There has been a long-standing felt need in our culture to affiliate with one of two established camps—“liberal” or “conservative.” Once affiliated, a person determines their level of comfort with others based on whether they stand in the same camp. Our culture has operated this way for many years. But more recently, with separation from community and heightened anxiety creating even more of a need for black-and-white thinking, people have engaged in this labeling ritual with even more intense fervor.
Certain words, whether spoken or written on social media, trigger a reflex to slap on a label:
Has someone used the words “green,” “justice,” “choice,” “racism,” “inclusive,” or “vaccination”?
Watch out, you might be dealing with a LIBERAL!
Have they mentioned “family values,” “pro-life,” “freedom,” ‘tradition,” “America,” or “rights”?
Step back, you’re talking to a CONSERVATIVE!
Once the label is applied, a variety of assumptions about the person’s political and religious beliefs are attached. Many of them might be completely inaccurate, but I might never know that because once I’ve determined I’m talking with someone in the opposite camp, I become prickly, nervous, and defensive, preparing to fight or take flight.
This is the sad reality of how our culture operates. And although it’s reasonable to expect that we Christians, so saturated with creeds, catechisms, and countless years of Bible studies, are equipped to live above this type of treatment of others, it’s been pretty evident that this is not the case. Even our understanding of the words “theologically conservative” and “theologically liberal” (which should describe just a person’s way of interpreting Scripture) have become muddled in with cultural issues and political stances that have little to do with those terms. This polemical way of viewing our world runs contrary to the way of God’s kingdom shalom, undermines the effective life and witness of the church, and makes unity impossible.
We need to remind ourselves in these times that the body of Christ is not made up of two big conglomerate parts, but millions of individual members, each unique, precious, and indispensable (see 1 Cor. 12:12-26). Each member is designed in God’s image and not any caricature sketched by our culture or political bandwagon. All of these millions of members are designed with unique perspectives, personalities, and stories that shape their convictions.
If you take time to listen to people, you will find more anomalies than cookie-cutter shapes. I know many Christians who care about showing gospel love through social justice who also hold deep convictions about preaching the gospel with words. Many feel great compassion for the unborn and also for refugees. Some have great compassion for the LGBTQ community but hold strong commitment to traditional sexual values.
Christian values are not owned by “liberals” or “conservatives,” so Christians shouldn’t be either.
As those whom God has set apart, we can’t allow ourselves to be led and morally shaped by the broken social and political movements of our time. We aren’t to conform to the patterns of this world, but through honoring God’s Word and seeking God’s face, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2). And if we can maneuver ourselves back into a posture of humility and love, we will discover the Spirit’s power to move us toward a unity in diversity that is impossible from a worldly perspective but made possible through the blood of Christ, our great reconciler.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us, and through the powerful work of his Spirit, God can dismantle our broken, polarized system and reconcile us to each other: “He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
This “wall of hostility” between the Jews and Gentiles was even more firmly established in Paul’s time than the wall that divides us today. But seeing that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on both camps, the early church had to learn to overcome it. It couldn’t have been easy for them. When Jews looked at the practices and values of Gentiles, they must have felt repulsed by how foreign, threatening, and polluting they seemed. And the Gentiles must have felt offended at times by the Jews’ exclusivity, judgmentalism, and obsession with rules and rituals. But as the Spirit began to help them see beyond the externals, no longer regarding others “according to the flesh” but as the “new creation” God had made of them, those old labels began to pass away, and they saw a new creation come (2 Cor. 5:16-18).
This ministry of reconciliation won’t be easy for us either, but the Spirit makes it possible. Here are some ways to get started:
- In humility, confess your own anxieties to God and ask him to cleanse your heart of judgment against others.
- Ask God to help you discern the good impulses behind what you see as mistaken or wrong-headed beliefs.
- Confess your alignment with worldly camps and resolve to realign your heart to God’s kingdom.
- When you find yourself triggered by someone’s words, take some time to calm any defensive feelings before you speak.
- Ask questions with a true heart to understand a person’s individual beliefs and what experiences have shaped them.
- Question someone’s policies or ideologies, but not their motives. There is a big difference between saying “I think you are mistaken” and “I think you are evil.”
- Don’t passively absorb information from leaders or media, but use the insight and intelligence God has given you to discern issues through prayer and diligent study.
- Determine to stop using the terms “conservative” and “liberal” when you are describing yourself or others, recognizing that while they might have once had some positive connotations, they now represent a set of hardened positions.
- Never set up a straw man—exaggerating and misrepresenting another’s point of view just so you can easily knock it down.
- Find areas of agreement with others and build relationship by expressing them.
- Have you felt the need or desire to affiliate with labels of “liberal” or “conservative”? Or have people labeled you? How do you feel about that?
- What do the terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean to you?
- Although “Christian values are not owned by ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’,” identify some Christian values you see in liberal and conservative camps.
- What are some steps you can take this week toward reconciling with those who are polarized from you?