One of the more shocking chastisements I have heard used among believers is the idea that we are not to use names when referring to those with whom we disagree. We are supposed to say “some teachers” or “a certain someone I know” or use some other method of keeping an identity anonymous. This surprised me again recently.
Now maybe my background is the problem. I have advanced academic degrees and learned that referencing sources is important. If you don’t name the person you challenge in your dissertation, the professor will probably mark you down. If you say, “A certain teacher believes;” the professor will ask, “Who?” Identifying sources allows others to verify your words and determine for themselves whether or not they agree with you.
Or maybe it is because I have been a pastor for so long. Many times people have come to my office and have said, “Pastor, quite a few people are concerned…” But I only see one person in front of me. Who are the others? Where are the others? Are they afraid to identify themselves? Do they really exist? I have spoken against what I call “back-pocket people,” and have asked “representatives” to represent only themselves. My desire is to value the disagreement or concerns of one person and there is no need to hint at more.
Or maybe it’s because I sat so long under the teaching of a legalist who always had these amazing examples to support his points. The problem was that these examples never had names. It became very difficult to believe that they existed at all. Today, when the teacher or author says, “A certain man,” I just assume he is telling me a parable.
So, I think there are situations that call for names to be used. Authors, teachers, politicians—people who present their ideas to large audiences—should be named when their ideas or writings are challenged. Why? Because each teacher is different. Teacher A teaches the idea one way. Teacher B communicates it another way. If I fail to distinguish between them, I may misrepresent one of them. Also, the author/teacher has already identified himself with the idea. It is neither gossip nor accusation to refer to the teaching and the teacher together.
But I do have a general rule to follow. Let the circle of the teacher’s teaching be the circle of the identification. In other words, if an author presents his ideas in a book that is promoted and marketed publicly, then naming that author in reference to his teachings in another book, or any smaller venue, is acceptable. If the teacher has a blog or a radio program, a reference in your book may be too large, but in your blog or radio program it may be acceptable. But if a person makes a comment on Facebook, then Facebook should be the limit of the naming. And, this is my opinion, ideas expressed in private conversation should be answered in private conversation.
A couple examples (and I will avoid names): One legalistic teacher has a ministry that has reached something near 20 million people. Is it fair to use his name in association with his teaching? Of course, provided it is truly his teaching you are referring to. (No matter how large the ministry, you are not free to misrepresent someone.) Someone makes a comment I dislike on a friend’s Facebook page. Am I free to use that offender’s name in my blog? No. There are many people who read my blog who would not know this person and I would be introducing him in a disparaging way to them.
Sometimes I hear words like libel or slander used when names come up in Christian discussion. Libel is associated with written defamation. Slander is usually a spoken false charge or defamation. Both have to do with purposeful misrepresentation. If I write, “Bob is a tax cheat,” I had better be able to back up my statement with facts. Even if I can do so, my purpose in writing the words must not be to defame Bob or to harm him publicly. That would be libel. If I think that someone is cheating on his wife and I say that publicly, I could easily be guilty of slander.
But referring to the published teachings of an author/teacher by using his name is neither libel nor slander, as long as you can show that the person actually is proclaiming the ideas. You are free to disagree or interpret the ideas as you wish. You may not be free to interpret the teaching and then represent your interpretation as the interpretation of the other person, however. Instead, you have to say something like: if this is what the author means, then he is teaching xyz. Even then, he is free to disagree with you (and use your name in the same circle).
I will close with a contrasting thought: It really isn’t necessary to use names in all circumstances. Sometimes, as in this blog, you will be better served by just talking about a teaching in general. Supporters of teachers or authors can pick up an offense quite quickly. Often they don’t care about the teaching you are trying to talk about. All they care about is that you named their favorite teacher and said negative things. You become the enemy unnecessarily. And, if you pronounce judgment on the teaching, you may be seen as pronouncing judgment on the person. If you say, “x teaches abc and abc is heresy,” you will be heard to say that x is a heretic.
Sometimes it just isn’t worth it.