How to Argue Like a Christian: Nomenclature

I get emails. This one is from Roger Cook —

First, some introductions. Jay, Mike Campbell is an elder at North Pointe Church of Christ (http://www.northpointecofc.org/) and has used your writings in some classes.

I know I’ll probably get an “I get emails…” thread for this one. 🙂

When the debates and splits regarding congregational support of colleges and orphans’ homes were going on in the 1940s and ’50s, epithets were flung at the side that perceived itself as more conservative (“anti,” “non-cooperation movement”) and from some of the things I read on articles in Wikipedia, there was a noted lack of charity and assumptions of good faith on the part of the “other side,” whichever side you were on.  I think there is a better way to handle the controversies that are going on right now within the Churches of Christ, and we can start by respecting each other in the language we use.  My question is how can we best do that?

In the debates over congregational support of parachurch organizations, the side that did not support the idea of supporting such organizations chose an adjective–“non-institutional.”  This is, I think, a good name and a good way of describing their beliefs.  It is neutral in tone, unlike the epithets I mentioned earlier.  Is there a set of names or descriptions that can be used by both sides today that are respectful, accurate, and can be used by both sides without belittling the other?

There are problems with the words I’ve seen used recently.  Both sides claim the word “grace,” though they mean different things by it.  Unfortunately, in our culture, words that are based around strictness, tradition, or obedience have acquired a negative connotation.  And both sides claim the word “obey,” as well.

Your thoughts?

God bless!

Roger,

I’ve struggled with this one and thought about it a lot.

First, although the Churches of Christ are clearly divided, the point of division is less than clear. It’s really more accurate to describe us as lining upon along a continuum teaching varying degrees of grace — in this case meaning willingness to accept as brothers those who disagree with us.

Nonetheless, some terminology is inevitable, as it becomes unworkable to speak of complex things without some sort of verbal shortcuts. Some protest on the theory, somewhat justified, that naming the factions tends to solidify them as factions. And yet I’ve experimented with writing without labels, as I share the unease with labeling others or myself, but it’s just not workable to talk about these things without some sort of terminology.

For quite some time now, some writers have chosen to refer to those in my camp as “liberal,” “digressive,” and “change agents.” I actually like the “change agent” term, as I truly intend to bring about change. We need it desperately. It’s no insult (even though often used that way).

But “liberal” in theological circles denotes a denial of the divinity of Jesus and many other doctrines central to Christianity — that is, liberal theology is not Christian because it denies biblical faith in Jesus. “Liberal” is therefore a slander (although the slander has been so often repeated that the sinfulness of the charge is often unknown to the speaker).

“Digressive” is a term that no longer resounds with most people, and merely means someone who digresses from the truth. Obviously, those who disagree with me see me as digressive, and just as obviously, I don’t see myself that way. Therefore, it’s not a particularly useful term, as it means little more than “someone with whom I disagree” and will always be taken as an insult by those at whom it’s aimed.

Now, the name calling goes the other way as well. Those in my camp will often refer to those with a narrower view of grace as “legalists” or “traditionalists.” In my view, both terms are accurate but neither is particularly useful, as the other camp will always deny that they are either — and the terms will always be taken as insults whether or not the insult is intended. I try to avoid both terms, although I’ve probably slipped now and again.

The terms that are now most commonly used are “progressive” and “conservative.” Both present their own problems, but at least neither side finds the label demeaning.

I am in fact a theological conservative, as I accept the authority of the scriptures and the resurrection of Jesus as a historical real space-time event. Therefore, I’m uncomfortable with calling those who have a narrower view of grace than I “conservative,” as it could be taken as implying I’m not conservative in the theological sense. But I’ve yet to come across a better term.

Just so, I answer to “progressive” even though “progressive” has been associated with lots of ideas in a lots of contexts that I disagree with. Then again, there have been plenty of things called “conservative” over the years that the conservative Churches of Christ wouldn’t agree with. But “conservative” in its most general sense means

in favor of preserving the status quo

— which seems fair enough. And “progressive” in its most general sense means “advocating … reform”. And so that’s a pretty fair word as well.

And both terms have the essential advantage that they aren’t generally taken as insulting — making it possible to discuss the two views without violating the Sermon on the Mount —

(Mat 5:22)  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.

It seems obvious that Jesus was banning the use of certain dirty words. Rather, he was opposed to names that are intended to hurt the victim.

Now, the scriptures are plain that slander is a serious sin —

(1 Cor 6:9-10)  Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

We can, of course, honestly express our disagreements — and we can be plain-spoken. We just can’t seek to win the argument through name calling.

(1 Cor 5:11)  But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

Rather, we are taught —

(2 Tim 2:24-26)  And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

(Gal 6:1)  Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

(Eph 4:2)  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

I take these passages with the utmost seriousness. Jesus spoke very harshly of the Pharisees, but I’m not Jesus. I don’t know the hearts of those I disagree with. Therefore, I try not to use insulting language.

On the other hand, we are told to be “able to teach” and to “gently instruct.” You can’t do this without saying what you believe is true and what you believe is error.

But the Golden Rule teaches me this. I have to be willing to accept the same treatment. Therefore, this blog has a comments feature allowing people to argue their side (and many do), and the comments aren’t moderated. The readers can say anything they like (and many certainly do).

