Writings by Cole Huffman

The Difficulty of Labels

Years ago in my presence a friend’s easygoing but unflattering characterizations of others was softly rebuked by a man who said to him, “You like to pigeonhole, don’t you?” At that moment the rebuke was deserved. Pigeonholing is a kind of labeling that classifies someone as “the other” immutably.

We all categorize to account for real differences. Categorizing itself does not disparage in drawing distinctions. As Lewis put it in The Four Loves, we do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold. But for the pigeonholer who prefers silver, gold by itself will never please him.

I hear and read a lot about what the gospel of Jesus believed and lived is supposed to effect and achieve in and through His people. I preach these themes myself. Certainly the gospel believed and lived plugs pigeonholes. Paul addressed it this way: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16). This is preamble to the ministry of reconciliation Jesus entrusts to His followers (2 Cor. 5:17-20), the privilege of belonging to the new created order that is the church.

There is an evangelical multiethnic movement and I like most of what I hear coming from it, except when it refers to churches with little to no racial diversity as homogenous. I don’t consider the label pigeonholing necessarily. That withholds benefit of the doubt and I have friends involved in multiethnic ministry. Homogenous is a label nevertheless in my ears and I don’t know that it’s a helpful one. Labels tend to serve the interests of those applying them.

My church is predominately Caucasian. Our diversity is generational and international, the accumulation of eighty years of existence and work in global missions. In our household of faith are Indians, Sudanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese among others. Homogenous implies unconcern for racial diversity or, worse, inhospitality to or intolerance of shades of melanin in our midst. This is not true of the character of our church however we appear from the outside.

But don’t go patting yourself on the back, First Evaner. We haven’t arrived in any way. When Willow Creek Church in Chicago released their “Reveal” study a few years back, concluding their seeker-sensitive movement didn’t produce near what they thought it did, traditional churches like ours reacted way too smug. As if we’d been doing a better job reaching lost people around us? I don’t think so.

In his book Your Church is Too Safe, Canadian pastor Mark Buchanan makes this observation:

“Churches are doing better than before at gathering the nations. I love this. I believe it’s a sign of the kingdom in our midst. Zechariah 8 ends with a vision of multiethnic diversity and unity. But a curious pattern is emerging in churches of multiethnic richness: it tends to come at the expense of multigenerational richness. The wealth of color has created a poverty of ages. The breadth that churches have attained on the ethnic front has produced a narrowness on the generational front. We’re exchanging one homogeneity for another, and losing one diversity as we gain another.” (81)

Is his observation fair? Let’s say I attempt to catalyze a movement aiming to take new or young churches in a multigenerational direction. Accordingly, I designate what I consider to be non-multigenerational churches “monogenerational.” (I made up the word.)

Sure enough I find new and young churches feel guilty about their lack of gerontology. Then I say things like, “Monogenerational churches are missing the heart of the gospel.” Now those new and young churches believe themselves to be relationally immoral in some way. At least something is wrong with their Sunday gatherings and their monogenerationalism as such isn’t pleasing to God.

Do the people of God need any more lines to toe with each other? At pew level I’ve seen how well-intentioned movements with gospel panache catch on and yet the law of unintended consequences goes into effect and movements unwittingly become conductors of self-righteousness. The so-called “Radical” movement a few years ago was for some in application a deck of trump cards. If one adopts an at-risk child or significantly divests himself materially or uses his vacation time for missions—these are the measures of truer devotion to Jesus. Are they? These actions always separate the gospel men from the choir boys?

I don’t like labeling for these reasons. Too much is left out. Too much is read in. I’ve been thinking about this lately reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Volf is Croatian, a theologian at Yale who lived through the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia:

“From a distance, the world may appear neatly divided into guilty perpetrators and innocent victims. The closer we get, however, the more the line between the guilty and the innocent blurs and we see an intractable maze of small and large hatreds, dishonesties, manipulations, and brutalities, each reinforcing the other. The more attentive we are, the more accurate the portrait the Apostle Paul paints of humanity—of ‘all’ from which ‘no one’ is exempt (Romans 3:9, 20)—strikes us. Echoing the words of the Psalmist, Paul strips down the pretenses of innocence and discloses people whose throats are ‘open graves’ and whose tongues ‘deceive,’ whose lips hide ‘the venom of vipers’ and whose mouths are ‘full of cunning and bitterness,’ whose feet are ‘swift to shed blood’ and in whose path is ‘ruin and misery’ (Romans 3:9ff.). Intertwined through the wrongdoing committed and suffered, the victim and violator are bound in the tragic and self-perpetuating solidarity of sin. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ concludes the Apostle Paul after he has given the inventory of sins (Romans 3:21). The ‘Rite of Reconciliation’ (1996) of the South African Council of Churches has boldly made the doctrine of solidarity in sin its own. After quoting 1 John 1:8, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” the Rite goes on to name and confess concrete sins of both the white perpetrators and the black victims.” (81-82)

I’m for efforts to make any evangelical church more racially diverse. I see it in Scripture and celebrate it where it happens. I’m in awe of it, really, because it takes a lot of work. My quibble is with labeling churches not quite there yet based primarily on external knowledge of those churches. “Homogenous” is not an awful label; I know it’s not wielded as epithet. But it’s not altogether accurate either, and creates another subset of “us” and “them”—the very thing multiethnic movements are trying to confront.

It’s important how we represent others we call to join our concerns. Let’s keep bringing each other back around again and again to the primacy of grace, for we have all of us sinned relationally and ethnically.

Some will never know a multiethnic reality in earnest until we join the great multitude pictured in Revelation 7. There are millions of Christians around the globe who have never and will never (in life) meet someone different from them. Homogeneity is their reality—for now.

For now it does not yet appear what we’re becoming. But we’re all being readied. And we will all be changed.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 8:56 AM
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