Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Legacy of Truth: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

Luther's Translation of the Bible into German. 
Tonight, I will gather my kids--who will be dressed as Dr. Who, Captain America, and a Disney Princess respectively--and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides.  But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 496 years ago on this very day.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medeival Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be consider historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Shaffer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly oppressive actdions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actionns flow from our true beliefs.  Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Isn't Your Father's Denominational Meeting!

This weekend, the network of churches I serve will hold their annual meeting in Westminster Maryland.  In recent years, we've heard a lot about the decline of denominations in America.  I understand the sentiment of that conversation, and sympathize with much of the criticisms that have been leveled against denominational entities, including my own.  At the same time, if a denomination can be a vehicle in which churches find strategic opportunities to work together, they can continue to be a force for good in our culture.

At the Mid-Maryland Association, this is precisely what we aspire to be, and this Sunday night, we look forward to celebrating what our churches are doing together.  Yes, there will be "business" discussed.  Our 1.5 hour plenary session will include about 20 minutes in which we will appoint leaders for the next year, admit new member churches, report on significant actions of our Executive Board, and consider our 2014 operating budget.  Those things are necessary in order to keep the ship moving.  The rest of our time, however, will be spent in celebration, learning, networking and equipping.  So, if you live in our area, and would like to join us, I hope to see you there!  You do not need to be a member of a Mid-Maryland Church to join us for this meeting!  Messenger cards have been securely mailed to our churches to separate those who are authorized to vote on business items and those who aren't.  But we don't check those cards at the door.  Mid-Maryland Church or not, Baptist or not, you are welcome!  And if you come, here is what you will experience:

Informative and Useful Breakout Sessions:  Starting at 5 PM, Pastoral staff are invited to a breakout session in which I will lead a panel discussion on "The Future of Pastoral Ministry."  Four months ago, we put together a number of issues, and asked our pastors via social media and surveys to tell us what they would like us to discuss.  As a result, we will talk about 1. The aging of the country, and the impact retiring baby boomers will have on church structure, staffing, budgeting, and mission.  2. LGBT issues and the church.  The far right have treated these people as the enemy, and the far left has used them as a "cause."  How can followers of Jesus treat them as human, and in the process, walk with them in life through the myriad of legal, ethical, and philosophical issues they face each day?  3. Technology and the church.  What is the relationship between effective use of technology and the maintaining of sound ecclesiology?

Additionally, church leaders can attend a breakout called "Preserving a Sacred Trust," led by Tom Rodgerson and Kim Cook.  Kim is the Executive Director of Centerpoint Counseling Services, one of our partner organizations, and Tom leads Pastoral Counseling for this ministry. The western church has seen more than its share of scandal over the last three decades, from sexual misconduct to financial impropriety to the abuse of children.  Together, Kim and Tom will speak to church leaders about boundaries for the protection of pastors and leaders, as well as those they lead.  They will also speak about why the church should respond firmly to pastors who "cross the line," and how to do this, as well as how to separate discipline over actions from condemnation of the whole person..

Food from All Over the World!  Our churches worship in 9 different languages every single Sunday, and this Sunday night, you can sample food from nearly every one of those cultures represented in our network.  Come and enjoy food from places like Costa Rica, India, China, Russia, and other places.  Or if you are feeling particularly "American" we will also have sub sandwiches.  Starting at 6:15 PM and running up until the start of our plenary session at 7, you can walk in, grab a bite, have a seat, and get to know others with whom you are in cooperation over some great food!  Its like a buffet prepared by the United Nations!

Missions Displays and Opportunities to Join or Build Partnerships with Other Churches:  Our display area will not only showcase everywhere we are at work here in our region and around the world.  It will also give you opportunity to meet those who lead those efforts, and sign up for more information on how you and your church can join the effort.  Additionally, if God is breaking your heart over a place or people group that we are yet to touch with Jesus' message, this is the place to make those feelings known.  So come and be exposed to the work of our churches in human dignity (anti-human trafficking, prison ministries, et al), disaster relief (our work this year on the Gulf Coast, as well as Long Island, New York and Moore Oklahoma), and other mission work in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, India, and here in our own region.  Hear also about emerging work in China and Vietnam!  Yes, these countries know we are coming, they know who we are, and its all "above the radar!  Want to explore how you can contribute to this work?  Tour this area and find out!

