The Witness

Why I Choose to Use the Word Reformed

Jemar Tisby

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.

7 thoughts on “Why I Choose to Use the Word Reformed

  1. Swayne Jackson

    Thank God for this amazing Network!!!!!

  2. Marlowe

    Jemar – Thank you for asking! I’m here to feel a sense of community and solidarity with people like myself…people I just don’t encounter in real life. These people may be homeschooling mothers like me – who are trying to learn to be the wives and mothers we didn’t have ourselves. A few must be old to church, but new to belief. The transition can be lonely. Many of us miss the shouting – the intensity of emotions, the joy. If they are like me and worshiping in a predominantly white, reformed church, we’ve traded that comfort for something far more valuable. Still, we need to be reminded that our identity is in Christ. We forget. So keep doing what you’re doing – letting us know that we are not alone.

  3. Eddie Jones

    Amen. Totally agree with you bro’. Love this site, and all the knowledge, and information I recieve from it! Thank you brutha’s!

  4. David Walters

    Jemar, I love what you are doing and pray for the Lord’s blessing on you and your ministry. Good post.
    You said, ” The word ‘Reformed’ carries lots of baggage in Christian circles.”
    Two passages for further reflection:

    1 Samuel 10: 21b-22: “and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. So they inquired again of the Lord, “Is there a man still to come?” and the Lord said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” ” (ESV)

    1 Samuel 17:22: “Then David left his baggage in the care of the baggage keeper, and ran to the battle line and entered in order to greet his brothers.” (NASB)

  5. Jennifer

    I love RAAN and am so thankful for this website.

  6. Jemar

    Thanks, Marlowe! Do you have any suggestions for topics you’d like us to address?

  7. Marlowe

    A member of your “small and specific constituency” thanks you for this platform!!

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