Salvation by Label

Truth in labeling.
Salvation by labels.

Remnant. God's people. The truth. Three angels messages. The people who spread the everlasting gospel. The title of my particular denomination. Saved.

Heretics. Backsliders. Insubordinate. Heresy. New light. New Age, Emergent church. Meditation. Inner healing. Spiritual formation. The name of someone else's religion.

If none of these buzz words and phrases have struck a resonant reaction in you yet, then you may not be quite awake. Very likely you have had a strong reaction to at least one of these by the time you read this far. But the question is, what is behind the intense, knee-jerk reactions that some of these phrases can produce in so many of us?

I have been confronted by people within my denomination who insist that our members should not read religious material written by people outside of our denomination. Ironically one such leader turned around soon after and handed a book to our head elder that was authored by just such a person. But the real question is, why do we resort to such simplistic solutions like this and think that somehow we can shield people from deception simply by making rules restricting their freedom to think or be exposed to various opinions? Is salvation something that a denomination can manage like an asset?

What is it about labels that makes them so attractive? The Jews in Jesus' day had the same hangup. Jesus said that they loved to be called by important titles. Does that sound familiar? Doctor so and so will now speak to us. Professor so and so is the one whom you can trust to provide the right answer for that question. Beware of Brimsmead, Ford, Venden, you name it, because they are teaching 'heresy'. Never mind that some of these individuals achieved the requisite titles people expect of them to be considered experts. They are no longer 'approved by the church' as valid sources of authorized information of truth. Of course that also depends which local church is giving their opinion.

I was once told that Robert Brimsmead took a position on an issue and the church opposed him. Then a few years later he changed his stance on that position and began to teach the very opposite of what he had taught previously. Now you would expect the church to be happy about this. But no, after his switch the church still opposed him by switching their own arguments to the other side now still against him opposite of what they had insisted on previously. If this story is true it appears to me that something else besides a desire for truth was going on there. Too often labels have more to do with a stigma attached to people or based on buzz words rather than a true desire to grow toward greater light.

The problem I find with labels of all sorts is that the primary motivation behind using and applying them is too often fear. Some labels are handy repositories for enormous amounts of suspicion and fear and can be used to manipulate great numbers of people quite easily and with very little accountability. What we too often see are labels used as a shortcut to produce what we think will be unity. Since it is too much work and seems too risky to train people how to grapple with conflicting ideas and beliefs for themselves in a way that will lead each person to discover truth for themselves, we too often simply encourage or even insist that people only listen to those we consider approved experts of the law and assume that these 'experts' in religion and/or ancient languages will always lead their followers in the right path.

But unfortunately this has often resulted in leading large numbers of people into a ditch rather than safely leading them into greater truth. It is one thing for someone to invest in years of education and then use what they have learned to sharpen their own ability to discern what is true and right. But it is another thing altogether to depend on another human being to make decisions for us that God holds each person accountable to make for ourselves. When we relinquish our responsibility to wrestle with things that confuse us and instead try to take a shortcut of having another human being lead us instead of facing up to our own responsibility to God, we are actually putting someone else in the role of God in our lives which will always lead to disaster.

Labels often result in prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness – even persecution. Slapping handy labels on others allows us to avoid knowing them or appreciating their struggles or seeking to understand their perspective while judging them. I am seeing increasingly an atmosphere of animosity, accusation, suspicion and fear in churches and even the world today over issues of spiritual concern. I see the use of labeling to strike fear in the hearts of others and create suspicion and doubt about even people who are honestly seeking to have a deeper connection with God. But because they want to experiment with ways not approved by the religious authorities they can get in trouble. Does the fact that a religious hierarchy disapproves of some method for seeking God make it wrong? Or is the practice of trying to dictate to other people's conscience a greater concern?

Churches for centuries have sought to create artificial restrictions to invoke fear in the hearts of those who don't follow the approved practices and traditions of those in control. But inevitably it comes to be seen that such attempts to control others in the name of unity always result in the abuse of power, the defamation or persecution of innocent believers and the stifling of real spiritual life in many who become discouraged by such intimidation.

On the other side, it is not too hard to see labels as a convenient shortcut for many who think that if they just belong to a certain church or perform certain rituals or say certain words or phrases that they are good to get into heaven. Again, this was the condition of most of the religious establishment in Jesus' day who assumed that God was on their side and that Jesus was the one confused about the truth. These people had an affinity for labels and they were confident that maintaining the purity of their religion filled with labels would ensure them a place in paradise. But Jesus presented revelations about God that threatened to dismantle their carefully crafted religious system that had worked so well for them and kept them in power. I believe the same threat is felt by many today who have become reliant on labels for making choices and makes them feel safe about their salvation.

