Annoyed at Certain Christian Labels

Annoyed at Certain Christian Labels

On Wednesday I got snarky about a post by Jim West, dealing with “Biblical faith” and yesterday I wrote about a test that is alleged (incorrectly) to determine whether I have a “Biblical worldview.”

There’s a common element here that annoys me, and it’s these multi-word or hyphenated Christian labels for things that might well be labeled with one word. The term “Biblical” comes in for particular and regular abuse. Now some of the labels I’m going to mention do have valid uses, but they are also susceptible to misuse on a frequent basis.

Let me start with some examples without the word “Biblical” in them.

How about “born-again Christian.” As opposed to what? A non-born-again Christian? If I read John 3 correctly “born-again” (much better translated “born from above” with a footnote on multiple meaning) is a metaphor for becoming a Christian, thus “born-again Christian” would normally be redundant. This is one of those I think should generally be dropped. It’s a label used to create a superior class of Christians. “Are you a Christian?” somebody asks. “Yes,” is the answer. “But are you a born-again Christian?” Any answer but “yes,” of course, means that one is either not a real Christian or belongs to some inferior class of Christians. (People who were born into Christian families and have been Christians as long as they can remember have a very hard time responding here!)

Then there is “Spirit-filled.” Now I find this label useful occasionally, to cover what it most commonly means in a technical sense, i.e. someone who believes that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a separate experience, and also believes they have had that second experience. But in practice, it becomes much like born-again. There are Christians, the bulk of the pew-sitters and “professing” Christians (what a put-down “professing Christian” is!), and then there are the “Spirit-filled Christians” who have truly gotten it right.

And how about Bible-believing? You can catch this one in a full label of a truly wonderfully superior sort of Christian, the “born-again, Spirit-filled, Bible believing Christian.” As opposed, of course, to all of the Christians who don’t “have” the Holy Spirit (I’ve always wondering about people who say they “have” the Holy Spirit), are not born-again, and think the Bible is so much wastepaper. This one is simply short hand for “a person who believes the same thing I do about the Bible.” In my area, it most commonly designates KJV-Only advocates, and because of that usage, many people who might normally claim to be “Bible believing” don’t use the phrase, since they might be mistaken for KJV-Only types.

But I think the term “Biblical faith”, for example, can be, and is used in much the same way. In a Christian conversation, what specifically does a “Biblical faith” designate? I think it is used largely to look down on the faith of other Christians, which is not regarded as adequately Biblical. They might, for example, regard science and faith as compatible. If I were discussing the word “faith” in an interfaith context, I might use Biblical, though I’d be more likely to use the term “Christian”, since otherwise how might it be properly distinguished from Jewish faith. Jewish faith is surely Biblical in many senses of the word.

Just as I have argued that here is no “obvious exegesis” I would also argue that there is no obvious “Biblical faith” and the use of the phrase very commonly means “a faith that agrees with my doctrinal understanding, a doctrinal understanding that I believe is consistent with the Bible–unlike yours.” Sorry for the wordiness, but that’s what I hear most often when someone uses that label.

At least in the case of “Biblical worldview” the terms aren’t redundant. But in the way it is used, it is again clearly an example of putting down the “worldviews” of other Christians. If a Christian is a socialist, for example, according to that site I visited yesterday, they might be saved, but they don’t really have a “Biblical worldview.”

I’d be interested in hearing other valid uses of these labels in the comments. Personally, while I think some of these labels get used in a valid way, I think they tend towards creating a privileged group of “especially right” Christians.

And while we’re at it, we might ask ourselves whether our distinguishing feature as Christians is being “righter” than anyone else.

7 thoughts on “Annoyed at Certain Christian Labels

  1. I started that quiz yesterday, but I didn’t make it any farther than the demographic question that asked me to choose between ‘I regularly attend a Bible-believing church’ and ‘I do not attend church.’ No other options were available, and I suspect that my progressive GLBT-friendly, Marcus-Borg-reading, female-pastor-led church is not what the questioners meant by ‘Bible-believing.’

    1. Well, yes, but I figured that if you write a question that badly you deserve whatever answer you get! My church believes the Bible the way I do, thus I can call it “Bible-believing” if I want!

  2. Nicely spun, Henry. You may already have noticed my reasons for hating adjectives – but it is really the labeling that is disturbing.

    Only one immediate quibble. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born from above – this has nothing to do with Christians – but in his case with him being a teacher in Israel. So the renewal that Jesus is speaking about is based in his perception of what we would call Old Testament anthropology (or theology).

    Now how will we approach ‘in Israel’ in our translations…

    1. But what an excellent quibble! And you are right, of course. It is also worth considering with reference to my final question–whether the defining characteristic of being a Christian is how right we are about things.

  3. Just to clarify – Christians must be born from above – but it is not a teaching that began with Jesus – perhaps we should find its roots so we can overcome some of the parochialism implied or even caused by our labeling

    How curious it is that Adam was naming the animals – I wonder how many he got in his taxonomy and how limited was this first bit of abstract labeling. (I know, it is a story)

  4. As to being ‘right’, I have thought for a while that our desire to be right is born of fear and can be a chief ‘sin of the flesh’. We are on the horns of a dilemma! We must be right – but it is not our correct beliefs that give us life in our mortal bodies. This materializing of love comes from the Spirit (Romans 8). That is what really ‘makes sense’ and ‘matters’. (More than a ‘cerebral’ memorization of confession or creed).

  5. Very nicely put.

    I am always amazed at how so many “Bible believers” have told me that my problem is that I lack discernment when obviously the converse is true.

    I was once one of these parochial Christians, fortunately for only a few years. I cringe at memories of the cliche’s I hurled and the slogans I chanted. There was immense comfort and security in being included among the universe’s winners along with a perverse sense of satisfaction that so many of those ‘other’ sinners were going to get what was coming to them.

    Too many Christians have so little trust in God, so much of their time is spent in seeking self-affirmation that it naturally leads to a condescending attitude towards those who are not so blessed. Really annoying and as an evangelical tool, so ineffectual.

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