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How Theological Labels Are Helpful and Unhelpful

Everybody has theological convictions. And when we want to express those convictions, we often do so by labeling ourselves. By “labeling” I mean when you associate with a particular doctrine in self-referential terms. This is when you say, “I’m Reformed. I’m a credobaptist. I’m a complementarian.” This is labeling yourself. Is it helpful? Yes and no.

How Theological Labels Are Helpful and Unhelpful

Helpful

Yes, labeling yourself is helpful because it immediately provides context as to what you believe. Say, for example, I randomly (or providentially) meet another fellow pastor at a party. We get past all the introductory small talk, and he tells me he’s Reformed in his theology. I may reply, “Me too!” As soon as he says “Reformed,” a kindred spirit is established. This creates trust and opens the door for vulnerability, which in turn, creates a higher possibility for a long-term friendship. Labeling yourself quickly gives people a sense of what you’re about. It’s loving because you don’t fritter with people’s time; others don’t have to wait too long before they realize what you believe and what you don’t.

Or say I’m on another writer’s website, and I go to his “About Me” page. He mentions a long list of his theological convictions, and I don’t agree with most of them. Not heresy, just differences. This is helpful because it tells me I’m not ready to fully engage with his material. That doesn’t mean he can’t create content worth reading. That doesn’t mean I won’t stay on for a few more seconds and find edification. I can learn from pagans, so of course I can learn from a brother in whom the Spirit of God dwells.

But it does mean that, at least for now, I’m cautious of giving him too much of my time, and I won’t be subscribing to his email newsletter. There are too many initial differences that are working against my readership, and he must do other things to gain my trust or just settle with the fact that he’s not meant to reach everyone (and the same goes for me). Labeling yourself is economical because you quickly empower others to decide if they should continue to engage with you or not.

Unhelpful

And yet, labeling yourself is not always wise. When?

In general, labeling yourself is not helpful when the particular doctrine you want to associate with is not understood (or is misunderstood) by your listener. If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t have the same understanding of Doctrine X, then confusion will abound. Positively, labeling yourself to someone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about may give you an opportunity to expound on what you believe and convert them to your belief. Or you might plant a seed that may lead to further exploration of that doctrine.

On the negative side, though, labeling yourself with a doctrine that is loaded with baggage will create unnecessary suspicion.

Let’s say you’re interviewing for a ministry position, and there are seven people on the search committee. Someone asks, “So, tell us what you believe?” You reply, “I’m a cessationist. On the millennium, I’m an amillennialist. You can also call me Calvinistic, credo-baptistic, and a complementarian. I would also refer to myself as a Christian Hedonist.”

Wait, what? You said you’re a hedonist?

If you reply like this, there is a great chance that, (a) several people on the search committee will have no idea what any of those labels mean, (b) multiple people will misunderstand what those labels mean, and (c) one person has been seriously hurt by someone who also said they hold to one or more of those labels, and now they are apprehensive about you.

This won’t characterize every ministry interview. Context dictates what you should say and what you shouldn’t. If the search committee consists of all elders with MDivs, then they may want you to cut to the chase and use labels. They’ll know what you’re talking about and can quickly gauge if you know what you’re talking about.

But throwing out labels without first making sure that you and your audience are on the same page as to what those labels specifically mean may unnecessarily create hesitation about you. If you choose to use labels anyway, it may be useful to quickly define what you mean right after saying the label out loud.

Another reason not to be so quick to use labels is that you can change your mind on a secondary doctrine, or at least your understanding of that doctrine may become more nuanced as you continue to learn about it. Imagine writing an article, “Why I am a Convinced Credobaptist” only to become a confessional presbyterian a few years later. I find that zealous men in their early 20’s are most enthusiastic about using labels, whereas pastors in their 60’s are less likely to use them. The former are eager to express their convictions, but the latter has been around long enough to know that there is a mystery in all of this, in some sense, and he could be wrong or slightly off. That doesn’t mean the pastor in his 60’s doesn’t have a spine. He does. He is a man of conviction. His conviction on primary doctrines (e.g., the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.) have strengthened over the years but he is also wise enough to know that labeling oneself too quickly may not serve any good purposes.

To label or not to label? It depends on your context. In some situations it is helpful; in others, not so much. Learn from trial and error. This is a wisdom issue and something you can get better at over time.

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more.