What are you wearing right now? What does the label say? Chances are, it boxes you somehow—possibly in your own eyes, but definitely in the eyes of others. The labels can be a measure of your status, or betray what you wish others believe about it. The label might reveal what you care about, who you cheer for, or what makes you laugh, like the T-shirt I saw that said, “Procrastinators of the world unite . . . tomorrow.” Even a lack of labels can become your label; just ask the Amish.
Consider further the labels we attach to people and what that means for the way we approach them. It is not simply that we look at the logo and leave people as billboards of curiosity. No, we take it further, and constrict and define people and our response to them based upon our assumptions of what the label says about the substance. We may even decide to avoid them without a conversation based, ironically, on “informed” opinion.
Recently, Stuart Murray Williams of the UK Anabaptist Network talked about the labels we apply to people. In particular, his concern was for the way our description of others dehumanizes those made in the image of God. We call people many things that are either way too narrow or beneath their dignity: “consumers,” “clients,” “human resources,” “liberals,” “conservatives,” “Anabaptists,” “Evangelicals,” “non-believers,” “customers,” “easterners,” “westerners,” “activists.” The laundry list is literally endless. Labelling, of course, is inevitable and we all do it, but we are, as a wise soul points out, becoming a culture that is increasingly about the “objectification of people and the personification of things.”
What does all this mean? Well, to begin, Christians must realize that they, too, are labelled and objectified. The label “Christian” is not particularly a badge of honour these days. If you’ve ever had to identify yourself by the term you’ve probably caught yourself thinking immediately about how you can quantify it in order not to be read as “one of those Christians.” And what “those” means in the negative, of course, depends on how you label yourself. Ah, ’tis a circuitous mess we find ourselves in, no?
Which leads to this: We who are called Christians must discover again why that label has stuck for so long, what it declares—both positively and negatively—and whether it still matters.
It was in Antioch that the followers of the Way of Jesus were first labelled “Christians” (Acts 11:26). For close to two millennia this word has been a burden the disciples of Jesus have borne. Yes, a burden, for it has often been opposed, needing to be restored from neglect or abuse, or thoughtlessly used as a stick.
Just as it is our counter-culture task as Christians to get beyond the labels applied to people around us that objectify and dehumanize, because we know they are made in the image of God and need him, so, too, it is our task to get beyond apologizing for a label applied to us, and, instead, live up to the name in our manner of life, our method of being, and our memory of our confession, and embrace our rights and responsibilities that come with being labelled “friends” by Jesus himself (John 15:13-15).
Phil Wagler and his family live in Surrey, B.C., where they serve the mission of God through the most amazing entity ever labelled: the church. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.