Christians are divided by many labels. None, at least so far as I can tell, divide us more than conservative and liberal. People on both sides recognize the other as being extreme and want little to do with each other. And once you have a label for a viewpoint, a perspective, then you can be done with having to deal with the messy business of dealing with the person who is “liberal” or “conservative.”
As these two labels are broadly used I accept them, at least to a certain extent. But I have found them increasingly useless in terms of loving and serving others. This does not mean I stopped thinking. Quite the opposite actually. It means I think a great deal about Christian beliefs and practices but I refuse to draw back from a brother or sister I disagree with based on this label. Almost every week I meet someone who so shatters the way I once used these labels that I am required to let my prejudices go if I am to be kind and tenderhearted.
The one thing I am most sure about is that Jesus told us to love. He didn’t say, “Love those who agree with you.” He said, “Love.” Even if the person in question is a “theological” or “personal” enemy you must still love. Love might draw you into a context where you are required to speak truthfully, as you understand it, but you must never speak without love.
The big shift for me goes something like this – I want to believe and teach a Christian faith that is Christian at its core. And I want to believe it in a way that is faithful to biblical teaching and church tradition; i.e. in a way that is genuinely catholic. But, and this is important, I want to believe in a way that keeps me ever open to searching for the truth in areas where I need to better understand both me and the way the faith challenges my ideas and practice.
If I had to use a label for this I suppose I would say I am more “moderate” than the extremes I see all around me. The loudest voices in both church and culture are on the left and the right. A “moderate” is caught in the middle. A “moderate” looks a bit like a wimp, like a person who is “facing both ways.” So I am really not sure I like this label either.
What I know is that God created the world and sent his Son into the world to redeem it. He loves it, all of it. Why? “God is love.” To follow Jesus requires more than anything else a stance of love. This stance can be inquiring and open. It can also be critical and thoughtful. It will be mindful of teaching such as this, in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
1 This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (4:1-5, bold text mine).
How does the ordinary Christian make sense of their faith in Jesus while they continue to think and work out the implications of various complex issues and concerns that challenge them in 2011? This is not easy. The simple solution, it seems to me, is to opt for a stance (left or right) and then dig in and show how this is the “biblical view” on this or that. Understand, that I am resolutely committed to the ancient creeds of the Christian church, those creeds that almost all Christians publicly affirm in one way or another.
I see two great dangers for the soul in this labeling and standing on one side or the other in conflict. One is fear! "1 John 4:8 says, “Perfect love expels all fear.” Most of the time I fear that I might have to change my mind about something and this fear keeps me from seriously considering what I ought to think more deeply about.
The other danger is arrogance. We have the tendency to think that we can explain and understand the deep mysteries of God. We then equate these mysteries with our explanations of them. But Paul says our faith is rooted in these “great mysteries” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:9, 16). The greatest is the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Even here we can and must confess the faith as Christians in community with the whole church but we cannot explain these mysteries adequately.
I think Paul sums all this up quite well in one of the most famous of all portions of the Scripture (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). He makes it clear that what we know right now we can only know “in part” because right now we “see only as in a mirror.”
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
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Thanks for these thoughts – especially the verses you highlighted from 1 Cor. I really need to keep these verses with me at all times! 🙂
All too often it seems that labels are an excise to disregard people and their opinions by presuming that you know what their view point is and why it is wrong.
In reality, I rarely meet someone who truly tows the line of their avowed belief system. There are always variations even when the people who hold them think they are some kind of purist.
John, Thank you for this wonderful perspective and, as Sarah said, the reminder of these helpful verses. As George commented, labels often reflect one’s presumptions — presuming to know. In many ways, Adam & Eve’s sin in the garden was one of illicit knowledge — they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because of their desire to know so that they could presume to have what God had (omniscience). As such, sin itself can be seen as an epistemological crime — to be god via illicit knowledge. In this sense, presuming to know what others think — especially as you say based on some arbitrary labels — is the opposite of love. It is a sin to presume to know others without putting them and their thoughts first. We see this in failed relationships “I know what you are up to!”, not “Help me to understand you”). This embedded desire towards illicit knowledge creates the beautiful contrast of a philosophy (love of knowledge) in which one seeks to hear and know. As you have highlighted here: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” God shows His love for us in this: that He saw our sin and loved us so that we might truly know Him, as we are fully known by Him — hairs on the head and warts and illicit presumptions and all. Thank you for the exhortation to love not label.
John, no one who actually knows you (though this might not describe a few who THINK they know you) would ever describe you as a “mushy moderate.” You hold to the truths of the Scripture and the historic faith with great tenacity and yet with humility. And on secondary and tertiary issues, you have had the courage to change your mind when in humility you believed the exegesis and theology pointed toward that change.
But in our politically and polarized world, it takes courage to be a moderate, to listen to all sides, and to love people even when we disagree. As one who is politically quite “purple”–and who is a “boring” John Stott/Christianity Today/Fuller Seminary evangelical (of Reformed persuasion, but still moderately)–I salute you and admire you.
Keep up the good work, my friend.