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By Brian Keepers

“I can’t tell if you’re conservative or liberal,” she says to me. The look on her face, the tone in her voice, betray not just confusion but a level of irritation.

I don’t fault her for this. She’s part of a larger society, and a particular culture here in the Midwest, that has taught her to think in categories and labels. To put people in boxes based on where they stand on certain issues or how they cast their ballot at the voting booth. By “conservative” or “liberal,” she means “Republican” or “Democrat.” These are the two choices. The line in the sand is clearly drawn.

I suspect that what she’s really asking, beneath the surface, is this: As my new pastor, can I trust you? Are you safe? It is safe to know you and make myself known to you?

It’s not just her, I do it too. Ascribe labels and categories, and force others to fit into them. We all do it to some extent. It’s the instinct of “tribalism” that has been part of human nature throughout history. Maybe it just seems worse since the 2016 election.

“I’m neither,” I say to her. “I’m a Christian. My allegiance is to Jesus and to his kingdom. I belong to Christ, and so do you.” The words just come out. They sound of truth, taste of truth when I speak them. But I’m not sure how helpful they are. She still looks at me with suspicion, still guarded.

More and more lately, I just don’t know where I fit. That feels really vulnerable to say in such a public space, but it’s how I feel.

I love Jesus more passionately than I ever have since becoming a Christian 27 years ago. I embrace the historic, orthodox faith—a kind of beautiful and generous orthodoxy (to borrow a phrase used by others). I believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative Word of God. I affirm life, from conception to death. I believe God’s design for marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. I want to see marriages strengthened and families flourish.

But I also believe that Jesus cares about people on the margins, and God is with us when we move towards “the other.” I care about advocating for refugees and immigrants, confronting prejudice and racism and discrimination in all its insidious forms, empowering women and standing against sexual abuse and misconduct. I care about reforming the criminal justice system, tackling gun violence, affordable health care for all, and ensuring that tax cuts don’t happen at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable.

So what does that make me—a conservative or a liberal?

The labels just don’t work for me. I’m not sure they’re working for any of us, especially Christians. Too often they just drum up the old culture wars, which get us nowhere.

I have friends who love Jesus, who embrace the Bible as their authority, and who come to different conclusions than me on a whole variety of issues. Rather than moving away from each other, I believe the Spirit calls us to move towards one another. Rather than putting up walls or retreating to our bunkers made up of people who “think just like me,” I believe Jesus calls us to build bridges. “There are times when Christians are called to bridge the gap rather than widen it,” writes Philip Yancey. We are living in such times.

Last week I had the privilege of getting to have coffee with Jerry Sittser (theology professor at Whitworth University), who was in Orange City for a few days. I was processing some of this with him, looking for wisdom on how to be a faithful pastor during times such as these. “How can I lead well,” I asked him, “when we are so quick to label each other and play to fault lines?”

Sittser referenced a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. The unknown author wanted to describe the peculiar nature of Christianity to a member of the Roman elite. What we learn from this letter, Sittser explained, is that from its inception, the early church had to figure out what kind of presence it was going to have in the shadow of the Roman Empire. Christians refused two equally perilous extremes: accommodating to the Roman culture on the one hand; and isolating themselves from it on the other hand. Instead, they had the courage to embrace a third way: they infiltrated the culture with a quiet, humble and uncompromising presence—bearing witness to a different king and a different kind of kingdom (all of this is the subject of Sittser’s forthcoming book).

“The task of your generation,” he went on, “is to help reframe the conversations that divide us. Theologically and biblically, reframe them and teach your congregation how to reframe them. Aim for a different target: Christ and the kingdom. Then do all of your ethics and politics from this bullseye.”

And then he said this: “When you are leading faithfully, staying true to the gospel, the Republicans in your congregation should feel uncomfortable. And so should the Democrats. But they should also find each other. They should find each other at the foot of the cross.”

And when he said these words, something deep inside me came alive, something opened up. Yes, that’s it. We all find each other at the foot of the cross. It’s at the cross that we move beyond our labels and categories to genuinely encounter each other. It’s at the cross that we stop trying to fit in and make others fit in (whatever that means), and we discover instead what it truly means to belong—both to God and to one another.

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Duane VandenBrink says:

    Brian, Thanks for sharing your experience and the words of wisdom. I am feeling better already!

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This was excellent. Twenty-five years ago I was aiming at this when I entitled my book on Reformed Church Order “Meeting Each Other.” But you have taken it deeper with Sittser’s words about meeting each other at the foot of the cross.

  • Linda in Seattle says:

    Thank you, Brian, for your courage to step into the fray of our uncivil public discourse. At the foot of the cross we are all standing on the same ground.

  • Syl Scorza says:

    My stance is much like yours, emphasizing several “conservative” issues and other “liberal” issues, but I run into difficulty at the polling booth, since the candidates tend to be more conservative or more liberal than I. I vote against the Sioux County majority, since marriage, giving birth, faith and attitude toward the Bible are all personal decisions that are taken by each individual, so they are better handled by pastors than political office-holders. It’s not easy for either group to take over the consciences of either members or voters.

