How to Argue Like a Christian: Labels

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(Psalm 19:14) May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Words matter. Words can bless and words can curse. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their words. Jesus forgave the sins of the thief on a cross for his words. God created the universe with words. Jesus is the Word. Words matter very much indeed.

And yet we in the Churches of Christ have a tendency to be very careless about our words. To persuade others of our views, we often slander our brothers and sisters by calling them names and falsely stereotyping them. We often judge the motives of our opponents without justification. Much harm has been done, and great sin committed, through the careless use of words.

As we try to reconcile warring factions within the Churches of Christ, we can easily frustrate our purposes by using words wrongly. Therefore, I try to use words very cautiously, “as though speaking the very oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11 KJV). Indeed, we are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

As I’ve considered the many issues that surround our divisions, I’ve come to realize the Churches are so divided we don’t even know how to describe the fact of our division. For example, if we call some congregations “conservative,” must we refer to others as “liberal”? While “conservative” is usually not an insult, “liberal” almost always carries a negative connotation in Church of Christ circles. Just so, if some churches are “institutional” or “cooperative,” are others “anti-institutional” or “anti-cooperative”? In Church of Christ circles, “anti” is used as a term of reproach.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to use words that demean hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters. Jesus condemned the use of “Raca” and “fool,” and surely he meant to prohibit the use of all demeaning labels. Hence, if someone permits a practice we consider wrong, I will refer to that person neither as a “liberal” nor as a “digressive.” These terms are intentionally insulting and therefore impermissible. And if someone considers a practice sinful that I consider permissible, I will not refer to him or her as an “anti.”

But surrendering these words to Jesus leaves me somewhat short of useful terms. After all, most of the terms we use to describe one another are intended as insults! (It’s hard to speak a sadder commentary on the current state of the Churches.) Hence, I generally use the terms that each party uses to refer to itself. Those who are moving away from many of the practices and teachings that characterized the 20th Century Churches of Christ I call “progressives.” Of course, I know that those who disagree would strongly dispute the term, insisting that they are making no progress at all but are, rather, digressing. But I’d rather be a bit controversial than violate the Sermon on the Mount.

Similarly, those who reject certain forms of inter-congregational cooperation I call “non-institutional,” as this is their preferred term. And those who oppose the progressives I call “conservatives.” The term generally refers to those who oppose change, and that is certainly apt in our current circumstances. Of course, in broader theological circles, “conservative” generally refers to a believer who accepts the inspiration of scripture, the virgin birth, miracles, and the divinity of Jesus — that is, not a liberal — and the fact is that all factions within the Churches of Christ are conservative in this sense. Hence, calling those who defend 20th Century teachings “conservative” hardly means that the progresives aren’t conservative, too. It’s just the term the conservatives like to use for themselves.

Those who are caught in the middle between conservatives and progressives, I call “moderates.” Again, those I know in that camp prefer that term.

These divisions aren’t sharply defined. Many a congregation will be moderate but with tendencies toward being progressive or conservative. Indeed, there are degrees of being progressive and of being conservative. The terms imprecisely draw lines along an ever-shifting continuum. Therefore, I try to be careful to avoid overly generalizing about what conservative, or non-institutional, or progressive churches teach or practice. It is unlikely that much can be said about all churches of any classification except that all believe in Jesus, all accept the inspiration of scripture, and all seek to obey God’s commands as they understand them.

There are those who would dispute that last statement, but I’ve yet to come across a congregation of the Churches of Christ for which these conclusions aren’t true. Until proven to the contrary, I choose to think kindly of my brothers and sisters. Some see things differently, but I believe my approach is commanded by scripture.

(Matt. 7:1-2) “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

(James 4:11-12) Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?

Let’s go a little deeper. Why did Jesus condemn calling someone “Raca” or “fool”? Are these dirty words? Or is the principle deeper?

(Mat 5:21-22)  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Notice how Jesus teaches this lesson as a commentary on “Do not murder.” The connection isn’t obvious, but it’s important.

You see, in times of war, we invent names for the enemy that dehumanizes him, making him easier to kill. It’s far easier to shoot or bomb a “Nazi” or a “kraut” than a “Lutheran” or “believer in Christ,” or even “fellow human.”

Just so, it’s easier to condemn a “liberal,” “digressive,” or “anti” from the pulpit than a “brother in Christ” or “person for whom Jesus died.” We invent names to make it easier to kill and to hate and to condemn. And this is why those names are spoken with a curl of the lip and a sneer.

We honor Jesus’ command not by changing our vocabulary so much as by changing our attitude. “Speaking the truth in love” only happens when the person of whom we are speaking feels loved. And no one feels loved when he’s being called a name. In fact, he feels a dehumanized.