(Well … I’ve moderated three people in nearly 2 1/2 years of blogging — and even then, I let their posts through when they meet the above standards and stay on the subject.)

I’ve actually gotten to the point where I much prefer that those who disagree with me do so in public — it’s a teaching opportunity — either to answer questions that others likely have as well, or to publicly demonstrate how to admit that you’ve been wrong (it happens).

So, anyway, that’s how I see it.

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7 Responses

  1. The principal danger that I see is that when we use labels we stop seeing people as individuals, with individual beliefs. As you said, when someone calls you “progressive,” they are quite possibly attributing to you certain doctrines that you don’t teach.

    I see a comparison in the use of the term “hispanic.” My wife, from Argentina, rejects the term because of the connotations involved. My son fully embraces the term, reveling in the chance to destroy people’s stereotypes with his blond hair and blue eyes. His driver’s license says “Hispanic.” I can imagine now if he were ever to commit a crime and the police were told to look for a Hispanic male… he could probably stroll past them without getting a second look.

    My point is, I find little useful in labels, especially during an argument.

    But that’s me… I’m a contrarian. 🙂

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. I see this issue the way you see it!

    And, I appreciate your stating it so clearly.

    Royce

  3. I’m going to agree/ disagree with Tim. I agree that when we label people we tend to stop seeing them then as individuals.

    I disagree that it is the principle danger. For me, the bigger danger is not forgetting to see someone as an individual but instead for judging that person as somehow inferior to me (regardless of whether they hold all the views equated to whatever term I may or may not have given them).

    So that when I call someone a “traditionalist” I am in some way saying that person (instead of their idea) is less of a follwer of Jesus than I am. That’s my struggle.

  4. I commented on this very issue on my blog yesterday:

    Denominations often grossly misunderstand each other because of false claims made by opponents. Have you ever felt that your religious neighbors just do not understand “our” true positions? Has it ever occurred to you that you may not understand “their” true positions either?
    How does this happen? When we talk about people instead of talking with them, we get false impressions. Over time, these false impressions “morph” into worse impressions we continue to repeat as they grow even more.
    Is that why Jesus taught us that when we come to worship and remember that our brother has something against us we are to immediately go to him? Likewise, if a brother sins against me, I am to immediately go to him. When I am aware of an “issue” between me and another, whether I am responsible or the other person is responsible, Jesus gives me the responsibility of taking the initiative to attempt to make things right.
    If we would treat others as we desire others to treat us, such rumors and “issues” between us would diminish into – well, maybe not into non-existence, but they would certainly become much smaller than if we keep feeding the fire.
    Those last three words, as I look at them, are appropriate. If we keep spreading rumors that malign brethren, we ourselves may indeed end up “feeding the fire” of hell (see James 3:6).

    Read the entire post here.

    Jerry S

  5. I spent 18 years growing up among institutional brothers and have spent my 11 adult years among non-institutional brothers. Having some experience in both groups, I feel most comfortable using the terms “non-institutional” and “institutional”.

    I believe most non-institutional brothers are comfortable with “non-institutional”, and it concisely presents their unique position, so I try to use it when describing them. Institutional people have forever used “anti” pejoratively, and non-instititutional people don’t like the term, so I avoid it. Many non-institutional people welcome the label “conservative”. I avoid it because there are conservative non-institutional and conservative institutional people in the sense that there are people in both groups who prefer the current situation over change. Plus, for many non-institutional people, conservative = right and liberal = wrong, which is not always the case.

    I don’t know if “institutional” is comfortable among institutional brothers, but it’s preferred to “liberal”, which is pejorative for all the reasons given by Jay. Likewise, “liberal” among non-institutional people often means sinful, and I’d prefer to describe non-non-institutional people without implicitly or accidentally making a statement on whether their positions are sinful.

    I avoid the term “progressive” because, to me at least, it implies everyone else is “digressive”, which isn’t very nice.

    So, that’s what I think. Of course, as Jay says, being kind and gentle and loving and sticking to the Golden Rule is the top priority in all of this.

  6. I grew up in the only “liberal” church in a town filled with “anti” congregations.

    I later tried to date the daughter of an “anti” preacher, but her father wouldn’t allow it. I was a “liberal.” You see, we actually believed that God would permit the use of church treasury funds to support orphanages.

    My best friend for many years was the son of a local “anti” preacher. I spent countless hours in his house. I tried to corrupt him regarding orphanages. He tried to corrupt me with poker.

    I was glad to learn that “non-institutional” had become the preferred term. It’s harder to curl your lip when calling someone a “non.” I doubt that it will catch on — which is good.

    As an adult, I’ve studied with a number of non-institutional brothers. Some are actually closer to the truth on grace than many in the institutional churches.

  7. Jay,

    My father was sent to a orphans home back in the 19 teens to rid him of his Cherokee ways.

    While there there was a Church of Christ teacher of printing named P’Poole who would bring children of that place home and teach them about Christ and His church.

    Due to my fathers influence all of us and no telling how many more became members of the Church of Christ.

    We grew up in a church that preached against orphans homes, but, to get to my point, my father simply sat through those sermons with a smile and very few knew he and all of us, plus our children and others were members of the Church of Christ because of his being in one.

    Argue, why? That was his patient position.

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