When labels are (mis)applied in the church

Name LabelWe like to categorize other people by applying labels to them. Liberal versus conservative, rich versus poor, informed versus ignorant, interesting versus boring, popular versus nerdy, the list of possible categories is inexhaustible. Politicians use this tendency to categorize to their benefit by trying to portray themselves in a popular category while casting their opponent as the opposite.

There is  danger in carrying this drive to categorize people into the church. In the church there are to be no such categories; we are all equal when we come to the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Yet in some churches, people are categorized and labeled. People can be labeled as troublemakers, critics, backsliders, emotionally unstable, emotionally repressed, etc. Positive labels such as leader, teacher and supporter can also be applied.

Applying labels to people becomes a problem when it prevents them from growing into their God-given ministry potential. This is especially true when the labels are applied based on erroneous or incomplete information. Stephen Covey relates the story of the boys on the subway to illustrate how easy it is to misunderstand another person’s situation and actions.

One day on the subway, while quietly reading a book, Stephen was interrupted by two wild children that got on with their father at a subway stop.

The children were out of control, jumping up and down, running loudly through the subway car.

The father seemed not to notice or care that his children were misbehaving and disturbing commuters…

Stephen approached the father and wanted to scold him for not controlling his children and teaching them respect for others…

The father agreed, and sighed sullenly, saying “yeah, I just don’t know what to do or say to them. We just came from the hospital where their mother died from a random assault….”

I have seen people who have made suggestions get labeled as troublemakers. I have seen people who identify problems get accused of being divisive. On the flip side, I have seen those who are successful in business get tagged as church leaders despite their spiritual immaturity.

Church leaders must resist the temptation to label and categorize people in their congregations. Remember Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (NASB)

Look at the Disciples that Jesus picked. Among them was a terrorist, a traitor, two brothers with anger issues, a fisherman with a tendency to say the wrong thing and a thief. The man that wrote much of the New Testament was a murderer. Jesus trusted this rag tag bunch to found his Church, people we would likely write off as being of little help.

The point is that if someone is causing a problem in the church, that problem should be addressed without labeling the person. God deals with our sin without labeling us, who are we to refuse to do this for others?