The Danger of a Label-driven Life: Discernment vs. Judgment

In an increasingly complex world, we place labels on people, philosophies, politics, and anything else we can to help us make sense of it all.  Labels are a form of discernment, or what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin-slicing.”  At the same time, labels can be destructive, and must be used cautiously.

As all blogs I write seem to do, this comes out of my own struggles. I have been asking God to help me see the line between discernment and judgment, because I am convinced that the people of God (myself included) often cross that line with determination rather than hesitation.  I have become aware that the line in my own soul between discernment and judgment is crossed when I become a “label-happy” individual. Statements that “thin-slice” another person’s theology, politics, upbringing, or another aspect of their life, come to me with a dangerous ease.  I never saw this as a problem until I realized that I use these labels to describe people or ideas I don’t like or understand, and I almost never use labels to describe myself.

Perhaps the most destructive nature of labels is that they remove the humanness of the one being labeled. We no longer see them as an image bearer of God with a history; we see them as whatever we have decided people with that particular label are.  If and when we use descriptions like Democrat, tea-party, Calvinist, open-theist, heretic, gay, straight, divorced, single, Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, liberal, mega church, traditional church, old, young, etc, we must ask if we are trying to undercut someone’s credibility and vacate their humanness, or if we are genuinely trying to separate and discern ideas.

I believe the evaluation of our label usage is essential for the faithful Christ follower, because God’s vision for the world (Genesis 1 & 2) states that we are all image bearers of Him, meaning we have more that unites us with every individual than that which divides us.  It also means that before we started giving labels to one another, the Creator applied one overarching label to the crowning jewel of His creation- image bearers.  Beyond that, the only label God gives is “man” and “woman.” The practice of assigning labels is thus not apart of God’s dream for us, now or then.  It was man’s rebellion that divided and fragmented the world.  When we draw near to God through the cross, this restoration of our souls must eventually trickle into the way we categorize and speak of one another. I am not calling for an all out removal of labels, I use them and need them, I am suggesting that as Christ followers we should use them for discernment, and resist the internal urges that pull us into the toxic waters of judgment.

When we detect someone is approaching the gift of life differently than us, rather by a label of our choosing or their own, we should ask them questions about how they became who they are.  This will lead to a much more fruitful, healthy engagement with your fellow man I do believe.