"Your Kingdom Come" Summit on the Missional Church:  At 7 PM, we gather for an hour and a half of worship, celebration of what God has done and will do through our collective work, and a few items of business.  During this time, you will see a couple of films that contain the stories of five people in our churches, and how God has used them and their skills to advance His Kingdom on earth.  You will also hear from one of our local church planters, who will thank our churches for their support as he works in north Baltimore. And when this time is over, we think the challenges you will hear will drive you back to our display area to answer the call God has placed on your life to serve Him within your own sphere of expertise and influence.

This is going to be a great night, and its only about 55 hours away!  So if you live in this area, I hope to see you there!

Westminster Baptist Church
354 Crest Lane
Westminster, Maryland

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pastoral Authority and the Good of the Church

The man sat in my office, his lip quivering from a mixture of fear, guilt, sorrow and hopelessness.  Tears streamed down his face as he finally mustered the courage to look at me and confess actions he never thought he'd be capable of.

Pastor Joel, I cheated on my wife.

I can share this account, and everything that comes after, and still keep confidentiality because, sadly, this scenario has happened many times in my 20-plus years of ministry.  What is even more sad is the typical scenario that follows.

We pray together, cry together, and I ensure him of God's love for him and desire to see him restored, and my love for him and commitment to walk with him through what comes next.  After about an hour of hearing his story--including all the feelings and events that led to his sin, we begin to talk about where to go from here.  My counsel in this situation is fairly uniform:

You have to tell your wife, and you both need to have that conversation in the context of supportive professional crisis counselors who can help you.  Our church can help arrange that meeting, and I will be there also.  God forgives you, but you will still need to face the consequences that come with the fact that you have broken your marriage covenant.  In doing so, your wife now has the option of deciding whether she wants to help repair what has been broken, or exercise her Biblical right to leave you.  This is her decision, and it is her right to know the truth from you so she can make it.  Regardless of what happens, God loves you, we love you, and want to see you restored, and if your wife agrees, your marriage restored.

With full confession to his pastor complete and the beginnings of a plan in the works, the man leaves my office, thankful for the prayer and support he has received.  Then, usually a day or so later, I get a phone call:

Pastor, I don't think this plan is going to work because [fill in the blank with whatever excuse you want.  Every single one I've ever heard in the last 20 years has been lame].  Plus, as the head of my home, I don't feel my wife is ready to hear this yet.  But can you and I continue to meet? Because I know I still need counseling.

Again, my counsel in response to such nonsense has also been historically uniform.

For one thing, no male who is not man enough to confess this kind of sin to his wife is qualified to be "head" of anything.  If you want your headship back, you have to first reclaim your manhood, which was severely marred when you broke your marriage covenant.  We have offered to help you, and give you and your wife the support you will both need to get through this.  When you last left my office, you and I had an agreement, which you are also now trying to break, so no, I will not see you for counseling, as you have not yet followed my initial counsel.  When you decide you are ready to do the right thing by your wife, as I have instructed, I am ready to give you all the help you need.  But until then, you and I have nothing further to discuss.

And then comes the big one.......

But, but, you are supposed to be my PASTOR!

The Scriptural term "pastor" is adapted from the agrarian function of a shepherd--someone who watches over and cares for his flock, protects them from harm, guides them on the right path, and always acts in their best interests.  In the New Testament, this term (poimen, best translated "shepherd"), is coupled with two other terms:  episcopos (best translated "overseer") and presbeuteros (best translated "elder")  And in order to get an accurate and fully-orbed view of the duties of a pastor, all three terms, and their relationship to each other, must be well-understood.  When linked together in a Scripturally accurate way, the picture that emerges is of a man who possesses the spiritual "age" (elder) to discern spiritual matters accurately among the people God has called him to lead, the spiritual strength (pastor) to serve them in a way that understands their best spiritual interests, and the spiritual authority (overseer) to guide them in truth.

Yet somehow in the modern age, the pastoral office has been reduced to that of a family chaplain who simply pats people on the head and recites spiritual platitudes to make them feel better.  In my own denomination, the job description for many pastors as spelled out by most churches includes the phrase, "he shall watch over and care for the flock."  Ask any average church member what that means, and they will tell you it means he needs to be present in hospitals and nursing homes.  Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the Biblical role of pastoral authority.

