The Damage We Do: Labels of Others


I wasn’t planning on addressing the Denny Burk issue, but then a discussion about labels with a friend led me to re-examine Burk’s issues in a new light. For those unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a primer: Denny Burk, conservative evangelical complementarian (his labels) blogger put up a post about Christianity Today’s recent issue featuring “Top 50 Women to Watch.” The list contains a range of people from Rachel Held Evans to Michele Bachmann. Burk apparently didn’t like this list.

Burk’s post was a bit unclear, but he made his point explicit in the comments: his problem was that we should not be celebrating women who succeeding in fields outside of (what he feels is) the woman’s role. He writes:

In some cases I would and in other cases I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t celebrate those that I believe are serving in roles that scripture forbids. I would celebrate with those excelling in roles that scripture commends. I know that you as an egalitarian don’t acknowledge such distinctions, but for those of us who do, it’s pretty important.

Burk’s adherence to complementarianism has made it impossible for him to celebrate the spread of the message of Christ. This is wholly and completely tragic – any time a pastor negates the ministry of others merely because it does not jive with their view of “how things should be,” they have made an idol out of their own theology and their own interpretation. God is so much bigger than Denny Burk’s box for Them.

And human beings, too, are so much bigger than Burk’s labels for them. The comments on the post went on a rabbit trail of attempting to determine whether or not Rachel Held Evans actually is an evangelical, versus whether or not she identifies as one. When Rachel herself entered the fray to explain that yes, she identifies as evangelical, Burk rejected that identification because they disagree on what that word means.

That, too, is tragic.

It is not our responsibility to place other people in neatly labeled boxes and put them on a shelf never to be removed or changed. That is how hearts harden and people become shells of themselves.

When we place labels upon others – especially if these labels are wrong - or if we reject a person's label for themselves, we put boundaries around understanding our fellow humans. We say that we will only understand the other person insofar as they live up to the label we have determined for them. Burk refuses to attempt to understand or listen to Rachel because she doesn’t fit his definition for his exclusive club. And it is extremely dangerous for members of the Body of Christ to do this because it is refusing to meet people where they are.

Throughout our lives, we meet a lot of people who cross over and intersect between a lot of different labels and identities. If we allow our prejudices about what these labels mean to override the individual person in front of us, we have failed in the practice of love. For example, I am a woman. I am white. I am Christian (most days). I am a feminist. I am a daughter and a sister. I am single. I am a Whovian. And on and on and on.

Any one of these labels has a different meaning for each of the different people I encounter throughout the day, multiplying into a massive collage of meaning, contributing the massive centuries old conversation about what it means to be a human being – what that ultimate label is understood to be. Without my ability to define these words – imperfect as they are – in my understanding of them and to have those labels for myself, I am robbed of part of my agency and choice; I am robbed of the ability to understand myself. When we tell others that the labels they have for themselves (their identities) are not legitimate and that we have a better understanding of their identity than they do, we tell them that they are only able to contribute to the mass of human symphony in a narrowly defined, often inauthentic manner.

When we in the Body of Christ choose to make a determination as to who is in or out of our “exclusive club,” we deny the humanity, diversity, brokenness, and grace that is the Church universal. We take the place of God. We allow our love of being right in our theology and our love of being exclusive to sully the name of that which should be grace personified. When we say, “I do not accept your definition of what Christ’s love looks like in your life,” we make rightful heirs to the kingdom into bastards begging for food on the temple steps.

And oh what damage we do when we take it upon ourselves to determine another person's identity for them. It is not ours to decide. The Grace of God is not ours to divvy up or withhold at the whim of our definitions and interpretations and exegeses. It is our job to meet people where they are, to understand what their labels mean for them, and to love them within that space. If your labels prevent you from celebrating the love and grace of Jesus simply because it comes through means your theology says is wrong, then it is not the means that must be tossed, but your theology.