The Funny Thing about Labels


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I love breaking down people’s preconceived notions of things. I love it when people say, “Pastor Seth, when I first met you, I thought you were….”

It is so innate for us to make judgments on people and things just from the externals. This just proves how different we are from God because God always looks at the internals (1 Sa 16:7). This is why we are wrong a lot of times when it comes to judging people (I have my fair share of misreads).

If this is true, then why do we love labeling people?

I think for some crazy reason it helps us to “distinguish” ourselves from others. It helps us to draw boundaries and keep ourselves at a distance, which insulates us from discomfort and awkwardness. Sadly, it builds walls instead of bridges because rather than keeping us humble, it fuels pride in our heart.

If we are serious about reaching the lost, then we have to give this some serious thought. It also applies to the follower of Christ, who is on this journey of becoming more like Christ. Rather than labeling people with our own tainted judgments, it might be helpful to see Christ as our standard. Then we will see that we all fall short of His glory (Ro 3:23). We will see that we are all in need of His grace. This might just transform the way we see and do things.

John Ortberg in his article, “Category Confusion” gives an excellent perspective on the issue of categorizing people. Ortberg writes,

“Much of how we approach church and the spiritual life depends on our deep assumptions about what it means to be Christian. [There are] two different categories, or “sets,” we use to understand being a Christian.

A bounded set is one where all its members are determined by focusing on the boundary. For instance, ‘apples’ is a bounded set. Whether or not an item fits depends on whether it meets the criteria for apples – having skin and seeds and so on. Membership in a bounded set is static. Whether you’re a rotten apple or a ripe apple does not affect your appleness. The focus is not on movement but position.

A centered set, on the other hand, is determined by a focus on the center. Centered sets are dynamic, in motion. With centered sets, the key question is whether I am oriented and moving toward the center or moving away from the center. I’m defined on where I am, and where I’m moving, in relation to the center.

If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you ‘inside the circle.’ Once you’re inside, we don’t want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don’t want to say you don’t have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don’t know what to say.

However, if we treat Christianity as a centered set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the center.

The problem with a bounded-set approach to Christianity is not that it highlights the difference between Christians and non-Christians; it’s that it highlights the wrong differences, and encourages us to exaggerate and claim differences that don’t exist.

If we focus on Jesus as the center, then the key question becomes whether someone is oriented toward him or away from him. We realize that God is in a much better position than we are to know who’s in and who’s out. We also realize that everyone has something to learn, that everyone has a next step to take, and we don’t have to make ourselves seem more different than we really are. We embrace our common humanity.

Somebody wrote that in Australia there are two main methods for keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the center of the property.

I think Jesus is more like a well than a fence.

Spiritual ENTREPRENEUR, Church EQUIPPER, Leadership EDUCATOR, Ideas EXPERIMENTER & Global EXPLORER who is trying to transform lives and transform the world.
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