Learning to Love the Label Gun

By Paul Koch

Every now and then, I begin to long for a little anonymity in life. I long to be able to sit in the back, disappear from the conversations, and be a nameless participant whom no one can even remember whether or not showed up. I think it might be nice to keep my head down and keep to myself, not having to worry about what is going on in the Church or how we might best interact with our culture. Isn’t it enough to worry about what I’m doing and how I’m caring for my congregation and not care about what anyone else is doing?

But just as I begin to long for such things, as I begin to romanticize the idea of retreating to a quiet place to disappear, I realize that it’s not in me. I don’t think I can ever disengage that way. I’ve never been able to, and I don’t think I could begin now. If I did I think, I would be unhappy like an old man yelling at his TV when an opposing view floods into his living room. This may just be a sinful desire for my own pride and glory, but I’ve always longed to a part of what I call “the conversation.”

What I mean by the conversation is simply those discussions about important assertions, conclusions, and concepts that have to do with my vocations. The conversation can deal with masculinity, fatherhood, friendship, marriage, preaching, the liturgy, or even bureaucracy. I participate willingly in my regional pastor’s conferences. I meet with some of my colleagues weekly. I enjoy the symposiums at the seminaries. I run and maintain this blog. I co-host a podcast. And on the list goes.

The thing is, I’ve never had trouble finding others who long to be part of the conversation, and I believe it all makes me a better husband, father, pastor and teacher. But what I’ve found is that being part of a conversation and being a vocal part of it means that you will be labeled, and you have little to no control over how you are labeled. But just like that old label gun mom used to mark where things properly go, we use labels on people in order to better classify them and therefore their contributions to the conversation as well. Labels can be terrifying for they can have a major impact upon not only how others see you but how you see yourself.

When I was in grade school, I was labeled a troublemaker. It was a fair label to be sure, as I made a lot of trouble. Now I can reason it out by saying that I was bored or unmotivated or something like that. But perhaps I was just a jerk, or my parents didn’t raise me right, or something along those lines. But once you’re labeled, you tend to live up to it. Teachers expect it from you, and you don’t let them down.

By the time I made it to high school, things were different. There I wasn’t labeled a troublemaker but an idiot. I was tracked in the idiot classes with the most uninspiring teachers ever gathered together. I ended up there because I refused to do much homework, though I could excel on almost every test. I simply didn’t play their games the way they wanted them played, so I suffered the consequences. Again, I don’t think that was unfair. I’m sure I deserved it, but that label began to hurt a bit.

Through college and seminary, the labels didn’t stick as much because I had my head down and worked much harder as my love for theology was directed toward a proclamation for the sake of my neighbor. I was humbled over and again as I sat at the feet of great men who imparted their wisdom and encouraged us into the office of the holy ministry.

But once I became a pastor, once I again began to seek the conversation that I viewed as so necessary for my vocation, the label guns came out again. I was often labeled as confessional. I didn’t mind it so much except that it didn’t have much to do with my holding to the actual confessions of our Church. Rather, this label was given for my preference for the historic liturgy and the fact that I would actually wear vestments on a Sunday morning. Then when I started getting involved in district bureaucracy, I was labeled an asshole. This one was wasn’t formal, but you could see it in their eyes, and it was probably a well-deserved label. Mostly it came from too many challenges to the status quo and too many uncomfortable questions spoken out loud.

Lately, I’ve been labeled everything from a radical Lutheran to an antinomian and beyond. But the thing is, I’m beginning to learn to love the labels. Not that I particularly want to be labeled a heretic of some sort, but being labeled means I’m at least jumping into the conversation. I’m not just yelling from the sideline or only criticizing those who put forth their own ideas, but I’m actually taking the risk of putting my ideas out there. Hopefully, in doing so, I’m adding to the conversation and not just picking it apart.

I think we can learn to love the labels and almost wear them as a badge of honor. It means we are people of action and input. As long as we always have a few friends who we trust to speak the truth to us about our labels, then the rest should be fuel for continued activity.

In the end, who cares what they label you? To quote Metallica “Label me, I’ll label you…”