The shepherds of the first century didn't just carry a staff.  They also carried a rod.  And some of the most difficult people to pastor are those who are offended when the rod is employed.  But if your pastor is going to stand in front of Jesus and give account for doing what is always in your best interest, then blessing your idols, excusing your sin, and refusing to hold you accountable in the local church context will result in THAT day being a very, very bad day for him.

Those who sit in our churches week after week need to remember that a good pastor wants good for his people, and the path to good doesn't always "feel" good.  Conversely, Pastors who truly have a heart for their people will occasionally break out the rod of correction when there is clear evidence that its needed.  Shepherd-like compassion mixed with Elder-like discernment will sometimes result in Overseer-like authority being exercised, because we'd rather see our people temporarily uncomfortable than permanently harmed--or worse yet--eternally damned.

Which is why phone calls like I've referenced above usually end in this way:  Yes, I am your Pastor and I take that role seriously.  I love you, and I want good for you, which is why I will not stand by while you seek to control a situation to your own short-term benefit.  When you are willing to follow my counsel, I will invest as much time in you as is necessary to get you where God wants you.  Until then, know I'm praying for you--that God would break you as I can't so that you will come back to Him where you belong.

Sometimes its hard, gut-wrenching work, but those I've counseled have one thing right: I'm supposed to be their pastor.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Gotcha Day," Adoption, and the Kingdom of God

Three years ago today, Amy and I were sitting in a hotel room in Lanzhou, China waiting for a knock at the door that would bring to a conclusion an 18 month journey toward having a new member of the Rainey family.  I was the first one to open the door, and the first to physically set my eyes on this beautiful young lady you see to your right.

Adoptive parents call this a celebration of "Gotcha Day."  As I think back on that moment, and every moment since, I am grateful to God, not only for this little girl, but for everything He has taught me through her.  We were already the parents of two boys, but a daughter is different, and this one definitely owns her Daddy's heart.  No one else on earth could convince this scruffy, Harley-riding redneck to cuddle up on the couch and watch a children's program involving fairies with a British accent.  But I don't mind singing along if it means watching her dance, and seeing her face light up with a smile.

But our relationship hasn't always been this way.  In fact, the first time she saw me, she was frightened of me.  Since she had spent the first 18 months of her life in an orphanage, she had probably never seen a man.  She most certainly had never seen a big, hairy white one!  So in many ways, our relationship had to develop very differently.

Every experience with her since then has taught me more about my own faith.  As followers of Jesus, we believe that the act of adoption is more than a mere act of mercy toward an otherwise homeless child.  The reason James calls this "pure and spotless religion" (James 1:27) is because when we partake in this enterprise, we are reflecting the Kingdom values of a heavenly Father who brings alien children--you and me--into His own family.  Yet every day with Abigail Grace Rainey teaches me another experiential lesson that confirms this reality of the Kingdom of God.

Four days after we met her, I posted the following journal entry online.  Since that time I've added a few thoughts to what is below, but the spirit and intent are the same.  Enjoy!

One of the things our agency, social worker, and other wise people warned us about was the issue of attachment.  Sometimes, the child will not adapt early on to either parent, which creates a high stress situation for parents and their adoptive children that can last for several weeks.  The most common scenario however, is that the child attaches to one parent (usually Mom, since many of these children have not had much exposure at all to men in the orphanage) while keeping their distance from the other.

Where our Gracie is concerned, it looks  like dear ol' Dad drew the short straw.  She has quickly attached herself to Mom, but continues to be highly suspicious of me.  A couple of days ago, Amy jokingly said to Grace "he looks like the abominable snowman, I know."  I quickly corrected my wife, reminding her that we are, in fact, on the Asian continent and therefore I cannot be the abominable snow monster.  If anything, I must be a Yeti.

It stuck.  I'm now "the Yeti."

Currently, Grace occasionally lets me play with her; "play" of course being tightly defined as her throwing toys on the floor and me picking them up to hand back to her.  Come to think of it, maybe I'm not a Yeti after all.  Maybe I'm just a golden retriever.

