Labels and Love

Christianity is a religion of labels, so much so that in many ways I feel so unfree to explore in public the ultimate metaphysical question of “what is reality” or “what is truth.” If we are honest with ourselves, labels are stereotypes that undermine a culture of grace making a culture of labeling one of the most dangerous traps that we as Christians might possibly fall into. I would like to first explain what I mean by saying that Christianity is a religion of labels and how this hinders truth, and I’d also like to, perhaps, propose a better attitude we might have to those asking questions.

What do I mean when I say that Christianity, especially the evangelical Christianity I’m associated with, is a religion of labels? I mean that we as Christians stereotype everyone who isn’t one of us negatively. If you’re within the fold of conservative Christianity as I am, I’m sure that you know this to be true. If you still don’t believe me, let me give some examples. If some person belongs to [x] church, they’re a liberal Christian. If a person is questioning something, their faith is weak. If someone uses profanity, they’re a young Christian. We have labels for everyone, within the fold (the young Christian, the weak Xian, the strong Xian, the liberal Xian, the evangelical Xian) and outside the faith (the unbeliever, the atheist, the poor, the rich, the whatever). The problems lies not that these labels are wrong, for they are often largely right, but it lies in that they limit us in how we treat others.

I find one of the most convicting and beautiful ideas in Christianity is the idea that the image of God is inherent to every person, though perhaps that image is defaced by our failings. Because Christianity sees every person as having the image of God, they are all of equal worth and dignity. No matter what someone may do or who they may be; we must take the principle of the image of God and treat people equally. In a sense it’s a great egalitarianism: under the image of god there is no poor or free, or White or Black, or male or female, Christian and non-Christian in regards to worth and dignity. Therefore, if the great equalizer is the fact that people are made in the image of God, then what should come before any label in our treatment of others is the fact that others are people.

Labels are one of the most damaging things we can do to our treatment of others. Let me first say that, perhaps labels are not intrinsically wrong, because not everyone is the same, and therefore we must also treat people differently. However, labels easily become wrong when we place the label before the person — their perceived proficiencies or (more often) deficiencies before their humanity. Labels become apparent when we value someone’s wealth, over another person’s personhood or when we befriend a nonchristian on the basis of their non-christianness (ostensibly for evangelism) and then (perhaps softly) reject them when we find that they have no desire at all to become a Christian, placing a desire to reach the lost over truly expressed love. To make a label, be it one that is perceived as good or bad, the primary mode of interaction with another person is to lose sight of what it means to be Christian.

How should we treat others then, if we cannot classify them into simplistic categories — grace, simple, pure grace. Christianity is founded on pure and unmerited grace — unmerited favour from God. A verse that exemplifies the source of our faith is Paul’s letter to Timothy: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” [1] It is by grace that we have been saved, therefore why is it that we forget that Christianity is a movement of grace. It is a story of broken people being restored in him who is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine? How then is it that we can say that we treat people by what they exhibit rather than their status as people showing the image of God that they were created in? We seek not to become friends with unbelievers because they need to be saved, though they do, but because they are people. No matter how we might disagree, and indeed we must disagree, we should show love and compassion first — not from some ulterior motive of their salvation, but out of a love for their humanity. We should not shun those we might call weak of faith, for we all fail in our own ways. Rather, we must band together as the body of Christ, pushing towards perfection showing love above judgement, much as Christ showed his love to those who are eternally undeserving. Above labels, we must love; we must show grace. Grace is at the core of our religion. Let us, therefore, also make it the centre of our interactions with others.

People are made in the image of God. Let us then treat others as ourselves for both they and us have worth and dignity. Let us not deprive that dignity in favouritism, for as James tells us, we must avoid favouritism [2]. And let us, above all, treat others with grace and love much as Christ has shown us his infinite grace and love — a grace and love that, for the Christian, eternally hold back the wrath of God. People are not defined by their labels, but by their personhood. Consequently, we as Christians should not be defined by our stance against the world, but by our love for the people in the world. Let charity abide.

[1] 1 Timothy 1.14
[2] James 2

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