Our Obsession with Labels


"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."

–Mark 9:38 NIV 

The phosphors weren't even dark on my monitor before someone challenged me to come out of my hiatus. In short turn, two more incidents cried out, begging me to post, taunting me to spurn my self-imposed break. Curiously, all three possessed a common thread: an obsession with labels.

Nathan Busenitz posted excerpts from an old interview in which the normally sane John MacArthur threw a rod and proudly declared that all Christians are dispensationalists. Just like he is. If they were truly honest with themselves, that is.

Hmm. I wonder how R.C. Sproul and Vern Poythress took that news.

Last time I checked, there wasn't a Darbyite bone in my body, but that's beside the point. MacArthur felt the need to assign a label to all of Protestantism that he uses to refer to himself. But like Lay's Potato Chips, you can't stop at one. "Dispensationalist" doesn't cover it all. Go ahead, put a label on it!In Johnny Mac's case, he's a Reformed Calvinist Cessationist Credobaptist Dispensationalist. I'm sure if we delved deeper we could determine if he's an Infra- or Supralapsarian. He probably supports the use of grape juice over wine, so add Teetotaling to the list of labels.

Boy, that's a lot of labels. 

The second confrontation with labels came inside Cerulean Sanctum, when my repost on homeschooling got a number of commenters hot and bothered. At issue was my innocent comment about homeschooling my son. "No," came the righteous response from a couple people, "you are most definitely NOT homeschooling your son. You're doing a public e-school at home, but that's not the same as homeschooling." 

Seems I can't even label myself correctly. Other people have to step in and do it for me.

Even if I should concede that the critics are correct on the jots and tittles of this particular letter of the law, still the issue of labels raised its ugly head. We have to know who's right and who's wrong. Judging by the vociferous (and verging on venomous) response my self-labeling received, "hellaciously wrong" was the correct answer.

And lastly, within hours of my final pre-hiatus post, a respected Godblogger took me to task for my hesitancy to toss labels around. He objected to the "About My Theology" portion of my "About Cerulean Sanctum" page, wherein I state the following:

I'm "Reformational," meaning I completely affirm what came out of the Reformation. Labels are difficult and I tend to eschew them, so I'm not "Totally Reformed" in the strict five-point Calvinist manner that many Godbloggers are, but I lean more toward the theology of Martin Luther.

My insistence that I don't like labels didn't sit well. The gist of this blogger's post channeled Lucy Van Pelt and labeled me the Charlie Brown of the Godblogosphere. You know, wishy washy. (Though I somehow got a few points for being honest about it!) 

What is it with the American Church's obsession with labels?

I find it nearly impossible to find much emphasis on labels in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Let's take a look at the disciples' attempts to label:

"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."

–Mark 9:38 NIV

Not one of us. That's a classic in the labeling community, isn't it? We use the "not one of us" label more than any other. We insist on dividing, creating schisms, and call our obsession "discernment."

But how did Jesus address John's labeling of this man?

"Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us."

—Mark 9:39-40

Jesus' response: Tactful rebuke coupled with a complete overhaul of terms. Better still, he narrowed the label further (which we'll discuss further down.)

I'm sure the disciples' labeling the man taxed Jesus' patience—at least a bit—since mere verses before the disciples engaged in another common labeling practice:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

—Mark 9:33-34

Here we have the flip side of "not one of us," the "we're the best" label. Of course, with such a label, someone must fall into the category of "not the best," or as we more commonly see it enunciated, "scum of the earth."

Any guesses as to Jesus' response? Yes, tactful rebuke coupled with a complete overhaul of terms. Detect a pattern here?

In fact, the more one looks at the labeling practices of the people Jesus encounters in the New Testement, the more we see that people do a lousy job of godly labeling. The Roman centurion labeled himself "unworthy," but Jesus labeled him "faithful." The Pharisees were dying to label the man born blind or his parents "sinners." Jesus said no, "glory of God." Most people would label the priest and the Levite "godly," but Jesus reserves that label for the hated Samaritan who stops to help the man robbers left for dead.

