In the United States today, no two terms are more polarizing in the English lexicon than the words "conservative" and "liberal."
Time Magazine recently reported that political polls reveal an even split among conservatives and liberals. Each now claims 45 percent of the electorate, while only 10 percent remains undecided. Never before has this nation been so polarized, the article said.
What is true in the political landscape is readily apparent in the religious realm as well. While the terms can be used in descriptive ways, all too often they are used in a pejorative fashion. ("You must be one of those liberals!" or "What do you expect of those conservatives!") Both become code words for those other people who don't think or act like us.
Unfortunately, when this happens in the church, such stereotyping not only fails to build up the body of Christ, but it makes communication more difficult between people who usually have far more in common than they have differences. Furthermore, it also implies that truth can be found with only one faction or another when, in fact, the threads of both conservatism and liberalism are woven throughout the history of the Christian tradition.
The church of Jesus Christ—be it the UCC or known by another name—is by definition a conservative institution. The church is, quite literally, a conserver of values and beliefs. As such, part of its DNA is to maintain and resist changing traditional or existing views or beliefs. Anyone who has been part of a church for long understands this. It is by tradition that we are grounded, shaped and nurtured.
But the church of Jesus Christ is also a liberal institution. If we define liberal, as Webster does, as "one who is open-minded in the observance of orthodox or traditional forms," then who was more liberal than Jesus? Not only did Jesus challenge the purity codes of his day (talking to women, eating with Gentiles, healing on the Sabbath), but he also advocated a radical new understanding of God that welcomed outsiders—often at the expense of insiders—and shook Judaism to its roots. It certainly wasn't adherence to existing traditions and beliefs that led to Jesus' death. To this day, the church has been a liberating religious and social force through the world.
The church is both conservative and liberal. To insist otherwise is to ignore the contradictions of human life and the context of each local congregation.
Rather than using these terms as weapons to separate the sheep from the goats, should we not view them as gifts that can help us understand and appreciate how the God revealed in Jesus Christ speaks to so many people in so many different circumstances?
After all, the primary question for the church—including the UCC—is not "Are you liberal or conservative?" The primary question is "Do you know and have a relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ?"
The Rev. Stephen C. Gray is Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister.