Years ago, I worked in a grocery store. Cleanup went with the job. Boxes and sacks would break open, jars would shatter, cans would dent and lose their labels. There wasn’t much we could do with the broken boxes or shattered jars but the unlabelled cans could be sold at a fraction of the price.
Some of the cans would give clues based on their size and shape. You would know you were more likely getting soup than juice but not exactly what kind. Food prep could have a really quick turn when the can was opened and inside was vegetable soup when the chicken casserole recipe called for cream of mushroom.
Labels do come in handy. We are human and like to keep similar things together. Our brains work better when we can file things away based on their relevance to us. Those kindergarten lessons about “one of these things doesn’t belong here” come to mind. “Can you pick out which thing doesn’t belong?” followed by a set of pictures: a cat, a dog, and a pair of scissors. Some even believe that everything they need to know in life they learned in kindergarten. Back then, we learned that red, yellow, and blue were primary colours, and by mixing red and yellow, we get orange, mixing yellow and blue, we get green, and mixing blue and red, we get purple. Rainbows are just this principle stretched out onto a spectrum. The far right and the far left are variations of the same dimension, but colours set us apart.
Labels are more than identifiers; they also reflect values. Once we learn that concept, our kindergarten minds apply this to everything. We continue to understand things based on personal relevance.
By adulthood, we become good at using the adjectives that imply where our thinking, beliefs, or values reside on the spectrum and where others sit in comparison. We use those same adjectives to measure various dimensions — political and religious.
And that’s where things get off track.
Take me for example. I am a conservative. I am also a liberal. I am inclusive. I am traditional. I am an evangelical. I am progressive. I am a libertarian. I am a socialist.
I could be describing the church in all its diversity. But no, I am one individual believer. And I am all of those things.
I am conservative because I enthusiastically support individual freedom, and I don’t believe traditional values should change. I am liberal because I am convinced that worship styles and church practices need radical change to become more authentic. I am inclusive because I believe God’s love includes everyone. I am traditional because our bodies do not belong to us and we are to deny ourselves any activity which is contrary to biblical teaching. I am evangelical because I identify with those who find great joy in knowing Christ and making Him known. I am progressive because I support social, economic, and political change which allows greater protection from corporate and criminal interests. I am a libertarian because I believe all people should be responsible for their own decisions and welfare. I am a socialist because the forces of evil are in control of this world and the most vulnerable require protection.
All this may appear to be contradictory, even self serving. You may call me a chameleon. You can try to poke holes in my definitions, but each description stands up against contemporary understanding of the word.
Is it any wonder that I am tired of labels? Or maybe it’s the reaction to them that’s worn me down.
I had a conversation not long ago with a United Church minister who calls herself an evangelical liberal. She sees Christ in classical terms as the only way to God. She also sees Christ in the fight for social justice and normalization of same-sex marriage. She is evangelical because she is passionate about introducing non-believers to that same Christ. Who was I to criticize?
Labels, when applied to people, are now essentially meaningless in our post-truth society where reality is what we want it to be.
Labels are necessary to know exactly what’s in the can: ingredients, nutritional values, and expiry dates. But you can’t do that with a human being. The Oxford English Dictionary is spot on: “Label: a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”
Inaccurate or restrictive! So why do we take such pride in using them on ourselves and each other? It’s because of our sinful nature.
Can we rethink this practice of labeling each other and ourselves? I mean, Christ didn’t label His followers. He referred to true believers as “disciples, apostles, believers, worshippers, sheep, brother/sister/mother/family, friends, My people, followers, workers, chosen, servant, neighbour, branches, Son of Abraham.” Those aren’t labels; they describe a relationship with Him.
Fresh, new labels would work only for a spell. While I like “foundational” or “classical” to describe my walk with Christ, how long would it take for that to be co-opted by someone whose orthodoxy differs radically from mine? Even something as benign as “follower of Christ” is ripe for abuse: which Christ do you follow?
Rather than label our beliefs and theology, what if we described ourselves by how we go about our Christian walk?
Try this on for size: we strive to follow the very narrow path that Christ taught and modeled: loving all; being forgiving and telling others to “sin no more”; being prayerfully submitted to the Father; giving to Caesar what it his but following the way of Christ’s kingdom and not culture; and having harsh words for those who were self serving.
But even that is open to interpretation. So, I’d need to be more precise and describe the type of lifestyle that strives to be pure and godly. How precise do I want to get? And then at what point does that become legalistic?
It’s a no-win.
Maybe the best course of action is to be known by our mission. Renewal Fellowship’s is “To lead each other and The Presbyterian Church in Canada to authentic Biblical thinking, powerful Spirit-led prayer and effective Gospel witness.”
If asked to describe Renewal Fellowship, I’d say that we’re encouraging the church to be more authentic, more powerful, and more effective – less about us, more about God – because much of what we’re doing now isn’t working.
Unpack that a bit: we need to know Christ better and make Him known; we need to pray that we will be submitted to the Holy Spirit, “who leads into all truth” (John 14:17 NLT). It’s a lot about relationships, which gets back to the words Christ used for His followers.
All that is a bit unwieldly when we are trying to understand each other. In the end, we will continue to use labels, because it’s human nature. But can we at least be very careful how we use them? We’re not cans of soup.