Christians Need to Be More Conservative, Not Less

It’s happened again.

The other day someone casually referred to me as “liberal” (don’t worry, Peter, I don’t hold it against you). Every time that happens I kind of smile to myself—if it’s said innocently—or else I cringe inwardly—if it’s said pejoratively.

It’s not that I particularly mind being called “liberal.” In some circles that’s the worst thing anyone can be. But the word can be a wonderful compliment: think of a doctor who is “liberal” with their time, or a wealthy person who is “liberal” with their charitable giving. (Or maybe a Christian who is “liberal” with their love, “liberal” in the grace and mercy they show to others…?)

It’s more that the word doesn’t really fit me in the way people seem to think.

Most often people seem to think I am theologically “liberal.” That’s very strange.

They might mean (though I doubt it) that I hold to classic liberal theology, that I’m a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf von Harnack. But I don’t, and I’m not.

Or they might mean (more likely) that I don’t believe in the classic doctrines of Christianity, that I am not theologically “orthodox.” But I do, and I am.

I believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons. I believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man. I hold fast to the good news of salvation through Jesus, Messiah and Lord and Son of God, who died for our sins and was bodily resurrected. I look to the Scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative for Christian belief and practice. I can recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without batting an eye or crossing my fingers behind my back—pretty much the definition of being “theologically orthodox.”

In other words, I’m actually quite conservative, theologically speaking. Within the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs through history and around the globe, I’m pretty securely on the conservative side of things.

Here’s the real issue, it seems to me: I don’t fit a lot of people’s culturally conditioned notions of how “conservative Christians” act, or what else they believe.

Beliefs like biblical inerrancy or young earth creationism or penal substitutionary atonement or the rapture have crept into Christian thinking over the past few centuries, and have become part of the package of “conservative Christianity”—but they are actually recent theological innovations, not historical Christian orthodoxy.

Likewise, things like upholding “family values” or “traditional marriage,” or being a “Christian nation,” or supporting war efforts or gun rights or free-market capitalism, or abstaining from alcohol, have become part and parcel of “conservative Christianity”—but they have actually grown out of our particular Western culture, with nothing timeless or universal about them.

Some of these sorts of things I may agree with in one sense or to a certain degree, but I hold them loosely. Other things, well beyond these examples, I have questioned and continue to wonder about. Many of these sorts of things I simply don’t believe in or agree with. Some I’m even convinced are actually harmful distortions of genuine Christian faith.

But in many “conservative Christian” circles, these kinds of beliefs and ideas and behaviours tend to get all lumped together with genuine Christian orthodoxy: believing in biblical inerrancy is on par with believing in the Trinity, upholding heterosexual marriage is on the same level as upholding the gospel, and so on.

liberalYou’ll have noticed the quotation marks around “conservative Christians” through all this. That’s not because I don’t think these folks are truly Christian. It’s partly because that’s just the common phrase used to describe Christians who hold to these kinds of views. But it’s also because I’m not convinced they really are all that conservative.

Yes, you’ve heard it here first: “conservative Christians” are not conservative enough. They need to be more conservative, not less.

They need to go back to genuine, generous, historic Christian orthodoxy—and hold fast to it, being wary of all those trendy theological innovations like biblical inerrancy or young-earth creationism.

They need to go back to the original, apostolic, gospel story of Jesus—and hold fast to it, being cautious of all those recent cultural accretions like “family values” or teetotalism.

They need to go back to our sacred Scriptures, that diverse collection of ancient human writings inspired by God—and hold fast to it, being suspicious of all those simplistic assertions of right and wrong.

We Christians—all of us—need to be more conservative, not less.

And if we do so, we might actually find ourselves becoming truly liberal—in the best senses of the word.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.


On Not Throwing the Theological Baby Out with the Bathwater

I’ve been reflecting recently on my faith journey, in particular on the “stuff I believe” side of things. I think that journey could be summed up this way: continually sifting through it all, sorting out the essentials, casting off the non-essentials.

