I referred a few days ago to the dangers of labels; conservative and liberal. I believe we live in a time when labels have less meaning than ever. I am just not sure what a person means by the use of these labels, especially with regard to the Christian faith. Let me explain.
If being a conservative means that one takes the creeds and the core of the Christian faith with all seriousness, and really believes the truth claims of the historic faith are essential to right confession and life, than count me as a conservative. I wish to conserve the ancient faith. But, and this is important, that faith is not conservative in terms of many modern issues we face that require us to think and grow as believers.
If being a liberal means that one has an openness to the sciences, to new ideas about solving persistent problems, to different ways of seeing the world and the church then I am a liberal. If liberal means that you take a suspicious view of the Bible’s integrity and truthfulness or that you think what the church rightly believes is unimportant then I am most definitely not a liberal. If liberal means you believe the gospel has implications for public life and for human flourishing, and by this understanding you means that it speaks directly and powerfully to issues of justice and poverty, then I am a liberal.
The devil, as the old saying goes, is always in the details. This is why I find the labels unhelpful, if not seriously misleading.
Over the course of my life I have shared ministry with all kinds of ministers and churches. Some would be called liberal and some conservative. I have often been pleasantly surprised. In some conservative churches I have found leaders, and some of the people, who are not fighting about “young earth creationism” or ludicrously literal views of Scripture. In some liberal mainline churches I have been pleasantly surprised to discover a deep love for the gospel and a clear preaching of grace, faith and new life. I have no doubt, for example, that some of those who embrace a view of same-sex marriage are not otherwise liberal in the essential articles of Christian faith. At the same time I’ve discovered conservative Christians who are morally opposed to same-sex marriage, as I am, but who are far more charitable and open to homosexual people as their neighbors than some who attend liberal churches. I learned a great deal about this whole business of faith and fear growing up in the racist South. In fact, this is where I first learned that these labels fail to help move people along a path to greater faithfulness to Jesus as Lord.
What I think we need today, more than ever, is a Christian faith that is biblical and confessional, while it is also flexible and open to the world around us. One could call this “contextualizing” but even this word has all kinds of baggage.
People look around and ask, “What kind of church is this?” The answer will have a lot to do with the church and her future mission.
A major obstacle to what I am writing about is abstract theology. Through abstract theology, taught in seminaries for well over a hundred years now, we have created battle lines that are now blurry and not so helpful. This development is unfortunate. N. T. Wright understands this when he writes:
The early creeds and the baptismal confessions which partly underlay them, were not little pieces of abstract theologizing to satisfy the curious intellect, but symbols which functioned as such, badges which marked out this community from others in terms of the god in whom they believed. From the start, Christian creeds were not so much a matter of “faith seeking understanding” as “community seeking definition” – and finding it in that which was believed about the true god . . .
Christian “theology,” then, was born and nurtured in the context of faith, worship, baptism and Eucharist, and came to expression through the need to mark out the community which worshipped this god from communities that worshipped others (The New Testament and the People of God, 368).
It is a rare gift to be in a community of Christians who genuinely seek to balance biblical and ancient faith with open-mindedness to truth which comes from sources other than the Bible and the church. While Christians should hold highest esteem for the Bible, as God’s Holy Word, they should not equate everything that is true with the Bible. The Bible guides us to the faith which saves and to wisdom in making choices that God desires for our well-being. But it is not the only word we have about truth. Forgetting this has landed more than a few conservatives in a place they need not be. And forgetting that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God has landed liberals in any even more precarious place at times.