I ended my previous blog with this statement: Not only do we not have to choose between “standing for the truth” and “promoting the good name of our neighbor;” WE MAY NOT DO THE ONE WITHOUT DOING THE OTHER.
Easier said than done.
But, of course, as Edwards points out and as I quoted in my first blog, “The whole Christian life is compared to a warfare, and fitly so.” As he explained this statement further, he pointed clearly at the location of the most intense spiritual battles: “True Christian fortitude consists in strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things; in ruling and suppressing the evil and unruly passions and affections of the mind; and in steadfastly and freely exerting, and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear, or the opposition of enemies. But the passions that are restrained and kept under, in the exercise of this Christian strength and fortitude, are those very passions that are vigorously and violently exerted in a false boldness for Christ.”
My most strenuous spiritual exertion must be focused inward – “. . . in ruling and suppressing the evil and unruly passions and affections of [my] mind.”
So yes, of course, it will be hard to stand for the truth while at the same time promoting the good name of that rascally neighbor who keeps making those questionable theological statements. It will be hard precisely because my own sinful nature leads me to feel about my mistaken neighbor just as Jonah felt about those heathen Ninevites. But, no matter how hard, standing for the truth while at the same time promoting the good name of my neighbor is precisely what both Edwards and the Westminster Divines say is my responsibility.
In this blog, I will suggest one specific way ahead in this difficult task. In a sense, this will be the technically easiest thing for us to do but, emotionally, it may be one of the more challenging.
I’m not very good at developing catchy alliterative titles for my sermons or talks but I do like this one – “Labels likely lie.”
I know that I love to cut to the chase with those who are clearly (at least in my eyes!) WRONG. Because I feel so strongly the need to correct error wherever it is found, I tend quickly to apply some kind of horrendous label to my sinning neighbor to make it clear to him and the world how bad and dangerous he is.
We all know how this works and many of us have participated in “labeling.”
Of course, labels can have a good function – they provide quick (and often important) information about a product or a location or an institution. If I see the label ‘Psychiatrist” on a building, I won’t wander in hoping to find someone to treat my broken foot. If I see “Poison” on a can, I probably won’t pour the contents over ice and enjoy it on a hot afternoon.
But applying labels to people . . . ahh, that is much trickier – precisely because every single person we have ever met or ever will meet is BOTH made in the image of God AND a sinner. Even when (perhaps especially when) we add the qualifier “professing Christian,” there is a level of complexity not found in a can of rat poison. Further, no confession of which I am aware applies the Ninth Commandment to anything BUT people or groups of people.
So let’s start by considering a “people-label” which doesn’t seem to be used often anymore; then we might proceed, on tiptoe, to consider labels which are still very much in use. In other words, we will start with a non-threatening label and proceed to some others.
When I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1950’s, just about the worst label which could be applied to anyone was the label, “Communist.” And, to be sure, there were actual flesh-and-blood Communists around. But in my high school world, that word was easily used about anyone who, for example, wanted to integrate Mississippi’s public schools. If either I or my classmates had been able to go “back to the future” and visit the Acton Institute in 2014 Michigan, we would have been absolutely convinced that the place was overrun with “Communists” because those folks, to this very day, support the racial integration of all of American life. And no amount of argument that, at least in economic theory, the Action Institute is as far from Communist as it is possible to get would make a bit of impression on those of us who arrived from the 1950’s.
No problem here, I suspect. Most readers of this blog would probably agree that labeling someone a communist just because he supported the integration of schools would be ridiculous.
But let’s try a more familiar label – “liberal.” What in the world does this word actually mean? All I know is that during the first 30 years of my professional life, any person or organization that was “liberal” was bad. And I mean REALLY bad!! Now the force of that particular label has shifted sufficiently that we often hear it modified before being applied to individuals or organizations – “she is theologically conservative but politically liberal.”
These days, it seems rare for the word to be used unmodified in some way. Why? Because the unmodified label “liberal” likely lies more than it tells the truth. That is, while there may be some accuracy in that word when applied to a certain individual, because of the freight which it bears and because of the complexity of human beings, it often fails to “promote the good name” of the person about whom it is being used. And that, according to the Westminster Divines, is a violation of the Ninth Commandment, a lie.
One further point – especially in “the age of Twitter,” we know that, in order to get our readers’ or our listeners’ attention, we must make a quick impression. And there is no better way to do that that by the use of some kind of inflammatory label. Just look at the headlines emanating from the Huffington Post or listen to sound bites from Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher (to cite example from different ends of the spectrum). Frequently, labels try to make a statement with a minimum of words and, in such cases, we can rephrase the alliteration with which I began this blog by replacing the word “likely” – LAZY labels lie. At least they do if you accept the definition of lying provided by the Westminster Divines. This is because labels that are used to attract attention are specifically geared to shock, not to tell a nuanced and carefully examined truth.
So what am I suggesting here?
Simple – if we REALLY subscribe to the Westminster Standards and/or to the Scriptures on which those Standards are based, we will simply quit using labels to talk about other professing Christians.
This does NOT mean that we abandon speaking the truth. But it does mean that we will change HOW we speak the truth. We will speak the truth without using inflammatory labels. The use of labels is “How NOT to tell the truth.”
I have been out on a limb and now I am going out on a twig. But at least it’s not crowded out here!
I am going to suggest some labels which I believe we should all agree never to use again . . . and I am going to ask of anyone who reads this blog that you respond to the specific labels I am suggesting we abandon when talking about other professing Christians. Further, I am going to ask that you suggest other possible labels that we should ban.
But you ask – who is ever going to pay any attention to a list which a few individuals like us create? This whole idea is utter foolishness . . . sort of like every sermon I have ever preached! [See I Corinthians 1: 18 – 2: 5] This exercise may be utter foolishness. But it may also be obedience to the Ninth Commandment as that commandment has been interpreted by those Christians at the Westminster Assembly.
So here is my preliminary list of labels to be banned. I start with a relative short list but every item in this list has been taken directly from comments BY self-professed Christians ABOUT other self-professed Christians.
So what do you think?
And what are some other labels that we should ban when one professing Christian is talking about another professing Christian?
Sam Logan is a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, though neither of these is responsible for the comments above. To hold accountable the one who IS responsible, write to email@example.com