Dr. Carla Sunberg | March 7, 2016

We live in a world of labels: 











No sooner do we encounter someone or something that we want to slap on a few labels, maybe even stereotyping and determining how we will respond from here on out. It’s our culture – it’s what we do – but is it really what we ought to do when we are a part of God’s church? 

Probably the most divisive labels I have heard used regarding the church are “conservative” and “liberal.” If you do a simple Google search of the words “conservative” and “liberal” you will find that they have both been co-opted by politics. The original root of the word liberal actually comes from someone having a generous spirit and being broad-minded,[1] and the word conservative relates to conserving traditions, (views, conditions, or institutions) and marked by “moderation or caution.”[2] As the words have become incorporated into our political language, so they have also been linked to religion; and as a result we are ready to jump on the labeling bandwagon and immediately try to determine whether a church or an organization falls into a particular category. 

I would like to suggest that when the church, or a church-based organization, is living into the mission of God, they will find themselves strapped with both labels. That is because the current understanding of these labels has come to us from the world of the secular, and they have become polarizing. We have marginalized the work of the church because it hasn’t always fit into the political categories of liberal or conservative. The reality is that life in the kingdom may at times be viewed liberal, and at other times conservative, because it is missional. It’s just different! Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and he was quite adamant that this was not a political solution to the world. People have tried to label NTS and, depending on who is doing the labeling, we often find ourselves called everything along the conservative to liberal spectrum. I can live with that because I believe that is exactly where we find the kingdom and the mission of God. NTS missions professor David Wesley reminds us, “Mission is the very nature of the church, seeking first God and his kingdom. It flows directly from God. A living relationship with the God of mission distinguishes the church as a living organism, as opposed to a mechanistic (and secular) organization.”[3] It is this living organism which refuses to be defined by secular labels because the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom of this world. 

In a time of political polarization, Christians need to be especially cautious because our labels can soon become divisive. Our theological fathers, John and Charles Wesley, were careful to lead people into the via Media; a middle way which some may say is a label in and of itself, but it’s not one that the religious or the political world is embracing. Peacemakers are those who are willing to join hands with others who are living life within the kingdom, and this seems to be somewhere in the middle ground. Unfortunately, when you live within the tension of that middle space you can be shot at from both sides—but isn’t that what happened to Christ? The secular and the religious world had a hard time understanding him because they couldn’t comprehend his kingdom. 

In the fourth century, things began to change for Christianity as the church began to find favor with the political regime. Sadly, the church then became enticed by the idea of power. Politics has always been about power. Labels are power. If I can plant a little seed of doubt about you or your motives by using a label, I may just transfer some of your power to me. 

I would like to suggest that this is not kingdom, nor missional living. The missional church and Seminary is one that is centered and defined by the Missio Dei (mission of God), seeking to be recreated in the image of God so as to be holy in heart and life. The missional church and Seminary lives the cruciform life through incarnational presence and self-emptying service for the sake of the world. Jesus’ death on the cross was the culmination of his self-sacrifice, the release of his power for the sake of the lost. Labeling for the sake of power becomes the antithesis of the work of Christ. 

Maybe we need to stop spending time on the labels and focus on the missional life in the kingdom.

[1] Cited 2 March, 2016. Online: 

[2] Cited 2 March, 2016. Online: 

[3] Schwanz, Keith (2010-03-01). Missio Dei: A Wesleyan Understanding (p. 21). Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition. 

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