Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are We All Label-Makers?

The Scenario
Imagine that you are the head of an organization that promotes pacifism. For some of you this is easy; others of you would find a triathalon easier. Still, stick with me.
You are the head of a pacifist organization and you open up a magazine to read the following quote from the celebrity:
"I am a pacifist. That said, I do think that war is okay in certain cases. For example, if our nation is attacked first, then we have the right to respond in kind. And I actually think there are cases when we must go to war in order to protect ourselves, even if we haven't been attacked. On top of this, I also think it can be valid to go to war if our financial interests are threatened to the point that our economy could be in peril. But I want to impress upon you that I am a pacifist. From the bottom of my heart I hold to pacifism, and I deny anyone to say otherwise."
As you begin to process what you have just read, you receive a phone call asking for your comments on what this celebrity has said. You respond in a way that is simple and succinct: "The person who said this is not a pacifist."
The next day the celebrity gives a press conference to respond to your comments about him not being a pacifist. He looks deeply hurt. "I am shocked at the hurtful nature of the comments that were made against me, " he begins. "The comments are arrogant. How dare anyone else judge what is in my heart! I know, deep down in my heart, that I am a pacifist. No one else has the right to say otherwise!"
Again, asked for comment, you might respond like this:
"I am not in any way judging the sincerity of this man. I am not even saying that his position is wrong or immoral. I am simply saying that he is not a pacifist. If he wants to be labeled a pacifist, he must change his views about war and retaliation. If he doesn't, then it is simply inappropriate to give him the label. After all, being a pacifist has to mean something."

The Logic of Labels
I think most of us can follow this logic. Most people would not think that you were arrogant to say that the celebrity was not a pacifist. You were not judging their heart, but rather stating a fact. He simply doesn't meet the criteria of the label. You don't get to be a pacifist and still support war in that way. You don't get to be a vegetarian and still eat meat all the time. You don't get to be pro-life and yet support abortion-on-demand. You don't get to be Green and yet support the destruction of certain protected areas or species. If our labels don't mean something, then they are worthless labels.

Who Decides What a Christian Is?
It seems that we grasp this reality in many areas of life, but not when it comes to Christianity. It seems increasingly common for people to take it upon themselves to define Christianity on their own terms. Oddly enough, it does not seem to be as prevalent with other religions. With Christianity, however, a person can deny the historic creedal or moral realities that have gone hand in hand with defining Christianity, and yet still claim to be a Christian. "I'm a Christian, but I think that people can get to God through other religious expressions and not just through Jesus." "I'm a Christian, but I think that in the end God will not send anyone to hell, but will save everyone." "I'm a Christian, but I don't think there is anything wrong with pre-marital sex, homosexuality, or getting drunk every once in a while."
If a pacifist is supporting a war, it would not seem out of bounds to say to him, "You are not a pacifist." At the very least you would seem justified in saying, "You are not acting in line with pacifism." But, culturally speaking, it is absolutely out of bounds to say, "You are not a Christian," to someone who claims to be one. The typical response is, "Who are you to judge me?! How can you know what is in my heart?!"
The pacifist is not judging the celebrity for saying that he is not a pacifist. The celebrity is free to believe whatever he wants. And he can take a shot at convincing the pacifist that he is right. But he needs to drop the label. The simple fact is that he is not a pacifist. Those of us who are Christians need to realize that we are not creating Christianity. We don't create what the Bible means, nor do we create who Jesus is or what he did. Those of us who are Christians simply decide that we want to embrace Jesus, embrace his gospel, and embrace a way of belief and conduct that was handed down. The label means something; the label existed before us; and we must value the meaning of the label if it is going to have any significance.

Those of us who are Christians are compelled to find productive ways to talk to others about Jesus and the gospel. But we must not fall into the trap of accepting everyone's definition of what it means to be a Christian. We are subject to the gospel of Jesus, to Scripture, to God himself, and to historical Christianity (to a certain level). We must find ways to gently call others not to define their own version of Christianity. We must find ways to say to others, "You are certainly free to believe that, but that is not a Christian belief."
And all of us, Christian or not, would do well to rediscover the value of objective labels. If our communication is going to mean anything, then we must submit ourselves to the meaning of words and labels. It is meaningless for me to call myself a pacifist if I mean something different than what everyone else means. Similarly, it is meaningless to call myself a Christian if I reject some (or several) of the historical and biblical definition of what it means to be a Christian.

Our labels must mean something. A label is only significant if its meaning transcends individual definition.

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