The language of labels

So if you were in loving fellowship together and three new chaps came along with “scribes and Pharisees” written on their foreheads – how would you react?

In the UK we used to have – still do – a lot of breweries. The Big Ones have their own chains of tied-pubs. Which means the pubs are contractually bound to stock and sell approved products dictated by the brewery, at prices set by the brewery, and stocked by the brewery. There are some pubs who prefer the freedom of not having all that – they are called free-houses. They stock whatever they want – but (as they are pubs) usually beer and spirits as well (just with different labels). And each pub has its own regulars. And there is loads of debate about which are the better beers, about the unfair levels of taxation, about supermarkets selling beer more cheaply than the pubs. About all the reasons that pubs are not allowed a level playing field. And that we should all be encouraged to spend more time in pubs rather than at home in front of our tv’s drinking beer.

But back to that loving fellowship and the label of “scribes and Pharisees”. I don’t hear that label used much nowadays. But I do hear labels like “Legalistic” or “Charismatic” or “Evangelist” or “Traditional” or “Happy Clappy” or (just) “Old” …  And I am curious –

What is the difference between our labels (and all that goes with that) and the label of “scribes and Pharisees” (and all that went with that)?

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” Matthew 12:38-42

“Scribes and Pharisees” – we isolate them as we read our bibles – almost in a pantomime way: they are behind you! … oh no they’re not … oh yes they are … We make them the visible enemy within:  “We wish to see a sign. Now. One that will allow us to trip you up.”  To which Jesus responds with a few well-chosen verses. Just as we should.  Just as we do.

But Jesus never does “that” to “us” (which proves we are not scribes or Pharisees).

So why do congregations and churches label (and self-label) who they are … why do they label (and self-label) their preferred theology “ologies” … why label and self-label their way of being with God compared to others … and why label the “un-churched way” of being without God …  ?  And why are “metrics” touted and counted.

Because to count things you have to label them first.  And head offices (of each church) get into a lot of counting – which means a lot of labeling.  And they then issue more and more initiatives to their “tied churches”.  And the free-churches (and the un-churched in front of their tv’s thinking about God – or the absence of God) look on.

Does that – again – sound like breweries and beer (and just how does any of this bring any of us closer to God)?  And just why don’t we use the label of “scribes and Pharisees” anymore?

My thoughts?

I think the phrase “scribes and Pharisees” is too aggressive in open conversation.  And good Christians are never aggressive in public.  Good Christians are “true” and “correct” biblically – (cue the massive “leeway” in that statement!).  But that is not being “aggressive”.  That is defending the God we love.  That is highlighting false teaching.  That is being a good Christian.

I think we have come to believe our own labels.  In public and private.  I think we have found a way to continue the “Pharisaical way” without calling it that.   And I wonder …

Have we created a new language of labels to be “aggressive in love” – and is this plethora of “new” labels that new language?  Because there are so many “new” labels available – it’s almost a sin!  And that brings me to this – which does make curious!

Something said often by so many (usually in prayer): “Dear Lord and Father – show us a sign – let us know what you intend us to do, in the name of Jesus we ask. Amen.”  And then when someone “brings a sign” there is a debate over who is right. And head office has to make a ruling – and then communicate that ruling – and cope with all those who agree or disagree (or who simply carry on doing what they always have).

Is it just me – or does that have the ring of these verses “back in the day” and the good old scribes and Pharisees?

So – more and more – I wonder whether the scribes and Pharisees were not evil. More and more I see them immersed in their way of worship and religion. And because they were the establishment – they had the casting vote on how religious things were, are and should be.  So Jesus wasn’t at all welcome.

We call all that The Church nowadays.

Back in “the day” the scribes and Pharisees were today’s Church.  And there were factions. Today we call them denominations. And those different factions-denominations all believe the same thing differently.  Which is why I am curious …

How does that log in our own eye blind-spot work today?

7 thoughts on “The language of labels

  1. Good one today, Paul!
    Scribes and Pharisees get a bad press (especially in the bible!). Deserved by some: utterly undeserved by others. Yes, they were “dee establishment”! But, in their own way, many of them were the “conscientious” ones: trying to do the right thing by and for their God. Then some followed the mechanics (in the brain) of what to do, without the underlying reasons (in the heart) for doing it. No change there, then, in 2000 years!

    I’m with you on the label bit, but there is a problem with how far we take that. You see, I don’t think the labels are bad; it’s what we do with them.
    If we were dead against labels then we couldn’t communicate the difference between a “dog” and “cat” or even between “you” and “me” – they are all labels and we need those words to make any meaning of our communication.

    Isn’t the problem, not with a label describing the characteristics of a particular object/person/feeling/action etc. but, when that label is used to discriminate. He’s “a Methodist”, I’m “an Anglican”…. that’s fine – it has practical use – it describes where you might find each of us on a Sunday! But when I go on to say/think “Because they are a ….. they will believe/do /think this or that.” When I build a barrier because of the description… “immigrant”; “female”, “old person” then that is an abuse.

    Once we start using the labels to make value judgements, that’s when we get into really unhelpful areas. But I don’t think the answer can reasonably be to stop using labels – it’s more that we should use them in the right way.

    How about the parable of the Good Pharisee – must try and find it!!


    • Hiya Keith, and thank you.

      Parable of the Good Pharisee? Never thought of that before. Interesting that there isn’t one. Might that be for the reasons you describe (and which Jesus knew): the Jews already knew that there were good and bad? Which begs the question why “we” then choose to stigmatise “them”.

      “Isn’t the problem, not with a label describing the characteristics of a particular object/person/feeling/action etc. but, when that label is used to discriminate.”

      Pondering that comment I find it hard to agree or disagree. Because I find it even harder to know when I am describing or discriminating. Intellectually on a keyboard – I have a small chance (if I edit and reflect and edit again – which I do a lot). But in “real life conversations” … the ebb and flow … the to and fro … the complexities and confusions of real conversation … ? Not really.

      Dog and cat (names for the characteristics of an animal type), Pharisees and scribes (describe job titles), Methodist or Anglican (describe official denominations) so none of those – for me – are “bad” – nor are they labels. Except for this:

      “You are a right dog” to “label” someone’s behavior. “He is an “estate agent”” to “label” someone as less than a good human being, and “Those Anglicans!” or “We are all Methodists here!” as labels to big-up (or put-down) miniscule differences in a belief system (but big differences in identity). And all of those with the excuse of “I am only joking”.

      So – you are right – what we do with labels makes all the difference.

      But if we can do “all of that” with descriptive words that are not labels … how do we actually enhance good communication by using “labels” at all? I am not so sure that we do. And never thought than one through before – thank you!


      • Speaking as a mere semi-literate scientist (there: 3 labels!) I think much of this issue shows how crude verbal (spoken or written) communication really is. The best things in life don’t involve words: enjoying a beautiful sunny day: listening to music: loving: the elegance of a mathematical equation or proof. The problems start when we use words!


        • Yet we are left with the Living Word. And just like a sunny day, music, maths(!!) – if we were describe to each other what that meant, I reckon we would find much in common. Unless my “sunny day” is the only “sunny day” there can be. Comes back to your point: what do we do with labels, words and sunny days.

          And I look at the Living Word and cannot find much use of labels. Other than playing to the listener their own perception and discrimination. And I am glad the Living Word is.


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