Name calling is a serious sin. It’s past time for us to all stop.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to How to Argue Like a Christian: Labels

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    Jay you said "Name calling is a serious sin. It’s past time for us to all stop."
    Thank you for this Jay. I wish that tomorrow we stop. Since I was a child I heard these labels thrown around loosely. I once was so bold as a child to as to ask an elder’s wife if she knew that talking that about another congregation constituted gossip and slander. My mother spanked me for being disrespectful. I would suggest that we do the same any time we hear people throwing the labels around in a negative fashion we should call them on it. When we lived in Vicksburg MS I learned a new word in my church vocabulary; "biglibural". It is pronounced as one word very fast. The definition: Any church in a metropolitan area that has added any unauthorized worship practice or teaches erring doctrine. I also was once naive enough to ask the preacher's wife at the time if she would tell about any biglibural churches in the area. She immediately had a list. She told me Skyway Hills and Meadowbrook in Jackson MS. I thanked her for the list and told her that we may have to go visit these biglibural churches one day. Then I told her that my parents frequently attend North Richland Hills and she immediately exclaimed "That is the biggest most liberal church of all, the churches in TX tend to be more liberal.” I never thought I would say this but I am glad to have been raised in liberal churches! It was also the first time I ever heard anyone use the word liberal to refer to Texas in any context. It used to be Texas was the epitome of conservative in any context, religious, political or social. I explained to people in the rural traditional churches of MS an AL and LA that just because someone studies on their own and comes to different conclusions does not make one liberal. Only when one knows or believes something to be true and deliberately turns from it is someone a “liberal”. I have always considered my self a conservative in all things political social and religious. But never a “mindless” conservative. A mindless conservative just goes alone with what they have been taught and really doesn’t know why they believe what they believe. They do not pay attention to the results of the applications of their thinking. This is the most scary thing because they appear to be cold hearted and more interested in the emotional security of being right than seeking the truth. They almost never question or with brutal self honesty seek to understand why they believe what they believe.

  2. Alan says:

    Excellent points, Jay.

    I've probably used the "liberal" term at times when "progressive" would have worked as well. But if we just make "progressive" a synonym for "liberal," won't it also become a derogatory term and have to be discarded? Won't we eventually run out of useful terms?

    The attitude of respect and love is the key. And there are times when it would be better to talk about the ideas rather than about the people who hold them.

  3. cordobatim says:

    Amen! Labels are conversation derailers and conversation stoppers. They destroy dialogue and ruin relationships.

    I wish those labelers would stop.

    Oops.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    Also Jay I keep hearing about these moderates or middle of the road. This seems to be the buzzword now. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard an elder or church leader say "well we are just trying to be a middle of the road church", I would be rich. When I ask them what this means most say “well we will sing new songs but no praise teams”, or “We will do small groups but only once a month and not during Sunday night assembly at the building.” The middle of the road churches are really just the typical traditional church of Christ. Most of the people in the so called moderate churches still have strong convictions on things that are traditionally church of Christ doctrine. Most will not participate interdenominational. Most will not even participate with churches of Christ that have been labeled “Unsound” such North Richland Hills. They are still rigidly institutionally loyal to anything that has church of Christ name or affiliation. So to me the middle of road churches are just trying to do enough not to die out and loose what young people they have left, but what they do not realize is the their core theology they are still traditionally church of Christ. When called to make decisions they will almost always side the traditional side. So I would call them traditional churches with band aids.

  5. As usual, Jay, you bring out the heart of the matter — which is less the use of labels, than the heart and intent of the person assigning the labels.

  6. Yes, Jay; agreed … but it's so hard to remember all this when my righteous indignation has ignited my flaming passion to torch the logical fallacies of the brother or sister with whom I disagree!!!!!

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Joe,

    You're dead on. Elders that try to be middle of the road aren't leaders. They're politicians. I've considered the serious mistakes we make in leading moderate churches at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/o….

  8. andy says:

    Um, not to be hostile but I'm having trouble understanding how practical it is to not use labels, considering surrounding posts that use the terms "cultic" and "legalistic" rather liberally. Are those not labels?

  9. Jay Guin says:

    andy,

    I've not argued that we can't use labels. I've argued that we shouldn't use "words that demean hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters" or terms that "are intended as insults." And, of course, I resist terms that are false labels.

    I've just done a word search in my 2009 posts, and I think I've been using "legalist" or "legalistic" appropriately. In the most recent posts, I've described two cultic churches as "legalistic" to avoid calling them "conservative" and so associating their extremism with the broader group of Churches that call themselves "conservative." I think calling them "conservative" would have been an insult to most conservative churches.

    Otherwise, I've spoken of legalistic doctrine or of "extreme legalism." I've tried to be careful — although I do sometimes make mistakes.

    I've only referred to two Churches of Christ as "cultic" in very recent posts, and then only where they were described as acting in a very cult-like manner. I don't think conservative churches in general are cults — or even cultish. But a handful are — not because they are conservative, but because they are cults.

    If the churches described in those posts are not acting as cults, please tell me where I misunderstand. As I said earlier, I didn't want to call them "ultra-conservative," as there are plently of churches that are very conservative and not cultic.

    I very much did not want readers to conclude that these churches are typical of conservative Churches of Christ. They are not.

  10. andy says:

    I do not disagree that your use of the words cultic and legalistic are accurate. What I do not understand, is how it is different that someone who honestly uses a term like liberal or conservative (or ultra-conservative). Surely the term is every bit as inflamatory and perhaps moreso than the terms you counsel against using.

    If you're arguing against inaccurate labelling I don't disagree with you. I just don't see that it gets us very far because people who toss about the terms usually really believe them to be accurate descriptions.

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