Labels are so handy and so tempting to use because we don't have to think very much, we don't have to spend time learning more about someone else or their situation but can jump to a conclusion about them. But in doing so we find ourselves in direct contradiction to the clear teachings of Jesus about not judging one another. Relying on shortcuts like labels to give us a fast track into the kingdom is a very risky idea and many people are deceived by this practice.

Yet it is nearly impossible to avoid using labels completely and I struggle with knowing how to even talk without having them come into use. Conservatives, Hardliners, Liberals, Fanatics, Extremists. All of these terms and many more infiltrate my speech whether it be in the political field or in religion. But too often these labels carry moral stigma or encourage attitudes that are very un-Christlike toward people we hardly even know. I realize that I am just as guilty as most in this area and I am grappling with this here, not because I am free of this problem but because it is such a subtle and pervasive addiction that causes me to offend others all too easily. And it happens in the other direction too making me afraid that someone will slap some judgmental negative label on me.

Labels are often an embedded means of promoting the counterfeit system of hierarchy that was introduced as part of Satan's alternative form of society. I learned some years ago that the counterfeit systems we live under were developed in the early days of what we call civilization and are based on three fundamental principles: Economics, Law and Hierarchy. The more I see how these principles operate and intertwine with each other the better I understand why things are the way they are. But sadly, because we have a hard time imagining any other way of living than what we grew up in, we too often assume that God's system of government operates on these very same principles. But God's ways are not our ways and we must come to see and appreciate that.

Labels are very powerful weapons that can greatly affect the way we feel about even our own identity, our value, our worth. This is why it is so important to pay attention to the danger of slapping labels on people while knowing very little about them. In fact, according to what I read in the Bible we should be extremely cautious about any labels we use. We cannot read people's hearts and without this key information we are not qualified to judge anyone.

Labels have a tenacity causing them to stick so hard that they can turn into prisons where we put people and refuse to allow them to ever grow or change and become something different than how we have labeled them. Just consider the label of 'convicted child-molester' and the life-long mistreatment and suspicion that such a person lives with once they have this stigma. Never mind whether the original accusation was ever true or not; once our legal system slaps that label on a person they are marked for life with the irrevocable assumption they can never change. Yet this is totally opposite of the principles taught in the gospel and demonstrated in the life of Jesus. So why are Christians so reticent to question such bigoted attitudes and harsh treatment and often even reinforce them?

When I was growing up I was told that I was rebellious. Somehow I suspect that those who did this supposed that labeling me this way would somehow cause me to suddenly change and to not be rebellious any longer. But in reality it had the very opposite effect by causing me to react with even more rebellion and resentment for being stuck with a label that made me feel unlovable in their eyes. In later years I began to realize that people who impose such labels on others are often themselves harboring the very attitudes they accuse others of having. And while it was true that I did have a rebellious spirit at the time, reminding me repeatedly of my rebellion only intensified it rather than helping me to reverse it.

As I am coming to know the ways of God more clearly, one of the most amazing things I am discovering is how God refuses to play this labeling game the way we do. When Jesus looked at prostitutes and sinners He did not remind them of the labels that had been slapped on them by society but saw them and treated them as special and highly valued children of God. Maybe in that respect Jesus did use a labeling system. But the spirit in which He viewed people was radically different than the spirit of those who wanted to use labels to denigrate others and estimate their worth using human standards. The way Jesus treated people was always in a way to make them feel special, more important, more valuable, more loved than they ever thought they deserved. And as a result of being loved unconditionally by Him, love was awakened in their hearts and they felt a compulsion growing inside to change and become the kind of person that Jesus already saw they were created to be.

I don't know that we can eliminate labels altogether. That might make communication very difficult if not impossible. Rather, it is the spirit of our heart that affects the methods and motives in how we communicate with others that makes the difference. We must appreciate our need to view life and those around us through the eyes of heaven, for this is what is most accurate. Jesus came to show us that the proper labels to use are those that heaven uses, not the demeaning, degrading, debilitating labels that are so often tossed around with little concern as to their effect on the heart. Maybe that is why Jesus spoke warnings about the enormous power that our comments can have on others. James – the brother of Jesus who himself had had his own issues of using labels against his brother Jesus, also had some things to say to us about the power of the tongue.

But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (James 3:8-10)

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