Jesus repeatedly turned labeling on its head. While we have a penchant for a plethora of labels we use to determine who's greatest and who's one of us, plus all the subdivisions within those, Jesus stuck with only two:

  • For Us vs. Against Us
  • Sheep vs. Goats
  • Wheat vs. Tares
  • Found vs. Lost 
  • Saved vs. Unsaved
  • Faithful vs. Unfaithful 
  • Believers vs. Unbelievers 

If Jesus stuck to such simplified labeling, what about the Church He founded? 

If we examine the early Church, we WON'T find the apostles straining for a name for the burgeoning movement of Christ followers in Jerusalem. No one's angling for a label at Pentecost. It's not till Chapter 9 of Acts that we hear the label "the Way" applied. And it's in Antioch in Acts 11:26 that the movement gets a label that sticks, Christians. That label came in 45 BC, twelve years after the founding of the Church!

You see, the early Church had a job to do. They didn't have time to waste labeling themselves or others. As far as they were concerned, the labels Jesus used met their needs. Stick to the basics.

So why is it that Christians today feel compelled to resort to so many labels—and so obsessively?

I believe part of the problem lies in our modernistic tendency to condense everything we encounter into easily knowable parameters. We take comfort in thinking we comprehend what an item is by its labels. Unfortunately, we can attach all the labels in the world to someone or something and still miss the whole picture. For instance, we can label each part of a peacock—forehead, lore, beak, wings, primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, scapulars, coverlets, feet, etc.—but utterly miss the beauty and majesty of it.

If a family member died, would we be mortified if a Reformed Calvinist Cessationist Credobaptist Dispensationalist Supralapsarian Teetotaler knocked on our door and offered to grieve with us even though we were Arminian Pentecostal Holiness Lordship-Salvation Pedobaptists who drank a glass of wine for our stomach every day just like Paul advised Timothy? I doubt it.

Why all the fuss then?

I'm sick of labels, personally. I'm a Christian; that's the only label I wish to be known by. As to other labels, Jesus offers nothing but rebuke. The older I get, the more I understand that truth.

Time to stop the obsessive labeling. We're only hurting the cause of Jesus Christ by loving our labels more than each other.

33 thoughts on “Our Obsession with Labels

  1. Dan, if you’re equating the conversation about “homeschool” vs. “public e-school at home” with the rest of the content of this post, that is pretty extreme. The point that several of us tried to make was that the issue was one of keeping a particular legal definition narrow so as to continue to protect the rights of those who homeschool in ways different than you do.

    Why that is so irritating to you is, quite frankly, beyond me. But it has nothing to do with saying you are not “one of us” in any spiritual sense of the phrase, as you seem to be equating it in this post.

    Judging by the vociferous (and verging on venomous) response my self-labeling received, “hellaciously wrong” was the correct answer.

    If you are referring to the homeschool discussion, that is not even close to an accurate description of the discussion that took place, and I wish you would consider changing that rhetoric. It makes me wonder what you’re trying to accomplish with these comments.

    I hope you’ll take this comment in the spirit in which it is intended, which is as a very gentle response. I love your writing, Dan, and many many times I find myself agreeing with you quite a bit. You don’t need to go down this path of hyperbole and rhetoric to make your point.

    steve 🙂

    • Dee


      I do understand what you are saying and I did understand the point that was being made in the initial discussion, but from the perspective of this public schooler the discussion from the “real homeschoolers” was mean spirited.

      I really was hoping that the comments to this posting would not go to beating this dead horse all over again.

    • Steve,

      This labels post originally had a greater explanation as to the parts of the homeschooling conversation that you did not see (like comments I deleted and angry private e-mails I received.) I did not discuss those in the post because I felt my giving details detracted from the flow of this post. I’d written up more, but ultimately deleted it from the final post.

