My mom is the queen of organization.
Even with seven kids still at home, her house is always nearly pristine. I say nearly in case she reads this and texts me about stray underwear one of my seven brothers probably has wedged between his bedframe and the wall. But, between you and me, it’s pristine.
I remember one Christmas she was dropping hints left and right about a label-maker. “It would just keep everything so organized!” she sighed dreamily. “We could use it in the pantry –the homeschool room –the….”
“We would all wake up tomorrow morning with our bedrooms labeled,” I quipped. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
“We’d all wake up with labels on our heads,” my dad joined in, laughing.
My mom rolled her eyes, then laughed at herself. She never got that label maker – she’ll just have to stay organized without it.
But as believers, don’t we know how labels just keep everything – and everyone – so organized?
A Place For Everything — More or Less
We love to label.
Some of those labels are helpful. Labeling a theological doctrine saves time in discussion and helps me to make sure we’re more or less on the same page. Labeling a person’s worldview gives us a grid for understanding what they believe, more or less.
It’s always more or less, though. People are complicated — and they have a way of seeping outside of their labels. I am a Baptist — but not a fundamentalist. As we get to know people, we realize that one label doesn’t fit — to completely capture them, we’d need several.
If we asked our friends to take a label-maker to themselves before church next Sunday, they would be walking around with hundreds of labels sticking on their arms, their legs, and their foreheads. It would take us more than just a precursory glance to read every little thing that described them.
We’d almost be forced to have a conversation with them.
A Woman In Her Place
But what if our friends weren’t allowed to label themselves? What if, instead, we got to be the label-makers?
I once had a conversation online with a man I’ve probably met once or twice in person. We were in a disagreement about an issue I barely recall now, and his arguments just wouldn’t sway me. Finally, at the peak of our discussion, he typed in frustration, “Well, that just sounds like feminism to me!” and ended the conversation.
Now, as a conservative Evangelical woman (you like my labels?), I had one of two choices. I could continue to argue with him, further solidifying his perception of me as a “feminist,” or I could drop the discussion in the realization that, once he’d taken out his label-maker, I’d be hard-pressed to get that label off.
[clickToTweet tweet=”If a woman disagrees with a man — she is not automatically a feminist.” quote=”If a woman disagrees with a man — she is not automatically a feminist.”]
Feminism is a complex concept. It has a lot to do with the rights of women, and it’s also steeped in a lot of other baggage that would take more than the space of this article to discuss. I do not tend to label myself a feminist because I like to be able to carefully define what I mean by the term. But I’ve learned that when I am labeled a feminist, it’s usually code for “woman who annoys me by speaking up for herself.”
This man was using the word “feminism” to silence an opposing viewpoint by sticking it with a label that he deemed an insult. If he could stick me into a category — if he could label me, he felt like he didn’t have to listen to me.
We Use Labels as Weapons
In this case, a label quickly became derogatory.
And that happens a lot.
We throw around words like feminist and liberal to silence the opposition. They’re not just labels — they’re weapons. And while not everyone who hears them would think of them that way, we know that, in conservative Christian culture, they are buzzwords that have negative connotations.
[clickToTweet tweet=”We need to make sure that we understand each other before we cast out labels.” quote=”We need to make sure that we understand each other before we cast out labels.”]
The purpose of these buzzwords isn’t to spur on productive conversation — it’s to shut it down. If a woman is labeled a rabid feminist, we can just ignore everything she says. If a man is labeled a liberal, his points have no merit.
We too often feel that the label-maker allows us the freedom to stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “I’m not listening!”
The Label That Matters
If a woman disagrees with a man (especially a man she isn’t married to) — she is not automatically a feminist. Whenever a person does not walk in lockstep with the Republican platform, they are not automatically a liberal. If a person stands up for the rights of an oppressed, underrepresented, or undervalued people group, they are not automatically SJWs.
We are members of one another (Romans 12:5), called to love each other (John 13:35), called to encourage each other (2 Thessalonians 5:11). Yes, sometimes ideologies do need labels — Paul didn’t hold back the labels when the people of the church needed to be checked (Galatians 4:12-20). But we need to make sure that we understand each other before we cast out labels — Paul had taken the time to get to know these people, to minister with them, and to spur them on in godliness during an entire epistle — not just as a passing label thrown in anger.
If you want to talk about the ideologies of feminism or liberalism, hash them out together with grace, respect, and clarity. If you want to use labels as pejoratives to shut people up, think again.
We may think labels keep our relationships neat and tidy, but they’re instead helping us escape the messiness of what it means to be truly present in the life of our brothers and sisters in Christ.