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.