      You’ll have to take my word on this.

      • Dan, I’ll be happy to take your word for it. I’m sorry you experienced that. Your comment here adds some very important information to avoid the post being misread like I misread it. As the post stood, it really came across to me as an over-reaction, and I hated to see that topic stirred up in that way.

        Dee, I wasn’t trying to beat any dead horses. This post brought the topic back up with some pretty strong words that I felt needed to be balanced a bit. I’m sorry if that bothered you, and I’m sorry you perceived the earlier discussion as “mean spirited”.

        Dan, on that note, if I offended you in my comments in the earlier discussion (I was one who exchanged comments with you at the time), please email me at steve@theologicalmusingsblog.com so that I can get that cleared up. My desire was never to offend, I assure you. We may disagree on this issue, but I never wanted to convey the things you have referenced in this post or your comment above.

  2. Ekval

    The whole concept of labeling causes all kinds of serious issues. Basically it all comes down to allowing us to pass judgment without actually having to come into any sort of relationship with a person or a group of people. This goes for racism, sports team loyalty, etc. as well as the church. If I can slap a label of some sort onto you, I can compare it to the labels that I have slapped on myself and tell how we should relate without actually having to have a relationship.

    Like it or not, most of us label ourselves as well because we want to belong to something. That sense of alienation that results from our sin and the fall makes us grasp for anything that gives us a sense of who we are. And if we do that, if we allow ourselves to be defined by those labels, we know that anyone with a different label is a “bad guy” and anyone with the same label must be a “good guy” no matter what.

    To a degree, I think this is so prevalent in our culture today (and likely in the past) because aside from the uncomfortableness of actually getting to know people who aren’t like us, we just don’t want to think very hard. We want a quick summary of the differences between our thought and someone else’s. Just print me up a little table comparing Arminians and Calvinists and what they believe, maybe attaching a couple of verses to each point. I don’t really need to investigate, or attend a class, or Lord forbid, use my brain a little bit to “test” things. I can rely on the labels. I’m right, they’re wrong, simple as that.

    It’s become particularly insidious on the Godblogosphere as it is known, and I am a sinner there too. I read a few of the Godblogs and often say, wow, there are a lot of TR blogs, wish I could read some non-TR blogs to get some perspective. That might be well and good, but the essence of it all shouldn’t be whether it is a TR blog or not, but whether or not it accurately depicts Christ, doctrinally and behaviorally (i.e. humility, love, grace).

    As you said Dan, it comes down to the label Christian, and even then I think we can slap a bigger label on all of us…


  3. I think our fascination with labels has to do with clear and consise definitions. We want things to be clearly understandable, and labels are the laziest way to do it. What I tend to buck against is the desire to be “either/or” such as the famous “You are either for us or against us.”

    I personally do not use labels, mostly because I am too lazy to find out what they mean. If someone tends to get too deeply into what a piece of scripture “really” means, I turn them off, if for no other reason than I don’t have the patience to listen. A friend of mine said it best: “Who cares if Christ comes before, during or after the tribulation? We are to live our lives for Him regardless.” The same could be said for dispensationalism, home schooling, or grape juice vs. wine.

    • Francisco

      As for the second coming and the rapture talk, I’ve found Leonard Ravenhill’s words quite piercing: “the Church wants to be raptured from responsability”. Quite convicting. Honestly.

  4. Grape juice! How could you even say that!

    Just kidding, David.

    I think we just want to have it all figured out whether it is the genome project, or a doctrinal label. We don’t like holding things in tension…like being a 5-Point Calvinist and also being committed to evangelism.

    Labels can be helpful, just like they are in finding things in your closet. If there are labels on the boxes, it helps me to know which one I am most likely to find the Christimas decorations. But you also might find that there are some orange turkey candles mixed in there as well.. The same follows when I am trying to find what to church to attend in a new city—Freewill First Baptist or Suburban Springs Community? Labels are not guarantees…just clues. There is a positive aspect to labels.