  • Bruce Garner says:

    I have often told people that I am neither liberal nor conservative but one in the middle whose positions have been influenced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see you somewhere along there as well. Yet we differ on a couple of areas. One of your comments: “I believe God’s design for marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. I want to see marriages strengthened and families flourish.” does cause me some angst. Having spent literally decades praying and studying about “marriage” I am convinced that a marriage covenant can also exist between two people of the same sex who exhibit a loving, committed, monogamous, non-abusive, non-coercive, and non-exploitive relationship. I have witnessed far too many of them to think that they are not also blessed by God. We often forget that the “Biblical standard” is not “one man and one woman” but one man and as many women as he could support. The patriarchs are great examples of those who had multiple wives. The sons of Jacob/Israel were from at least 3 wives and there was no evidence that he wasn’t married to all of them at the same time. Polygamy was the common if not the norm in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in the Christian Testament, polygamy is only forbidden for bishops and deacons…no one else. For me this is an issue for which we need to bridge a gap rather than widen a divide. A family has always had numerous definitions and compositions, even today. So why should we exclude an entire group of people, faithful, God-loving people whose lives together are as much of an example as any between a couple of opposite sex?

  • Always good to hear from you Brian!
    You stated a Christ-like position well. Jesus was stereotyped during his ministry.
    People didn’t always know where he was coming from and accused him of being destructive of the status quo. Well!
    It is clear he was neither a door-mat to be stepped on, nor a violent revolutionary to attract a militarized force to overthrow an oppressive regime.
    To enter the life of all he encountered, in self-giving love, dying to his own agenda, looking to “God” (away from Self), truly caring for rich and poor alike.
    What a “Way” to go!
    Why was he hounded? Why didn’t he “go over” all that well, in the long run?
    He not only got under people’s skin, he brought about a new God-awareness, a fresh self-awareness, a new kind of “love” that turned his and our world upside down with its radical, non-domineering quality. Jesus, teach me how to do that; more and more. I’m humbled. I think we all need help — bearing “our” cross.

  • Kevin McMahan says:

    Thanks Brian. I appreciate Dr. Sittser’s wise words that our task is to ”help reframe the conversations that divide us” and that we are to “find each other at the foot of the cross.” This reminds me of John 12:31-33 where Jesus says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Verse 33 makes it clear, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” And it was disorienting to his listeners, as it is to us, because we’re more tied to our positions, our rightness (or leftness, or moderateness), over against others, than re-focusing on Christ “lifted up” – the only way to begin seeing each other as, first and foremost, beloved of God in Christ.

  • Todd Zuidema says:

    “When you are leading faithfully, staying true to the gospel, the Republicans in your congregation should feel uncomfortable. And so should the Democrats. But they should also find each other. They should find each other at the foot of the cross.” Amen, and Amen

  • Dori Wooldridge says:

    Hi Brian! I wholeheartedly agree with you…my heart aches when I see Christ followers express opinions that include personal attacks on the discussion subject…It completely disintegrates any credibility in the person speaking…Lord have mercy on us…

  • William Harris says:

    As some one who walks in the politically active side of things, I find there is a givenness in our political convictions, an embodiment. We live out our baptismal calling in the varied form of our particular lives. That I grew up in a university town surely frames my political thinking, no less than say growing up amongst the farmers of NW Iowa shapes that of others. Our divisions may not be defections so much as signs of varied way that God works in the particularity of our lives, part of or multiplicity of tongues we speak.

    For this Christian, the act of political engagement is cruciform. The challenge is always to see the other as a person. While politics pushes us to a sort of conflict, we need also an active sense of grace, an ability to forgive. If not, if we harden our hearts, then we fall into a sectarian stance, one where the only answer is that of Power. The turn to the Cross is a good one, but I think an incomplete turn. This recognition has me as an individual looking to the Cross, then seeing the other, as I hear it, this is still something of an individual task: me, the Cross, then you.

    Out of my own experience I have found the Eucharist to be a better place for recognizing and teaching me the gifts of grace, forgiveness and hospitality so essential for politics. The Table recognizes my embodied self, this political persona, even as it stretches my vision and heart to see that as one among many tongues speaking praise at the Banquet.

  • Jerry Van Es says:

    Brian, I agree with many of the things you share in this post. However, the statement “I believe God’s design for marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman” seems to be contrary to positions you state later in your post. A “traditional” view of marriage is by nature discriminatory, withholding the sacredness of marriage from a significant percentage of our population, including those in the church. Your position keeps LGBTQ people as the other and is prejudicial with its assumption that something is wrong with them and their orientation.
    Many of my LGBTQ friends exemplify what it means to be Christian, and it grieves me to know that the Church has caused them so much pain with its message, “Your orientation is the result of sin” and “You have no choice but to stay single.” Other LGBTQ friends do not feel welcome in most of our churches and have decided that they must choose between being queer or being Christian. I hope that you and others will reconsider this stand for “traditional marriage” and will instead welcome and celebrate our LGBTQ brothers and sisters!

  • Marlin P VIS says:

    “They should find each other at the foot of the cross.” I don’t know what this means, practically, that is. They (We) should find each other at the foot of the cross. Who? Democrats and Republicans? Okay. Conservatives and liberals? Okay. Men and women? Okay. A gay married couple and a straight married couple? Okay? I also assume we are talking about Christians here, right? Those who actually know that the foot of the cross refers to Jesus, right? Jews? Muslim? How would they find this cross we are talking about? How do they experience what we Christians talk about finding there at the foot of the cross? And where is the foot of the cross? Is it not the Communion Table, the Baptismal waters? If we should find each other at the foot of the cross, then how can we not live together in the Reformed Church in America? How come we can’t openly be in relationship together in our local churches? Is that the question you are asking, Brian?

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