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3 Reasons Why Christians Hate Labels

You’ve heard people say it, and you may have even said it yourself, “Labels suck.” But don't we in some ways need them? With no labels how can we have an intelligent conversation about where our belief systems differ?

We want to get rid of labels because of the judgmental attitudes that often surround them. We think, “Labels suck, and those who use them suck too.” But the very nature of language requires labels: We use words to describe actions and things. All language is metaphor—that is precisely why German and English use different words to describe the same thing. Aristotle was one of the first to point this out when in a lengthy discussion, he says (in summary): “a table is not a table in its essence; it is wood. And wood comes from a tree, and trees have component parts (sap, bark, roots, etc.).” So, language is labeling.

Before we can begin to define our belief system (which we will get to in my next few posts), let’s discuss the 3 reasons why Christians hate labels. By discussing why Christians hate labels, we can get a general framework in place for discussing different movements, like mysticism (as promised in my last post). Here are the the 3 reasons.

1.  Only Racist, Bigot, “You-Know-Whats” Use Labels

Really? If all language is metaphor, which any linguist in their right mind would admit, then maybe the problem isn’t labels, but labeling each other. If we are ever going to get past issues of racism, or have any sort of healthy discussion about diversity, we need to be willing to label ourselves. I’ll start. If I was a salad, my menu description would read: John is a white, male, Irish salad with a dash of Native American. He is religiously spicy, but bitter when he gets carried away with writing and speaking. The religion spice used is diverse, but still a work in process, centered on the ingredients of Jesus, the Spirit, and a care for the church. (See, it’s not that hard. I struggle over the word “religious,” because I know it has been abused so much, but I understand its importance. It helps some people get their head around what I think, which is why I still use it as a starting point. I know I want to really talk about my relationship with Jesus—not religion—but I haven’t built the framework for that discussion yet, so I leave begin with religion.) (Further Reading: Acts 17.)

2.  Calvin, All Those Emergent Guys, and the Pope are Disgraces—Don’t Label Me with Them

Again, really? Sure, we protestant Christians like to act independent and all—like our community churches are completely unbiased. But our churches are just as religious as the rest of the denominations. It is just our brand of religion—and that doesn’t make it special. If we think that after all these years of Christianity that we have figured it out, we are sorely mistaken. All truly Christian churches (some are not Christian at all anymore) are trying to discover how Jesus works in their lives. If someone is about Jesus—I am for it. I realize that their label (Reform, Emergent, Lutheran, Catholic) is just how they articulate what they believe. I think we have spent far too long trying to destroy these labels. Maybe an affirmation of them would further the discussion. (Further Reading: Galatians 1.)

3.  I Can’t Be Free to Speak My Mind If I Categorize Myself—Just Let Me Be Free

Are you sure? I can speak from experience on this one. I have been part of more denominations than most people I know—and not because I’m confused (well, maybe I am a little at times). One denomination I was a part of wasn’t (ah-hum) very happy with the way I articulated my belief system, and sort of kicked me out. (I know you think I am a rebel, but I am still not cool enough to be called that—I promise.) Outside of this experience, being part of denominations has really helped me articulate my belief system. And I have found that many (of course, not all) people who are part of denominations try and lean upon what the Scriptures say—even when the Scriptures disagree with their denomination’s belief system. The denominational categories can serve as a starting point for discussion. But, in the end, Jesus has to be the center of all Christian discussions. However, what is the center (common ground) when we discuss religious and cultural diversity with those who don’t believe in Jesus? (Gotcha. That’s for another post.) (Further Reading: Second Corinthians 2.)

Labels are Helpful but Can Be Hurtful

A word of caution: labels can hurt and can produce hate. I am not giving you permission to go out and start labeling people. I am asking you to examine yourself, and start seeing what types of labels work for you—which ones you are comfortable with.

I honestly believe that in a melting-pot culture the only way we can maintain our cultural identities (our roots) is to recognize and celebrate our heritage. That’s why my family throws a huge St. Patrick’s Day party every year. Yeah, sure, my Irish ancestors did some bad things, but I overlook those things to celebrate the good stuff. I do the same with my belief system. I proudly affirm the Christian title and my unique calling. And I (admittedly with some hesitancy) take on the label of mystic because I have accepted that it fits me (at least for now).

We are all works in process. Let’s affirm where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. This is the beginning of learning about our vocations and unique callings—things discussed at length in the Scriptures. Those who discovered their high calling from God in the Scriptures more often than not were firmly rooted in a tradition—and were willing to rebel when necessary. If only we understood that we cannot rebel for the right reasons without a firm foundation in our cultural heritage and our future, eternal heritage—Christ. Is this the next step to seeing the Infinite God in everything? What do you think?

Comments

"If all language is metaphor, which any linguist in their right mind would admit, then maybe the problem isn’t labels, but labeling each other."

Perhaps you meant: "If all language is metaphor, which any slavish follower of Nietzsche must admit, then maybe the problem isn't labels, but labeling each other."

"All language is metaphor" is a statement about philosophy, not so much linguistics. Semiotics, maybe, but only at a very crude level. Nevertheless, I contend that you could be a linguist, and in your right mind, and still not sign on to that particular formulation. I wouldn't know as I am neither a linguist, nor in my right mind.

Guest,

Thanks for the comment. To my knowledge, Nietzsche is not on my side here. I have read nearly everything Nietzsche wrote, and I do not recall his discussions about language as metaphor. Whether Nietzsche did or did not say what you claim he did is not really not the point of my post, though, is it? (And I do not slavishly follow Nietzsche, for the record. In fact, I am strongly opposed to most of his views.)

Before you completely dismiss my view, you may want to check out some intro to linguistics books or linguistic theory books. I have worked quite extensively with linguistic models (applying them to biblical interpretation), so I am not shooting from the hip here.

--John

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The Infinite God is everywhere, are you looking? I am dedicated to finding God in all aspects of life – the Bible, the news, and the arts. Because I find that the most fulfilling journey of all is searching for heaven here on earth.