Friday, December 12, 2008

In (Moderate) Praise of Labels

Don’t label me! Sound familiar? If you have been blogging amongst us Baptists recently, you have read a lot about labels. It seems to be a growth industry – assigning labels. Charges have abounded. Legalist. Fundamentalist. Liberal. Hyper-Calvinist. Semi-Pelagian. Baptist Identity. Neo-Landmark. And the response is almost always the same. Don’t label me!

It is an understandable complaint. Often, we use the labels pejoratively, to caricature, even to insult. No one likes to see his views reduced to a simple word, especially one with negative connotations.

But I would assert that labels can have positive value, if used properly. Can you imagine how cumbersome debate would be if we had to define every term or doctrine every time we spoke? If I say, Bob is a Five-Point Calvinist, that’s a label. It is much easier than saying, “Bob believes in the Total Depravity of humanity, our Uncondition Election to salvation through the atonement of Christ (Limited to believers) which becomes ours through Irresistible Grace and produces an unwavering Perseverence of the Saints, following the doctrines of the reformer John Calvin and the Reformed creeds and confessions.” Three words become shorthand for a volume of systematic theology.

I can tell you that I am a conservative, a 4-point Calvinist, a premillennial pretribulationist with slight dispensationalist predilections, and a Baptist. Now, in one sentence, you have a fairly good skeleton of my beliefs. Each of these labels describes me in a simple, straightforward way. They save time and without labels, carrying on the simplest theological discussions would become brutally complicated.

On the other hand, those pesky labels can also become problematic. No one likes to be called Hyper-Calvinist. I have been labeled a liberal by multiple bloggers because I don’t think everything Paige Patterson has done was right. It was a bizarre experience to be called a liberal and about as true as calling my beloved Yankees a small-market, frugal team.

We seem to like to label others, but don’t much appreciate when labels are applied to us. Since I am convinced that there is no way to do away with labels, and that, in fact, it would be counter-productive to do so, I would like to suggest a few guidelines, rules for using labels. The following list is obviously not exhaustive.

Rule #1 – Use Clearly Defined Labels

Make sure when you use a label, it has a generally accepted or reasonably well-defined meaning.

Evidently, James White is a hyper-Calvinist. Or, maybe not. One prominent professor at a recent conference used that label. The blog world lit up over this one – lots of passion. The problem is, no one really knows what the term means. What is a hyper-Calvinist? The best definition I have heard is “anyone more Calvinist that I am.”

The good doctor gave a clear definition of hyper-Calvinism and demonstrated clearly that according to that definition, Dr. White is undoubtedly one of the dreaded “hypers.” But others question the validity of the definition and therefore the label itself.

So, the whole discussion is pointless. We have devoted vast efforts in cyberspace to prove or disprove a label which cannot be proven or disproven. We have given offense, not clarification by the use of this label.

Shouldn’t the argument be whether Dr. White’s views are biblical, not whether they earn him a particular label? Debating James White’s views would be a productive discussion. Fighting about whether he is hyper-calvinist accomplishes nothing.

Rule #2 – Use the Common Definition

If there is a standard, commonly agreed to definition of a term, use it.

I can say, “Blogger Jones is a liberal.” Rev. Jones believes in inerrancy, accepting every word of the Bible as true. But he does not support the current leadership of the SBC and has views about women in ministry and other issues that are out of the SBC mainstream.

While “liberal” may be much like hyper-Calvinist in its usage, there is a generally-accepted Southern Baptist definition. If you believe that the scriptures have errors, mistakes, or inadequacies of any kind, within the SBC, you are liberal. That definition may not apply beyond the boundaries of the SBC, but it works pretty well within our little world.

By the common definition, Blogger Jones is not liberal. So, all I do is make my own, new definition. “If you oppose the conservative leadership of the SBC and do not go along with the majority view of women-in-ministry, you are liberal.” By that, I justify my use of the term.

But I think that is unfair and unproductive. If there is a generally agreed to definition of a term, stick with it.

Rule #3 – Label for Explanation, Not Insult

I call myself a Four-Point Calvinist because it reasonably explains my beliefs. I believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation. I understand the logic of Limited Atonement within the Calvinist system, but I see too much biblical evidence that cuts the other way, so I have not completely bought into TULIP.

