Allegiance to a Label
Linguistics 101: language changes. Language assigns words or phrases as a way to communicate different ideas. These ideas are not fixed for eternity. English is very different today than it was 1000 years ago. Before that, there were several source languages that became English. Even today, we are adding new words and phrases every year. Language is inherently arbitrary, with the exception of onomatopoeia. That’s just how language works.
This is significant for me when talking about questions like why I don’t identify as an “evangelical” anymore. Yes, I used to. And yes, by most historical definitions, I would probably still qualify. In the 18th and 19th centuries, even the first half of the 20th, “evangelical” was the majority of Christians. It meant something specific about how you approached the Bible: as authority but something that must be studied and wrestled with. It was the middle ground between liberals who assumed that the Bible was fundamentally untrustworthy and fundamentalists who refused to ask any questions, preferring to retrench in what their tradition had told them.
That’s not really true anymore. For most people, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are synonyms. There are still many in that middle ground of approaching the Bible, myself included. It’s not like that idea has faded out. It’s just that the language has changed. Evangelical doesn’t mean somebody who faithfully but humbly engages with the Bible.
Beyond that, lots of ideas have been added to the definition. If I asked 100 people on the street what they thought evangelical meant, they would probably say things like:
- Committed to a violent penal substitutionary view of atonement
- Committed to biblical inerrancy
- Votes conservative
- Anti-abortion rights
None of those apply to me. There might be 1 or 2 percent of other answers that would apply – belief in personally encountering Jesus in your life, perhaps – but definitely a minority. So why would I keep causing unnecessary confusion by using a label that means something completely different to almost everyone in North America hearing it than what I mean by saying it? Stubbornness that I own the label more than everyone else does? That’s not how language works. And even more importantly, to prove that their English is not as arbitrarily correct as my English is really not high on my list of priorities for following Jesus.
The Anabaptist label also is an instance of language changing. Anabaptist means re-baptizers. It was a slur, an insult, by Catholics and Protestants. Anabaptists don’t believe in re-baptizing. We believe in believer’s baptism, by definition making the first infant baptism not really a baptism and the believer’s baptism the first. But they ultimately claimed the slur for themselves and it no longer carries the negative connotations or even really is associated with second baptisms (this is why it is ok for oppressed groups to reclaim and redefine the insults of their oppressors while not being ok for the oppressors to keep using it). Usually in my experience, the first thing people say now about defining Anabaptism is nonviolence. That took time, but the language changed.
Here’s the bottom line: my allegiance is not to any label. My allegiance was never to being known as an evangelical. My allegiance now is not being known as an Anabaptist. Sure, there would be some annoyances if I had to change my blog name again, as I already have a few times in the years of doing this, but that’s about it. If Anabaptist as popularly defined ever ceases to describe me, I will stop using it to describe me. I was even on board with a brief stage where many people stopped calling themselves Christians, opting for “Follower of Christ”, because there was so much cultural baggage. I’m not sure in that case it actually helped alleviate confusion, but our hearts and our understanding of language was in the right place. If Christian does stop describing me and there’s a better term, I’ll start using that term instead.
My allegiance is to Jesus. My faith is in Jesus. Language changes, and I am ok with that, but Jesus does not. Settling for putting my faith in definitions of any particular label is both idolatry and completely misunderstanding how language works.