Written by Alexander W. G. Seidel
The pastor, a liberal by most standards, wondered why anyone would have the audacity vote for any evangelical conservative candidate. After all, old ways of far-right thinking, rigid and closed, would never lead to the kingdom of heaven. The new guy that visited his church this last Sunday played into all his long-held progressive beliefs.
As they spoke after the service, the pastor found the new visitor to be as conservative as they come. He asked how people tended to vote in the fellowship and whether they believed in social justice, a term the pastor learned was very suspicious to his new visitor. This mere layperson had such nerve asking these questions. He also had the nerve to be a Tea Party conservative that was bent on voting for Donald Trump. The pastor, an Obama supporter, bristled at this even as he maintained his feeble veneer of Christian hospitality and acceptance.
The new visitor was indeed suspicious of this congregation and its pastor. He was tired of tax-and-spend liberals and their do-gooder approach to saving the world. The longer he spoke with the pastor, the more he felt this place was heretical. How could they allow gays? How could they affirm what was clearly sin? How could they advocate for big government? In the end, the visitor, a pastor also and a proud neo-Calvinist, could not bring himself to find any good in this congregation. So he left with a contrived good-bye. Both pastors found themselves at an invisible impasse. Imagine if this interchange had actually occurred between a pastor and one seeking Jesus?
You may have guessed by now that the above scenario is contrived. And, I am guessing you likely had some internal reactions to this small thought experiment. Take a few moments and consider which words you reacted to. Whatever your reactions, the use of these words is likely limiting your ability to engage others with the redemptive story of Jesus. For how can one speak of redemption when one is focused on maintaining division through labels?
We all love to label, for it separates us from honest connection with others. Labels help us to keep others at bay. They help us to avoid the delicate work of getting to know those that differ from us. And, when we avoid this work, we entirely escape the depth of pain and possibility that others experience. When we use labels to caricature others, we stifle our ability to reflect God’s love for them.
It is likely the labels you use are deeply reflective of your own deep biases. It is important to accept that this is not about a particular brand of theology or politics. And it is assuredly not about being right or wrong. Rather, it is about understanding what distracts us from expressing Christ’s redemptive love to those so different from us that they shatter our comfort.
In my work with deeply troubled individuals, I have had my assumptions shaken to their foundation. One such client falls within a very real and current cultural controversy. For the sake of privacy, I won’t share more. All you need to know is that beyond the dismissive labels that Christian culture has perpetrated upon this person — and the labels I previously leveled at her — exists a deep person with feelings, dreams, and needs. The abusiveness of her experience vividly exposes the deep yearning for God that exists within her.
In my previous labeling, I avoided my own brokenness by avoiding hers. And hers effectively exposed mine. And left unchecked, my label with its biases would have left us at the invisible impasse I mentioned above. Instead, Jesus has wooed her through an unwitting and very unprepared therapist.
God has had to work hard to cleanse me of the labels that might have kept me from connecting with this person, and even loving her when it, at times, was hard to do so.
It is time for all of us to move beyond the invisible impasse. Perhaps these questions will get us well on our way. Do you as a leader keep others at bay with the trite labels that dismiss their broken humanity? How do the labels you use reinforce the biases of your congregation in ways that drive division from others? Does your use of labels creep into what should be the loving counseling of others that relationally exhorts and builds? Or do you find yourself consistently avoiding “labelees” that are uncomfortable for you? Does this avoidance reflect poor discipleship of people? Or does it reflect a lack of competence that should lead to a referral to someone more equipped? Whatever the case, these questions are well worth pondering with insight from God and others that can unflinchingly love you. Please let us know if we can join you in your questioning. We’d love to help you confront the invisible impasses in your life.
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