If someone calls me a four-point Calvinist, it is accurate. If someone calls me a “Wimpy Calvinist” (I just made that up) because I don’t go all the way with the system, that is an insult and by definition, inappropriate.

Has anyone ever called himself a hyper-Calvinist? Of course not. I would suggest that it is a term that should be retired, since its only use is for insult. Dispensationalist is a useful label. “Darbyite” tends to imply an insult. There are a few people that embrace the Landmark label, but most of us view it as an insult. It is a label that seems to provide more insult than it does explanation.

It seems to me to be a work of the flesh, not a fruit of the Spirit to use labels as insults. It never leads to productive discussion, only to shameful blogging brouhahas.

Rule #4 – Don’t Force a Label

Many of the blog arguments have focused on a kind of petty, “Yes, you are,” “No, I’m not” bickering. Dr. Nathan Finn categorized Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists into four groups (cooperative Calvinists, non-cooperative Calvinists, cooperative non-Calvinists, non-cooperative non-Calvinists). It seemed a useful categorization.

Another blogger came along, using this categorization and plugged names into each category. He named names, forcing people into the categories as he saw them. Strangely, this vocal Calvinist had a long list of non-cooperating non-Calvinists, but could not name a single non-cooperative Calvinist. Obviously, a few people didn’t like being forced into this man’s categories.

If someone says, “I’m not Landmark,” don’t waste bytes trying to make the charge stick. What good is it? When someone says, “I’m not hyper-Calvinist,” what value is there is trying to prosecute to make the label stick? Deal with issues; ignore the pejorative labels.

So, labels can be useful and valuable, if they are used reasonably. We must use them to explain and describe, not to accuse or insult.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Jesus Disgusted with Baptist Bloggers?

I have been involved in the blog world for several years; much of that time way more than I should have been. I am ready to give it up. Many have come to this point before me.

Here's my problem: I have become disgusted with the level of conversation among Southern Baptists. What is more, I think our Lord may be more disgusted than I am.

If you have read anything recently, you have seen the brouhahas brewing as a result of the John 3:16 conference and the subject of Calvinism. It has been a brutal discussion -charges and counter-charges flying and hurt feelings abounding.

Think about it, folks. We are discussing issues related to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and we are treating one another with cold brutality. James said, "out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be." We seem to think we can skewer a brother or sister in Christ, then put a smiley-face emoticon on the end of the comment and make everything okay.

I honestly believe that Jesus Christ cannot be very happy with us Baptist Bloggers. We have brought more shame to his name that light to the world.

In Galatians 5, Paul distinguishes the "works of the flesh" and the "fruit of the Spirit." The works of the flesh are described as "evident" - things like enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy. The fruit of the Spirit is described as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Here's my question: How much do you see in the blogs of strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy? How much do you see of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control?

In my opinion, the works of the flesh abound and the fruit of the Spirit is rare. Interesting that we are horrified by sexual immorality and drunkenness, both listed as works of the flesh, but we engage in strife, rivalries and dissension, which appear on the same list, with seeming impunity.

I do not count myself innocent in this. I have worked from the first list instead of the second all too often. We all have. But the problem is that the "works of the flesh" are not an infrequent problem in blogging - they define Baptist blogging. A pox on all our houses.

Or, maybe, repentance.

But, those few who read this will tend to say the same thing. I can hear some say, "You are right! Wade has really done a lot of evil." Others will agree that those evil, black-hatted "Baptist Identity Movement" folks have certainly been guilty. We are all too quick to condemn the evil on the other side of the argument. But we will continue to justify our own fleshly acts, ungodly attitudes, and damaging words. After all, the other side started it, right? I'm just responding to what he said!

For me, enough is enough. I may still read a blog from time t0 time, and comment from here to there. But I don't want to be involved in something that I have come to believe damages the cause of Christ more than it helps.

My NEW Plan: I have written a few books, and shopped for someone to publish them. I got a real nice note from a publisher who said what I wrote was worth publishing, but he couldn't do it. Big Help! So, I'm going to stop waiting and start publishing. I'm going to start publishing my writings - Proverbs, "Victory" (A Primer on Winning the War on Sin), The Names of God, "Brick Walls and Picket Fences" and other books. I'll just put my stuff out there, and if it helps someone, fine. The royalties won't really pour in, but who cares, right?

I will be writing mostly on my other site - WORD Processing.