For the past several days its been "two steps forward--one step back" where my new relationship with this little girl is concerned.  I'm totally OK with it, and thankful that I was warned in advance of this.  Plus, it makes the "connective" moments with her all the more rewarding.  But I sense that the best reward through this process is what I'm learning from this little one; a highly spiritual lesson she doesn't even realize she is teaching.

Think about it this way.  18 months ago along with my wife, I began planning to adopt this little one whom I had never met, and who had never met me, into my family.  Enormous sums of time and money have been invested in this effort.  Now that she is legally ours, she bears my name, my provision, my protection, and all the blessings that come with being part of a nuclear family.  God willing, she will never again know what it means to be hungry.  She will never legitimately fear for her safety or her future.  She will never lack anything she needs, and all of this will be due to her father's provision.

Yet, as an adopted child, she doesn't fully understand all of this, and so her response to me is one of high suspicion and fear.  To her, I'm just a strange, scary looking Yeti who simply doesn't belong in this new picture she has now become a part of.

At the same time, she doesn't mind sleeping in this lush hotel room I'm providing, nor does she object to all the wonderful new food she has at her disposal because of her new Daddy.  Additionally, she also doesn't mind using the Yeti if it suits her purposes.  This morning at the breakfast table Mom told her "no," to which she responded by looking up at me, hoping she could divide the house and get her way.  It would seem Daddy isn't so scary after all if he can be used to accomplish her agenda.

In short, she now enjoys the full range of blessing that is available to her as an adopted child.  But currently, she has no real desire to develop a relationship with the one who has provided these blessings to her.

In other words, she is very much like all the rest of us.

Scripture tells us that before the world was created, God chose those of us who belong to Jesus to be His own (Ephesians 1:4-11).  Before we were even born He developed a master plan that included us belonging in His family.  At the right time, He sent Jesus Christ into time and space to die as our substitute (John 3:16, Romans 3:25-26) bearing the wrath of God against sin in our place.  Furthermore, He drew us to Himself (John 6:35-44) and quite literally "adopted" us into His family (Ephesians 1:5), making us co-heirs with his only begotten, blessing us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies, and providing for us what Paul says is an inheritance so great that our natural eyes, ears and brains can't even fathom what is in store for us. (1 Corinthians 2:9)

How do we respond to such great news?  From birth, we seek our own way.  We treat the Father with disdain.  We don't mind enjoying His blessings, its just the relationship with Him that we aren't that interested in.  We are sometimes afraid of Him, sometimes using Him, sometimes caustic toward Him, and many times abusive of His gifts. (Romans 3:10-18)

And what does the Father do in response?  He continues to love and pursue until we are truly His.  He doesn't give up, and He ALWAYS succeeds!

Yep, this darling little girl is teaching me more than she knows.  It is truly an honor to be her Daddy, and such a joy to emulate, as much as any fallen man is able, the actions of my heavenly Father toward my own daughter.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Are We Labeling, or Listening?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels; how they are used, and how they are misused. Watching the recent debate over the Washington shutdown this past week, I was struck by the way labels were used in the attempt of some legislators to pigeonhole others. And after 21 years in ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that the church participates in this same destructive exercise.  We rightfully lament the gridlock going on in D.C., but admittedly, the immature behavior of both Republicans and Democrats in my back yard is a reflection of our larger national propensity to prejudge others and depend on labels rather than relationships.  I find it ironic that in a day of civil rights legislation and anti-discrimination laws that permeate our culture, human prejudices are still just as strong as they have always been.

Now, I’m not against using labels. Labels can give us a sense of where people are coming from. They help us understand the philosophical rationale for decisions made, commitments kept, and why people care about the things they care about. But at the end of the day, a label doesn’t mean much unless it is understood in light of a person and that person’s context.

A personal example will illustrate this. I’m an evangelical Christian who believes in an inerrant Bible, a literal Adam and Eve, and the virgin birth, substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m also a complementarian that believes the Scriptures commend male pastoral leadership in the home and in the church.

But although I believe in a literal creation, I plant no flags in the ground regarding exactly when God spoke the created order into existence. I’ve read those who believe the earth is 6000 years old, and I’ve read those who believe the earth is tens of millions of years old. My position is that, since I wasn’t there, I have no idea.

