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
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 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
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
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