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Reading the Label

by Tim O'Hearn

A while ago I heard that someone from one congregation had said that a particular other congregation was “liberal.” The individual was not talking about liberality in giving because it was obviously said in a negative way. This is not the first (nor probably the last) time I have heard such an “accusation.” It bothered me, not because of the congregations involved but because of the statement itself. I don’t know the individual. I do know he was from a congregation many I know would consider “liberal” itself, if they were inclined to apply labels. I do know the congregations, including some very conservative members of the labeled one. I do know the spirit that often motivates such a statement.

There are congregations that choose to label themselves. Generally they call themselves “conservative” churches. I have been a member of some of these congregations, even preached for them, though I did not agree with everything that made them label themselves. (And what made them “conservative” varied from congregation to congregation.) Other than that by taking this label for themselves they are, by implication, labeling all others as “non-conservative,” this is their own choice. They are labeling themselves. If, on the other hand, a member of another congregation were to label them, this would violate the principles of congregational autonomy and love for the brethren. Labels are always prejudicial and discriminatory.

American history over the past 30 years has been a history of trying to overcome prejudice, or pre-judging. Long before the civil-rights movement, though, Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged; for the manner in which you judge is the manner in which you will be judged.” (Matt 7:1-2) Particularly, the individual in question may or may not have had all the facts at his disposal. I can not judge the policies or motivations of a congregation of which I have not been a member for a considerable time. I would not have enough information. I can determine that certain individuals in a congregation may do things that are not scriptural, but it would be wrong to characterize a whole congregation by a few individuals, just as it is wrong to characterize an ethnic group or a family on the basis of one or a few individuals.

Discrimination is, by definition, identifying the differences between two things. In itself it is neither bad nor good. The use of loaded words, like “liberal” or “conservative” only emphasizes division, a condemned activity. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” (Ro 16:17-18)

God’s church must not be divided. May we never be divisive, in deed or in word.