The Problem With Labels

   I’m from the south. Down here, every soft drink is referred to by the label “Coke”. (Probably because Coca-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta). Every Georgian knows that when you say, “I’m thirsty, I’m going to get a coke,” you don’t necessarily mean the beverage with the red and white label. You might be referring to a grape soda, root beer, Mountain Dew, or any other of the members of the fizzy spectrum.

   In fact, even buying a Coca-Cola these days can be more frustrating than trying to crack the IRS tax code. You must decide whether you want regular or diet, both of which are available in caffeine-free versions. Then you have to decide which flavor (cherry or vanilla), color (black or ?) and number (zero?) you want that in. It’s enough to drive someone to drinking Pepsi (which I do).

   The thing about Coca-Cola however, is that the labels are neat and precise. If I go into the retail grocer of my choice and select the Decaffeinated Diet Vanilla Coke, I can be reasonably sure that I will get precisely that. I have every right to expect exactly what the label says is in the bottle. There is little danger of any spill-over of cherry syrup (that might be grounds for a law-suit if it occurred) or of it keeping me awake half the night.

   If only theological labels were as precise.

   One doesn’t have to venture far into the realm that is identified as Christendom before they are confronted with a myriad of labels. Denominational labels, theological labels and associational labels are just a few of the names that you may encounter. 99.999999% of these labels are man-made (the one exception being “disciple”). This doesn’t mean that labels are wrong, in fact they can be quite useful at times. At other times, however, they can be confusing.

    Most of those who read this blog would probably agree that the mainstream media plays a little fast and loose with the term “Christian”. It seems that anyone who at one time may have attended Sunday School or had a relative who was a deacon will be labeled as Christian by the world. That term has come a long way from its original usage to identify true disciples of Christ.

   Sometimes labels are applied with derision, hatred, misunderstanding or just downright mean-spiritedness. At other times, labels are willingly embraced by those who wish to identify with a certain group.

   Let me use myself as an example. I willingly call myself a Southern Baptist. We have a stated articles of faith. I affirm those articles of faith because I believe they are biblically correct. Am I happy about everything that goes on the Southern Baptist Convention? Absolutely not. I realize that there are some things being debated within the convention in a manner that does not always cast a positive light on our denomination. However, if I am to call myself a Southern Baptist, I must be willing to accept the bad connotations with the positive points, otherwise I am not being completely honest.

   Likewise, it would be disingenious of me to call myself a Southern Baptist but then start issuing disclaimers such as saying that I believe salvation must earned, that God is not omniscient, that my salvation can be lost, etc. If I am going to identify myself theologically and associationally with Southern Baptists, I must be willing to embrace the core beliefs as stated in our articles of faith. Otherwise, I should find another way of identifying my doctrine.

   I said all that to say this, if we are going to label ourselves by identifying with a particular group, we should not be surprised when people assume that we share common beliefs with that group. Labels produce expectations. If we don’t want to be identified with a certain doctrine, we shouldn’t adopt the name of the the group that believes it.

   Some of you will remember the fiasco in the 1980’s called “New Coke”. It was an extremely bad idea on the part of some marketing execs at Coca-Cola that cost that company very dearly. Why? Because the product didn’t match the expectations produced by the label.

   On the other hand, to quote Junior Hill, “If the bottle is empty, it really doesn’t matter what the label says.”


14 responses to “The Problem With Labels

  1. amen to all. i really think there can often be a huge amount of confusion about labels given to various things. i have written a substantial section of my book that i am writing in part 2. you can see the draft at


  2. Label me “agreed”.

  3. Wonder what prompted this post? 😉 hehe

    I actually do agree with you in some respects on this. I’m not sure we’re 100% in total agreement, but close enough for me at the moment.

    I love you, brother. And I continue to welcome your sharpening iron in my life.

  4. Sometimes, I find that labels are annoying. They’re scratchy. They rub me the wrong way. Sometimes I rip them out… but the rough edges still hang around.

    I had a shirt once with a label that said “L”… but it must have been about three sizes too small. The label looked right, but the shirt didn’t fit.

    Labels… what are we going to with ’em? Sometimes, we might need to rip ’em out.


  5. I think that Alan has hit on something that’s been running around in my mind, too.

    Why do we need labels? I mean, I realize that we can’t avoid all labels all the time, but it begs the question: Why, Gordon, do you need to be labeled as a southern baptist? “Come out from among her…” — oh, wait. That’s not where I was going with that. 😉

    But seriously, it feels to me like labels apart from something related to “Christ follower” or “disciple of Christ” or “Christian” serve to divide. Is that a good thing?

  6. Labels save a great deal of time.

    For me, the problem is not with the labels, it’s with “truth in labelling.” Generally, the labels I apply to myself are accurate, while those applied by others tend to reflect their own stereotype or perception of either me or the label.

    As for “coming out from among” Steve, why do you need to be labeled simple church? “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us . . . ” 😉

  7. This is a fun discussion.

    Labels can sometimes be annoying, but it is much simpler to tell people I meet that I am a “Southern Baptist” than to have to quote the entire Baptist Faith and Message to them. 😉

    Cameron and Steve, you guys play nice, now. 🙂

  8. I guess I must be a little different about labels than most folks because I’m still working on a label for me ?As for the label on material things I find the only label that still upsets me is when I buy me a shirt that says 4extra for big men! Steve and Cameron I just try to practice Simple Church in a Tradional Sourthern Baptist Atmosphere ? Blessings to all , I wish it was possible for Ya’ll to drive over and listen to a Good Old Southern Baptist Preacher Man at our revival services ! Ron.

  9. Honestly, I’m only comfortable with “believer” and though I’ve been labled quite often I can’t in all honesty claim to fill any.

  10. Labels are usually a tool for ‘othering’ (can anyone tell I’m an education student?) That is, they usually are used to group someone else with a bunch of someone elses.

    I have found people usually don’t label themselves. Eg. when I talk about election with some people they dismiss the idea not on scriptural ground but with the offhanded “oh you’re a calvinist…” or some such. (I dont identify myself that way though)

    I tossed about the idea of not even calling myself a Christian a while ago, considering the term “follower of the Way” (Acts 24:14) because the media portrays Christians so poorly. Even KKKers call themselves Christian!

    Labels? I identify myself with Christ, I want to know nothing but Him and I want people who see me to see Him…as I am changed from glory to glory maybe.


  11. Interesting post and discussion. Because the church that I grew up in had come out of a Southern Baptist church and was independent, I thought Southern Baptists were bad people. 🙂

    I’m so glad that as I grew up and began thinking for myself, I found out otherwise. I am a southern Baptist because I’m Baptist and I’m southern, but the church I belong to doesn’t happen to be in the convention. I have grown to have a deepening respect for the conference.

    What I want to be known as is a firm believer in Jesus Christ, and I hope that people would label me as such.

  12. KC and MDM, I would definitely agree that we should be defined as believers before we are anything else.

    Beverly, Southern Baptists are pretty nice people when they clean up. 🙂

  13. Oh, Gordon, I know, I know. And I’m going to hold to my threat of visiting the Southern Baptists in Cairo one of these days.

  14. I love your last statement. I have gone to church for many years…I have lost all denominational pretense. I will go anyplace where they love the Lord and act like people that know him. What I have often found is the need for recycling.

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