On Namecalling

iStock-Unfinished-Business-2Part of the art of rhetoric is knowing what one can defensibly and logically say and knowing what one ought to say. Rev. Joshua Scheer, Associate Editor for the Brothers of John the Steadfast, asked me to come up with a brief set of guidelines when it comes to the art [!] of namecalling, and so here are some ideas to keep in mind when contemplating what sort of rhetoric you might want to use when engaging theological opponents.  “Namecalling” here will simply refer to the rhetorical device of using a name to describe one’s intellectual opponent, without regard to whether it constitutes proper rhetoric or bombast, bluster, obfuscation, sophistry, or something else. I must say at the outset that these thoughts are not divinely inspired and not exhaustive. Other people may have their own ideas.

There are a couple of presuppositions to which I hold, and if one doesn’t share them then the rest of this will probably make no sense. The first is that God’s Law is good and instructs Christians in the way we are to live. The second is that speaking God’s Law to another person, particularly in this case to another Christian, is an act of love. The third is that the Christian, according to Psalm 1 and Romans 7, delights in the Law of God.

It would be very easy to take one extreme or another on this question. The first natural position, taken by your high school guidance counselor, is that namecalling is never okay. The Christian analog to this position might say that namecalling is ipso facto a sin. The problem with this is Jesus. He actually does this. A lot. For a rather strong example, read Jesus’ words against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-36. It seems wise for one to take a position that avoids calling Jesus a sinner. An objection to this is that the Christian is not Jesus, which is true, but St. John (1 John 2:6) reminds us that the Christian, who abides in Christ, “ought to walk in the same way in which He [i.e., Jesus] walked.”

Yet one doesn’t read about Jesus running around and calling everyone He meets by some name, even though, as the incarnate omniscient God, He certainly could find a reason to call everyone by a name. The opposite position, taken by petulant teenagers, is that any instance of namecalling is acceptable. The Christian analog to this position might say that since Jesus, on occasion, employed namecalling, then it follows that it’s always acceptable for the Christian to do it. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out what’s wrong with this position: there’s no consideration for moderation, prudence, and charity. Jesus obviously did take these things into consideration, since (as has been mentioned) Jesus does not always employ this sort of rhetoric. As readers of Scripture and literature understand, the use of names can be highly effective at bringing to bear a large body of understanding in a short word or phrase. For example, if one is discussing a matter with another and one wishes to describe the other as being overly optimistic that all things will work together and without any real idea of who will make them come together, why, or how, and that all people are basically good and wish good for others, one might simply tell the other he is being something of a Pollyanna. Likewise, St. John the Baptist’s use of the phrase “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7-10) calls to mind not only the serpent from Genesis 3 but also a particularly deadly sort of snake — all in a very short (and rhetorically effective) phrase.

To walk the narrow way between these extremes is difficult, because it acknowledges that neither the never nor the always position is satisfactory. This means exercising the aforementioned virtues of moderation, prudence, and charity, rather than either forbidding all or allowing all. So how does the Christian determine whether namecalling could be useful at a particular time? Here are some ideas:

1. It must be accurate. This should go without saying, but to call someone a Pietist who insists upon a decreased role of the laity in the governance of the church would be woefully inaccurate.

2. It must not merely serve to build up the one using the term at the expense of another, or to score cheap points.

3. It should address the argument that the person is actually making, rather than either arguing against a caricature of the argument (straw man) or arguing against the man himself (argumentum ad hominem).

4. It must be used to set the tone that the matter being discussed is one of high importance to the Christian in relation to his salvation (one might not use the strongest terms to denigrate those advocating the primacy of Mark over Matthew, but one might bring it out for those who deny infant baptism, for example).

