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The word “Reformed” carries lots of baggage in Christian circles. If it’s not the idea of predestination that repulses you, it might be the the fact that Reformed circles are overwhelmingly Anglo. Or the word might remind you of an infuriating argument with a an obnoxious TR—shorthand for “Totally Reformed or Truly Reformed”. With so much junk that goes with the word, why use it?

Whats in a Name?

As President and Co-founder of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), I’ve thought about the value of using the term “Reformed” a lot. Just as we were getting RAAN started I had a heated debate at a conference with a group of young, passionate Black and Latino Christian guys. They insisted that using “Reformed” in our name would alienate ordinary people on the block. Despite their objections, we went with the name.

Those guys weren’t wrong. Using the “Reformed” label probably isn’t helpful when you’re talking to non-Christians or nominal ones. Older folks probably have negative connotations of the word and younger folks probably have no idea what you mean. But RAAN isn’t trying to serve everyone. We serve a small and specific constituency.

RAANs Core Audience and Insider Language

At the Reformed African American Network our core audience consists of “African Americans who self-identify as Reformed.”  We created RAAN to address the need for a community of African Americans who had adopted Reformed theology, but who struggled to find others who shared their racial and cultural background. This small slice of a Christian demographic, of which I am a part, needed to know they weren’t the only ones who believe this stuff. They needed to know there were others out there just like them. In order to create a network of Reformed African Americans, we had to use the “R” word.

But what about everyone else? The word “Reformed” doesn’t help much when you’re talking to people who aren’t Christians or who are opposed to faith. That’s true. That’s because “Reformed” isn’t outsider language, it’s insider language. It is a label used to distinguish among believers, not unbelievers. I say “distinguish” on purpose. Too often saying “Reformed” divides Christians. This is a misuse of vocabulary. But I do believe it is helpful language among “insiders”, that is, Christians.

What Do You Mean When You Say ____________?

Overuse of a word (and I know Reformed has been overused) dilutes its meaning. You can think of words like “gospel” and “evangelical” that have been used so widely and with so many different meanings that they almost have no meaning at all. The same is true of the word “biblical”. What does that mean? Many people with whom we have profound theological disagreements will say they are “biblical.” So how do we determine what someone means when they say “biblical”?

While it’s not a perfect solution, I think the word “Reformed” helps Christians specify what branch of the faith they inhabit. Legitimate arguments can be made that we have too many denominations, non-denominational entities, networks, and independent forms of Christianity. But, for better or worse, we have diverse expressions of the faith. The label “Reformed” is helpful in the midst of theological variety.

At its simplest, “Reformed” brings us back to the historic Reformation of the 16th century and beyond. It reminds us of theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. Reformed speaks of the “95 Theses”, the Five Solas, and the Doctrines of Grace. The word “Reformed” should bring to mind the doctrine of God’s sovereignty—the fact that God is the King of Kings and rules all that happens in His creation. The Lord, not humanity, is the central fact of all reality in Reformed theology.

Not Essential, But Helpful

All words, especially theologically-freighted ones, have to be used judiciously. The word “Reformed” is no exception. I’m not saying that we should use the word in all cases and situations. If it is not helpful in a conversation, don’t use it. I tend not use “Reformed” when I’m first introducing the doctrines or if I think a person has a strong revulsion to the expressions of Reformed theology they’ve seen. The good thing is that much of Reformed theology is simply biblical. If I can explain from the Bible a particular teaching, I don’t have to say it is part of the Reformed system until much later.

So if you can explain biblical truth without saying “Reformed” why use it at all? The word is not essential, but it can still be helpful. As I said, it pulls together people who ascribe to Reformed theology, but are struggling to find a community. And it’s also more descriptive language than simply saying “biblical” or “evangelical”. Of course, many will remain unpersuaded and avoid using the “R” word at all costs. That’s great. But we’ll continue to use it. And I hope it’s a blinking neon sign on the Internet for anyone who wants to learn more about Reformed theology from an African American perspective.

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