Throw out baby with bathwater 2I suspect many Christians go through that kind of process as they get older, whether consciously or not. But I think that’s especially true of those who grew up as I did within a more conservative stream of Christianity.

Very early in my thinking on things theological I determined one thing: this process of “essentializing” my faith would have to be done carefully. I was in my early 20s, and I distinctly recall thinking that it would be all too easy to look around at the sinking boat of my own faith tradition and jump ship to another, only to find that it was in an even worse state.

To quote an old saying, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Or another: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My faith journey has by and large been about draining bathwater and saving babies.

I don’t have any illusions that I’ve done that flawlessly, and I’m still very much on the journey. But I find it disheartening to see other Christians either so unthinkingly clinging to their faith tradition exactly as they have inherited it, or so carelessly casting off their faith tradition and jumping to a sinking ship worse off than the first.

There’s an awful lot of dirty theological bathwater still being bathed in, and there are an awful lot of good theological babies being thrown out.

Both sides of the problem trouble me, but lately I’ve been more concerned about the latter. For some reason it seems to me like progressives should know better. But all too often they don’t, and perfectly good theological babies get thrown out with all that dirty bathwater.

Scripture’s inspiration and authority get thrown out along with the naïve, uncritical readings of Scripture we grew up with—instead of developing a more nuanced, sophisticated view of what Scripture is and how its authority works for Christian faith and life.

Jesus’ uniqueness gets thrown out along with the negative, fear-based views of other religions we were taught—instead of exploring ways in which Jesus can still be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” without denying the reality and truth of others’ religious experiences and claims.

The reality of sin and its devastating consequences gets thrown out along with the legalism and judgmentalism and harmful views of human nature that were modeled for us—instead of crafting healthy and helpful ways of thinking about the harms we commit against one another and our world.

And on and on it goes—babies thrown out with the bathwater.

But how do we stop that from happening? How do we discern the good theological babies when we’re trying ourselves to emerge from all that bad theological bathwater?

I’m sure there are many helpful answers that could be given. Here are two that I’ve found especially useful along the way.

First, don’t assume that the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical way of reading the Bible or thinking about Christianity is in fact the “original” or “authentic” or even “biblical” way.

Many people make this assumption—both conservatives and progressives. No, the Bible’s “divine inspiration” doesn’t mean that the Bible’s every narrative is a historical record or every depiction of nature is a scientific assertion, or that the Bible speaks to every imaginable issue, or speaks with a single, clear voice—so you can believe in biblical inspiration without holding to those rather modern ideas. No, “salvation” in the Bible doesn’t mean “getting to go to heaven when I die”—so you can speak of salvation but understand that in the more biblical terms of restoration, reconciliation, flourishing life, societal justice, and more.

Examples of such false assumptions could be multiplied many times over. Don’t give in to those assumptions, but instead do the hard work of careful biblical interpretation and wide-ranging theological reading and reflection yourself before you reject those long-held Christian beliefs. You might be surprised to discover that the traditional ideas mean something other, or something more, than what you were first taught—and they have real traction within our twenty-first century human experience.

And that leads to a second suggestion: in discerning essentials from non-essentials, let three theologies—biblical, historical, and global—be your guides.

By biblical theology I don’t mean “the teaching of the Bible,” but rather the teachings of the Bible—plural—the Bible’s many theologies, in all their complex diversity-in-unity. Read the writings of Scripture carefully and in context, seeing both what makes them different and what holds them together. Do historical and global theology the same way: explore Christian thinking across time and space, through history and around the world, listening carefully for both dissonance and harmony. The harmony of Scripture and Church speaks to essentials, the dissonance to the ways in which God’s people have worked through the challenge of living out their faith in different times and places.

I know of no better antidote to either the narrowness of fundamentalism or the indulgence of hyper-progressivism than a good dose of biblical, historical, and global theology. Read widely across Scripture and through history, listen to diverse Christian voices from around the world, and allow your vision of Christian faith to expand as your list of essentials shrinks and your confidence in those few essentials grows.

Yes, there’s a lot of dirty water to be chucked in current versions of conservative Christianity.

But please, for the love of God, check the water for babies.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.