    I think what you are talking about Dan is how people use these labels to jump on people and make quick conclusions about a person. It is especially easy to do in the blogosphere, because there are so many people and no way to really know what we are like in real person.

    The trap is worrying about what these labelers think of us.

    BTW, I am a Dispensationalist who enjoys reading your blog.

    • Francisco

      Or you can do like my roommate. He once forgot to remove the labels from the peppers and went ahead and cook them. On the table we realized such mistake and it was quite funny. Yet, it is not funny to eat peppers with labels, do we agree on that?

  5. Dan, great post and a very accurate one. I believe there is no difference between ‘labelism’ and ‘tribalism,’ it’s just one trying to be stronger than the other, and missing the whole point of the teachings of Christ. I for one am happy that I am a ‘Christ follower.’

    Be encouraged.

  6. By the way, just for the record, I actually agree largely with this post’s main topic — that of labels being harmful in many ways! I should have said that in my first comment, but wanted to go on record here with that now.

    steve 🙂

  7. Jeff H


    This post is an interesting follow up to your previous post (“Despising the Rocket Kid”). Rocket kids are tough to label, right? The focus on labeling may be part of why the rocket kids don’t get much loving from the church.

    I may be headed a bit off topic, but I think some labeling (of people) is an extension of cynicism. I’ve caught myself thinking this way at times: Person X is saying Y, but I can safely ignore it because they’re just one of those Z people and we all know that Z people are…

    I read a brief essay recently where the author noted that cynicism requires near omniscience to work. He goes on to point out that though God is omnisceint and knows all our thoughts and ways, His vision of us is not a cynical one. We are made in His image and can be redeemed into a relationship with Him.

    Let me add that I enjoy your blog in large part due to the way you eschew labels when they aren’t necessary…

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  10. http://alasandras.blogspot.com/2006/10/importance-of-labels-dan-edelen.html#links

    Dan you insist that labels are just around so you can say this (label) is good and this (label ) is bad. You are missing the point that labels are used to differentiate between two different things, and both may be good. Apples and oranges are different but they are both good.

    The general public will ask why they are paying for homeschoolers to educate their children when they don’t pay for the education of children who attend private schools? You bragged that you were homeschooling your child with tax money Which means real homeschoolers have to explain to the general public that that you aren’t homeschooling, but are doing PUBLIC school at home. Then they will ask why homeschooling Dan’s child has to take test while the “real” homeschoolers don’t? (Again we will have to explain that Dan is doing PUBLIC school at home. He isn’t really HOMESCHOOLING. That public school at home has different requirements then homeschooling).

    All this confusion could be avoided if Public School at home parents would label themselves correctly.
    Homeschooling isn’t necessarily better the public school at home, but it is different.

    • Alesandra,

      People must come before labels. When we love our labels more than people, there’s a big problem. Jesus blew that kind of thinking away. That’s one of the major points of my post that seems to still be getting lost in the rhetoric.

      • My point is that mislabeling something causes confusion. If I insist on calling all fruit peaches; then when you ask me for a peach I may give you a grape, an orange or some other fruit because I have incorrectly labeled all fruit peaches. Labels (or names) help us identify things. It’s not about loving labels more then people or using labels to put people down. It’s about having clearly defined definitions so we can communicate with others without misunderstandings.

  11. I agree that people must come before labels Dan. Excellent reminder. But that doesn’t negate the use of labels in our lives. I have seen you use them here in a very helpful way. Labels provide clairty not judgement. However, in the area of homeschooling you equate clarity with judgement. That’s unfortunate. You are free choose the the curriculum that you do for your family, but as is often the case we are not always at liberty to choose the label for our decisions. It’s the way life is.