5. It should be used in order to demonstrate how pernicious a false teaching is, with the goal of showing the errorist his error that he might repent. In addition, the name should serve as a warning to others that they would avoid his false teaching, which leads to:

6. Names should be used for the false teacher but not for those caught in his lies. This is a critical distinction. Luther advised in his treatise “On Christian Liberty,” “Fight vigorously against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.” Those who are misled, ill-taught, ignorant, simple, young, and otherwise the victim of a false teacher ought to be treated gently. But because real souls are damaged by false teaching, the false teacher should be dealt with firmly and swiftly, lest more fall prey to him.

I’m sure there is more that can be said but these rough guidelines ought to serve as a good starting point for Christians to understand when the use of namecalling might be appropriate and when it might be over the line.

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About Pastor Daniel Hinton

Pastor Hinton is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Lubbock, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, having majored in poultry science, and of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was ordained on Holy Trinity 2011. He has been married to Amanda for seventeen years, and has five daughters and one son. He grew up in the ELCA, and left in 2004 over issues of scriptural authority. It was because of a faithful Lutheran campus ministry that he was exposed to The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. He enjoys old books, teaching the faithful, and things that are beautiful.


On Namecalling — 16 Comments

  1. Reasonable people, Christian or otherwise, ought to be able to confront issues in dispute without confronting one another. Name calling confronts the person, not the issue. Now, add Matthew 18 and the Eighth Commandment, and I have a difficult time imagining when name calling is ever appropriate when two Christians disagree.

  2. @John Mundinger #7

    A significant issue that you have, Mr. Mundinger, is that “issues” that are clearly addressed in scripture and our confessions are open for debate in your mindset. As a member of the ELCA you clearly hold beliefs contrary to scripture and the Lutheran confessions. Women’s ordination, homosexual clergy, and evolution are not things we should be debating. These are not open questions. I believe that you think in order for one to be “reasonable” one must be open to a revised interpretation of scripture.

  3. @John Mundinger #7

    BTW, your first sentence makes no sense. You stated:

    Reasonable people, Christian or otherwise, ought to be able to confront issues in dispute without confronting one another.

    By definition, a “disputed issue” means that at least two parties disagree. One cannot address a dispute without addressing each other. Your statement makes no sense. Therefore, I am confronting you with this issue that you concocted.

  4. .
    “Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!”

    “Foolish Galatians!”

    “Reasonable people, Christian or otherwise!”
    –John (the ELCA one)

  5. @Randy Yovanovich #8

    If the issues were as clearly addressed as you suggest, there wouldn’t be differences of opinion regarding correct interpretation.

    @Randy Yovanovich #9

    There is a difference between engaging with another person to confront the issue in dispute, and confronting the person. Matthew 18 invites us to do the former.

    We live in an argument culture. Calling people with whom we disagree names is a behavior that takes its cues from our society, not from Scripture. Calling people names abandons the principle of putting the best construction on everything.

    If you were involved in a dispute with a sibling and your mother was listening to the conversation, would you be calling your sibling names? I don’t think so. Rather, I suspect that you would be trying to frame the conversation a bit more constructively. When Christians disagree, Jesus is part of the conversation. Matthew 18 provides us with a model for constructive dialog about matters in dispute. I don’t think there is much room for name calling in that model.

  6. @John Mundinger #12

    Mr. Mundinger,

    Your position brought back memories from a conversation on another site. In that conversation you refused to call the 911 Terrorists – Terrorists. Your position is so irrational that I will stop communicating with you on this topic of name calling.

  7. In the post-modern world, and when dealing with Synodical collectivists, the worst name you can call someone is “Wrong”.

  8. @Ted Crandall #11

    And the rest of the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Now, did Jesus go to each of those scribes and Pharisees individually adn privately before He called them out publicly there? There is a serious lack of evidence that He did. Therefore, Jesus could be “properly” kicked out of the Missouri Synod, ever since 2004 Res. 8-01a. “White-washed tombs!” “Murderers of the prophets” “Serpents, offspring of vipers!” (That is to say, Devil’s children!)
    Oh, but Jesus didn’t actually say those things, did He. That was the redactor of “Matthew”—-I forgot. (Sarcasm mode on, now off, since the comment is concluded.)

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