response to certain trends, even some lifestyle specifics (e.g., exact length of sleeves or personal observance of particular holidays) may differ, but we ought to be unified at least on the stipulations of the UPCI manual.

This need for unity really becomes apparent when lay families are transferred to other cities. If there are several churches in that city, which will he recommend they attend? Theoretically, if they are all UPCI churches, it shouldn’t matter. But what pastor, be he liberal or conservative, believes that it doesn’t matter? A pastor may pour himself into winning and discipling a family only to have them pick a church where TV’s are allowed, the women cut their hair, the youth frequent professional ball games, and gospel rock is the music style in the services. Years of pastoral investment can be negated. What most pastors do is inform themselves about the churches and pastors in the new town so he can recommend one he feels will be consistent with his own teachings. At this point a label is apt to be used. That’s not right or wrong, merely a fact of life. Everyone, without exception, uses labels when they are necessary or convenient.

I’ve often wondered if those who denounce labels the loudest do so because they do not want their views and positions to be commonly known. Are they out of step with the majority of the fellowship but do not wish to be perceived that way? Do they want the game but not the name? It’s like the guy who says, “I enjoy gambling, but don’t call me a gambler.” Wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? Call it what you will, a rose is a rose is a rose....

We’re all glad that pharmacies label medicines. They reveal what’s inside the bottle—otherwise we may be exposed to grave danger. And if music media had no labels, one might not know if he was buying pop, rock, country, or gospel until he heard it.

Labels are like the poor—they will be with us always. They are inevitable. We must be careful, however, to let ethics guide such judgments. Their use must ultimately serve the cause of truth and righteousness. We must not forget to be truthful and honorable when dealing with another man’s name or reputation.

Perhaps Socrates had labels in mind when he said, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

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