A Christian Perspective on Labels

James Hassell   -  

Labels seem to be on everything these days—from the news ticker to our cereal boxes. I’ve noticed a relatively new fascination with the label of “fascism.” To label someone a fascist now rates right up there with other greatest hits like “conservative,” “liberal,” and “racist.”  These words once served a more descriptive role, but they now function as language daggers, meant either to cut opponents down to size or slay them altogether. The thought goes that we can assert our supposed superiority and control should we attach a label on someone or a group of someones.

Take, for example, Satan’s attempt to lure and control Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). If Jesus turned stones into bread, jumped off the highest point of the temple, and gave into the temptation for world conquest, then Satan could attach some sort of label on Christ (probably something like “fraud,” or “liar”) and could therefore claim superiority. Yet, Jesus stuck to the Scripture, even quoting significant points of God’s Word back at Satan during the temptation experiences, and our Lord obviously overcame any label that the evil one tried to force on Christ.

How then do Christians follow in Jesus’ footsteps? An approach to labels begins with a sober review of the biblical narrative. The Bible provides us with the right and proper perspective on who human beings really are: sinners in need of salvation (Romans 3:21-26). Keep in mind that sin tends to express itself boldly through pretentious thoughts and words. Jesus said it like this: “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 15:18). In our era, we may contextualize Jesus’ words by saying, “Out of the heart, the thumbs tweet.” Labels therefore usually tell us a lot more about the labeler than the one being labeled. Attempts to classify another person in such a way as to belittle or lump them into a group we despise illustrates a pretentiousness of the highest order.

If we continue to follow the biblical narrative, then we will also find that labels can disappear rather quickly when we become faithful Jesus-followers. For instance, in Ephesians 2, Paul wrote boldly to a church experiencing an impending split over labels. The two most prominent groups labeled each other either “the circumcision” or “the uncircumcision.” Others used labels like “strangers,” “barbarians,” and “slaves.” These labels are obviously belittling and grotesque but were being used by actual church members as an attempt to gain control over one another. Paul shut down the argument by explaining how Christ broke down such labels through dying for us on the cross. It is Jesus’ mission to build us up into one body, or temple, in which Christ himself is the foundational cornerstone (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Let’s pay more attention this week to the labels we hear and use. How can we refrain from lumping a person or group into a category in which they don’t belong? How can we be used by Christ to invite people into a church community built on Christ instead of personalities? How can you share the good news that Jesus is not about your taking on a new label but experiencing a new life?