Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” can have such subjective and controversial connotations within the church. Yet according to dictionary.com, “liberal” simply means “favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.” And considering that, I thought I was a liberal. You see God had been doing a lot in my life to bring me to deeper understandings of what’s truly important. And as He brought me closer to Himself, it was interesting how things that had seemed like such big issues in my own life or in the church just didn’t seem that… important anymore. In the light of the gospel I found a security in my faith that I’d never had before. I knew the Lord – and that gave me more freedom to be okay with both those whose convictions were to the left of mine and those who were to the right. I could rock out with hands raised with the praise bands and meditate reverently on good ole’ hymns. No, I was not afraid of progress nor reform. I felt I’d finally become a “liberal” in the truer definition of the word.
But then I met the conservatives.
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Yes, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. Remember? I was secure in what mattered in my faith! But there, at the peak of my “maturity,” I found myself called to a place where I wasn’t supposed to leave my house without a skirt, there seemed to be more Ellen White study than Bible study, and people ate lots of carob – for fun! Yes, to some that may sound like heaven. But for me, well… I wasn’t quite prepared. And to be honest, it didn’t take long before my “liberal” self started becoming a bit frustrated and resentful.
All of a sudden I realized I wasn’t as “liberal” as I thought.
But in the throes of my conflict, God started to reveal a few more things to my not-so-liberal soul. And hopefully they’re ones that can apply to the larger quest for unity and a truly “liberal” spirit in our church as well.
1. Ask yourself: Does this bother me because it’s harming God’s glory? Or simply because it’s opposed to my preferences? Yeah… That’s been a hard question for me to answer… One of the people that really inspires me in this regard is the apostle Paul. On one hand, Paul was super willing to sacrifice his personal rights and freedoms. “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free?” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 9:1. But he continues:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1 Cor. 9:19-23, NKJV).
Am I willing to do that? Am I willing to sacrifice the type of music I’d prefer in church, the type of clothes I’d prefer to wear, the type of food I’d like to eat – or whatever else – if that’s what it takes for the sake of the gospel?
Now on the other hand, there were some things that Paul stood very adamantly against! Speaking of circumcision for instance, Paul fumes: “But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves” (Gal. 5:11-12, NASB).
Why was Paul so strong on this and not on other things? I think that Paul realized what was going to get in the way of the gospel and what wasn’t. Circumcision, the misuse of the law, or any other teachings that diminished the message of salvation by grace alone were repulsive to Paul. While he constantly challenged believers to holier lives, he wouldn’t stand for any confusion over the gospel message – nothing that might supplant the cross of Christ. And here’s where I see it boiling down to today: If it is an issue that will dangerously damage people’s picture of God’s character and understanding of the gospel, then we have a reason to lovingly, tactfully, stand up. But if it’s something that is more related to my personal convictions and preferred lifestyle, it may be time for me to sit down and grab some carob.
2. Remember: We all think we’re the “balanced” ones. Look, I’ve even had someone tell me that I was “the most balanced person” they knew! So of course I must have it right [Smug look]. Well much as I’d like to believe that, I’m sure there are plenty of other people that know me who would see things differently. I’ve heard it said that we automatically tend to see everyone to the spiritual left of us as not serious/advanced enough in the faith (the apostates) and everyone to the right of us as fanatics:
“I don’t know why John’s still eating meat. I mean doesn’t he know the counsels on vegetarianism? But now Mary on the other hand, she insists on having everything vegan – and even raw! She better learn to be more balanced!”
Yes, the vegetarians will blast the meat eaters while chiding the vegans for their extremism, the vegans will look down on the ovo-lacto vegetarians while secretly disdaining the raw food proponents, and so on and so forth. Our definition of “balance” tends to be wherever we currently are. But we’re all on a journey of growth. Think of areas where you personally have grown and changed in your Christian experience – if the “you” of a few years ago met the “you” of today might he/she have seen you as either fanatical or apostate? Thoughts to ponder…
3. They’re not necessarily judging you. We don’t like feeling judged. But thankfully perception is not always reality. People are often not what we think they are. Some of the people that I’ve at first thought would be the most straight-laced and judgmental have floored me with how kind and loving they ended up being. It’s so easy to make a surface judgment, to stereotype, to decide what people are like before we’ve really given them a chance to show us. Believe it or not, not all northerners are cold and unfriendly, not all southerners are gun-toting racists, not all liberals are out to corrupt the church, and not all conservatives are out to judge everyone. Give them a chance before you decide. In fact I’d say that most times when I feel like “everyone’s watching me” or “everyone’s judging me,” they’re not. You may be nowhere in their mind at all! And if, by chance, they turn out to be judging you after all, remember that how people act is often a reflection of how they see God and how they believe that God sees them. Don’t hate them; have compassion on them. Love them. Show them what God is truly like. Who knows, you might just change their perception.
4. Can we still work together for a common goal? At the end of the day, we may still realize that we are stuck in a body of believers with people that we don’t agree with or naturally gel with. But we also have to realize that God’s stuck us all together for a purpose. We have a mission, and according to Matthew 13:30, that mission is NOT to go around figuring out who’s “wheat” and who’s “tares” so we can pull out the contaminators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downing the need for church discipline at times. Yet ultimately, it’s God’s job to purify His church, not mine. Our job is to somehow work together to accomplish a mission – a purpose.
One of the beautiful things about the 1 Corinthians 12 “body of Christ” analogy is that unity does not have to equal uniformity. Legs don’t have to look like hands. Eyes don’t have to function like ears. And likewise, when we realize we are different than each other, we may want to ask: How can we work together WITH our differences for the furtherance of the gospel? How might our differences actually lend strength to the work of the body? Even though I must stand within my own personal convictions and identity, can I still find common areas in which to work with those I’m not naturally as comfortable with? Might God have put them in the same church as me for BOTH of our sanctification?
Yes friends, I’ve come to believe that the work we’ve been given won’t be accomplished by those on the right; nor will it be finished by those on the left. It will only be finished by all of us – together. Lord, help me to be a true liberal. Even with those who are different.