Additionally, although I am a complementarian, I believe women are called to every manner of ministry in the church, including the teaching ministry. I find nothing in the text that prevents a woman—under the guidance of her pastor—from teaching the Bible, planning missions strategy, leading ministry efforts in the church, or teaching in a seminary or other institution of higher learning.

I could go on, but these two issues alone are enough for some people to say that the phrase “evangelical” doesn’t fit me. On one occasion about ten years ago, someone actually referred to me as a “liberal.” That was a first!

A few other examples of labels are:

Baptist: There has been much discussion over the last couple of years about what it means to “truly” be Baptist. But which kind of Baptist are we speaking of? Paul Tillich was an existentialist theologian who eventually denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, yet he called himself “Baptist.” Jack Hyles taught that women should always wear dresses and never cut their hair, and he called himself “Baptist.” Westboro "Church" (using that term loosely, I know) in Kansas promulgates a message of hatred for homosexuals, soldiers, and the United States as a whole, and they call themselves “Baptist.”

Living in Maryland, when I identify myself as “Baptist” it is likely that the person I’m talking to might invoke any one of the above expressions. I don’t live in the south where even the dogs and cats are members in good standing of the local Baptist Church. I live in a place where we are about as numerous as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and viewed with essentially the same degree of suspicion. So the only way for someone to really know what I mean when I apply the label to myself is to get to know me.

Liberal. This is a word that often gets tossed around carelessly, especially if your goal is to make someone else look bad. Problem is, not all forms of liberalism are bad!  Most of the “liberal arts” universities in America were started by Bible believing Christian groups. Furthermore, the domain of society this term is applied to makes all the difference in the world. Are we talking about political liberalism? Theological liberalism? Social liberalism? Educational liberalism? Each of these terms has an historical definition that separates many of them out from the usual perception of the “left-right” spectrum.

Muslim. Over the past two years, God has opened the door for me to interact with many new friends in the Muslim community. In that time, I’ve learned much about the lives and faith of these precious people, and when I watch FOX News, the Islam I hear described bears little resemblance to that practiced by the people I’ve come to know and love.

To be sure, Muslims of the sort described on our nightly news programs do exist. But Islam is a global, and thus diverse, faith. It is practiced through Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi expressions in dozens of countries around the world, and among 1.6 billion people worldwide. Consequently, a Muslim living in Instanbul, Turkey is probably very different from a Muslim living in rural Afghanistan, the North African desert, or among the immigrant communities that now live in various major cities throughout Europe and the United States. Think about the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in the Balkan region of southern Europe and a Pentecostal preacher in south Alabama. Both are “Christian.” That same sort of variety exists in the Islamic world as well.

Calvinist: Again, which kind are we talking about? Guys who don’t believe in evangelism? John MacArthur students committed to sound exposition? Those who minister in the tradition of Spurgeon? Dortians? Amyraldians? “Whiskey Baptists?” Those labels too can be highly confusing and polarizing.

Conservative. The 2012 Republican primary season ensured that this term was worn slick. What exactly is a “true conservative” or a “strong conservative” anyway? By the standards of some, William F. Buckley, who is arguably considered the father of modern political conservatism, would be considered a moderate today. And if ever there was a term that meant so many things that it means nothing, it’s the term “moderate.”

Is it possible to be theologically conservative yet educationally liberal? History proves that it is.

So where am I going with all this? Here is my big idea: If the labels we use to categorize others can themselves have so many different expressions, then the only way I can truly get to know another human being is to spend time with them and build a relationship. Investing part of your life in a venture as risky as getting to know another human being can sometimes be messy. Sure, its easier to simply label people and move on. But in the end, that approach cheats us out of the tremendous blessing of sharing life, and for Christians, sharing our faith.

For Christians, this is an imminently important issue. We have, to a large extent, capitulated to the cultural propensity to use labels as a device to pigeonhole people and isolate ourselves from them. Then we wonder why we have such a difficult time connecting with our communities and the world. If we don’t build bridges, we will never share Jesus. And you can’t build bridges to culture without building relationships with human beings from every walk of life.

Use labels as reference points. Use them to understand someone’s personal background. But get to know people. All the labeling in the world is no substitute for sitting down with another human being and hearing from them directly. Plus, it’s the only way we can substantively engage the world Jesus died to save.