    I do hope your readers will go back to the blog post on my blog that stirred this discussion. You will see that those who commented were not judgemental of your choice at all.

    • Spunky,

      I deleted some comments that were made by people that were not in keeping with the typical standards of this blog. You did not see those. In five years of blogging, that’s the first time I had to do that, despite numerous contentious discussions.

      Unfortunately, people who commented here also blogged elsewhere judging my decisions. The amount of judging that occurs in homeschooling ranks is simply out of control, with factions warring in the same way (and as verbally abusive) as the Israelis and Palestinians.

      I suspect that in the future I will be avoiding the topic of homeschooling altogether since little of the discussion winds up being charitable in the long run. That’s too bad.

  12. Interestingly, from the passage you quoted they used a label to speak to Jesus – teacher.

    Also, later in the same passage Jesus said, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as “followers of Christ” truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.

    So even Jesus himself said that a name has significance and he clarified what name he meant for.

    Using labels and “obsession with labels” are not the same thing.

    • Spunky,

      We’re still obsessed with labels. There’s no two ways about it. If the Church in America was forced to drop even half the labels it uses, I suspect it would almost cease to function.

      • http://alasandras.blogspot.com/2006/10/mislabeling-of-public-school-at-home.html#links

        When public school at home parents insist on mislabeling themselves they cause confusion. J.Q. Public wants to know why they are being forced to pay for homeschooling? J.Q. Public wants to know why homeschool Dan’s son has to take certain test while Susie homeschoolers children do not? When you attempt to explain to them that Dan isn’t homeschooling, he is doing public school at home, they look at you blankly and state but HE SAYS HE IS HOMESCHOOLING!!!!

        Would a good Christian intentionally attempt to deceive people about the educational choice he has made for his children by mislabeling public school at home, homeschooling?
        Would a good Christian cause confusion?
        Would a good Christian sow discord?
        When “real” homeschoolers attempt to explain to public school at home parents that they aren’t homeschooling, we aren’t labeling them bad parents, we are simply attempting to prevent confusion that could lead to the loss of our homeschooling freedoms.

  13. Agreed that there may be some who are obsessed with labels. My only point was that not all who use a particular label are obsessed by them. Some may be. But they serve a distinct purpose as evidenced by Jesus Himself.

    • Spunky,

      I think that we also need to clarify roles from labels. You may be confusing the two. I don’t think that Jesus is against roles. But all this Reformed Charismatic Dispensational Winebibber stuff has got to stop.

  14. Agreed. And you make my point perfectly. You have taken on the role of a homeschooling father, but because of other choices you have made the label “homeschooler” is not there. In the same way that a man who takes on the role of “father” in a young persons life. Unless he biologically adopts or naturally help conceived the life, he is not the father of that child. No matter what his daily role. We may say he is “like a father” but never “he is the father”. And that was my whole point. So despite the fact that you daily operate “like a homeschooler” does not make you a “homeschooler”. It’s that simple.

  15. jettybetty

    Your post here is great–but I have a question–how do we get away from the labels–and just be followers of Jesus? Posts like this certainly do help!

    And I don’t get some of the comments–like I would say an adoptive father IS a father? I suppose it’s just perspective? Just trying to understand.

  16. I would agree that an adoptive father is a father, but you just labeled him an adoptive dad, this would differentiate between the child’s biological father and everyone understands the difference between adopted and biological. Labels exists in order for people to communicate. Dan himself uses labels. In his post on what he did during his vacation he says
    “Never having read a Dean Koontz novel in my life, I picked up The Taking. For the purposes of my mission, I’d hoped to avoid any kind of pseudo-Christian themes in any secular authors”

    Dan had judged Koontz’s work as pseudo-Christian. He has also decided to label Koontz a secular author. Since he doesn’t know Koontz or his religious feelings that’s a bit presumptuous; but that’s beside the point. Without using labels there wouldn’t be any way for Dan to communicate his opinion to the rest of us.

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