I have been following an online conversation about labels with great interest. It started with Ross Douthat‘s article on the Episcopal church. Diane Butler Bass then wrote a response. Ben Gosden than wrote a response to both of them. In his response Ben critiques both Douthat and Bass and comes to the conclusion, “however, they both get it wrong for me because they continue to perpetuate a vision of the church where labels divide us.” While I appreciate Ben’s post and conclusion, I respectfully disagree. Labels are not the problem.
To be fair, I am not a fan of labels. One of my fears is that I will be mislabeled or people will discriminate against me because of a label. Before I came back to central Pennsylvania, I was afraid that I might be labeled because of where I went to seminary and judged before I even started serving a church. I wrestle with labels that I have used to describe myself. Some labels that I have claimed in the past, no longer quite fit. In turn, labels are something I avoid claiming when possible.
All that said, I started to see the value of labels when I read Roger Olsen’s reflection on why he will not give up the label of evangelical. Labels have a purpose. Christian is a label. United Methodist is a label. Those are two labels I claim, though I sometimes struggle with what I perceive as baggage attached to the labels. Unless you are living in a cave, you are going to have to deal with labels. Now I am sure that Ben was more concerned about labels such as conservative or liberal than Christian or United Methodist. Often these are the labels that seem to divide us in the church and in society. I contend though that the labels are not the real problem. A person claiming to be a conservative or liberal is not a problem as long as that label does not come above the person’s identity in Christ.
The problem is that we as a church (and as a society) struggle with communicating well and conflict resolution. If we communicated well and had better ways to deal with problems, conservatives and liberals could get along and still claim their respective labels. Instead, we communicate poorly and frame conflict in ways that exasperate everything. It is our struggle to communicate well and problem solve well that divides us.
The problems associated with how we communicate are endless. A few problems in communication that grind my gears are:
- lack of empathy
- lack of fairness
- not listening
- patronizing perspective
- no common goal
These problems with communication exacerbate conflict. Conflict is not an inherently bad thing. Change often comes as a result of conlifct. When conflict leads to positive changes, it can be powerful. When we communicate poorly though, resolving conflict becomes harder.
Poor communication coupled with poor conflict resolution skills leads to the divisions that hurt the church. The problems found in the communication become problems in resolving the conflict. Instead of approaching the conversation/conflict with empathy, active listening, a sense of fairness, respect, and a common goal, too often the conflict boils down to issues of winning and rightness.
The labels themselves are not the problem. Claiming an identity or set of values is not inherently problematic. What is problematic is when people claiming different labels find themselves with different perspectives on an issue and it becomes a conflict. When we communicate well and use conflict resolution skills, the issue becomes an opportunity for growth and relationship building.
My dream for the church is not that we abandon our perspectives or labels that we might claim for ourselves. I hope that we can agree what our common goal is as a church (might I suggest that it is following Jesus the Christ and inviting others to follow). In living out that common goals we should value and relish our different perspectives and identities as long as they do not supersede our ultimate identity and purpose in Christ. In disagreements we might approach each with discernment while working hard to communicate well and practice conflict resolutions skills.