I’m giving up labels! I flinch every time I read or hear these words in referring to people: “Progressive,” “Evangelical,” “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Orthodox,” “Revisionists.” Immediately upon hearing or seeing them, I sense ideology, partisanship, and divisiveness rather than theology, cooperation, and community.
Labels can be helpfully descriptive when they are precisely defined and modestly employed. Yet, when used prescriptively as a means of categorizing, condemning, and disengaging from others, labels become vicious and outright sinful.
Labels tend to reduce people to categories to be resisted, demeaned, and perhaps eliminated. They blur our vision of others and force them into ideological boxes.
We live in a society and in churches polarized by labels. United Methodism is in danger of splitting over labels as members are lumped into “progressives” or “revisionists” and “evangelicals” or “orthodox.” In so doing, the denomination is mirroring the broader polarized society which lumps people with the same or similar labels and categories.
Labels invariably over simplify issues and diminish people. No issue can be defined in a single word and no one can be reduced to a category.
Progressives can be evangelical. Evangelicals can be progressive. Liberals can be conservative. Conservatives can be liberal. Orthodox can be revisionists. Revisionists can be orthodox. Even Democrats can have republican ideas and Republicans can embrace democratic principles.
Words are critically important. Words do shape our relationships and influence our treatment of others. Labeling another as “enemy,” “foe,” “heretic,” “threat,” “terrorist,” “alien,” “criminal,” and a multitude of other offensive names, leads us to behave negatively toward the other. Dehumanizing is the first step toward rejection and violence.
We aren’t saved by words any more than we are saved by works. But words and works motivated and shaped by grace and used grace-fully heal, reconcile, and transform persons and societies.
Jesus was never impressed with labels as tools for categorizing and excluding folks. He was always turning the tables on those who pushed people into boxes and labeled them as unworthy or outside God’s circle of redemption. He welcomed “outcastes and sinners,” commended a “pagan” Roman soldier for his faith, extolled a “Samaritan” as the model of neighborliness, and promised a “thief” a place in paradise.
Jesus’s disciples were very label and category conscious. They observed a man with the wrong labels and group loyalties casting out demons. Offended by his apparent “orthodox” or “progressive” associations, they told him to stop. He doesn’t fit their labels and categories. Jesus, however, had a much broader understanding of God’s activity. Jesus admonished, “Do not stop him . . . Whoever is not against us is for us”(Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50).
There are labels we might try using more often, especially in speaking about and with those with whom we differ: “brother,” “sister,” “child of God,” “friend in Christ,” “colleague in Christ’s ministry,” “sinner redeemed by grace,” “wayfarer on the way to God,” “citizen of new heaven and new earth,” and “beloved partner in ministry.”
We would do well to pause before using labels and meditate on Jesus’ caution in the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount: “You shall know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:20-22).
What are the fruits? They are summarized in the Beatitudes—humility, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, integrity, striving for peace, magnanimity, and courage. Paul describes them as “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatian 5:22).
So, I’m giving up labels! I hope to spend more time and energy nurturing “fruit of the Spirit” in myself and others than putting others in simplified categories with restricting labels.