I began three days ago asking the question: “Are you liberal or conservative?” I suppose I think about this question more than most of my readers. One reason may be that a writer becomes the public target of critics from both sides of so many debates. Another might be the presence of the nearly ubiquitous profile page on Facebook. I read these pages almost every day and see people list themselves as conservative, liberal or something else. My Facebook profile says that my political views are independent and my religious views are described as follows: “A Jesus follower rooted in the ecumenical confessions and creeds of the earliest Christian churches.” I have stuck with that for several years and think I will let it stand still.
I read a post recently that actually attacked people for referring to themselves as “Jesus followers.” I was surprised since I use the term a lot these days. But then I suppose the person expressing this criticism felt that this kind of answer was a wishy-washy cop-out. But I mean it in a robust and very biblically-nuanced way. But no matter, if you wish to see this as a liberal statement then you will. As I have defined liberalism, especially religious liberalism, I am not a liberal. But the problem for me is on the other end. I am not a conservative either, at least not in the way that most use that term today. Much of what passes for Christian conservatism is too far to the extreme right for my faith and calling. So if pressed I am neither a liberal nor a conservative, at least by the commonly accepted definitions.
I am a Protestant minister in good standing with the Reformed Church in America, a mainline confessional church. I loathe schism, love creeds, work with people across a very wide spectrum of ideas and practices and happily follow Jesus as I understand him primarily through the witness of the New Testament account of his life and teaching. I want to confess and live a faith that is solidly anchored in both biblical teaching and church tradition, thus the mission I lead is called ACT 3: Advancing Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium. But I still remain a seeker of truth. Some might call me a “moderate” but then that word is used as over against what is seen as two extremes. A moderate sounds like someone with no conviction at all and that is not me.
In today’s highly charged political and religious climate the ideologies of the far left and far right are very strong. These groups seem to have the microphone and the rest of us are getting drowned out by all the noise. Unlike so many conservatives I do not see every issue of faith and morals in absolute terms. “For now we see in a mirror dimly . . . Now I know only in part . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:12). For many conservatives the Bible is God’s Word, they have studied it and they believe that they know what it says and what it means, at least in most every instance. Sometimes I think they are right in their conclusions but they arrived at them in all the wrong ways. At other times I think even their conclusions are profoundly flawed. This, for example, is how some conservatives respond to an issue like women in ministry. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” God made it very clear that women are never to teach men, or hold authority over men in any ecclesial context, so we must defend a (softened) patriarchal stance on the role of women or we will compromise the Bible’s integrity. I reject that conclusion deeply and want to move the dialogue to a wholly different place.
The other end of this conservative/liberal spectrum can be seen in radical expressions about Jesus like those of the Jesus Seminar. This can also be seen in writers like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (photo left). The purpose of these scholars is to sift through the New Testament picking and choosing what they keep or reject. While I believe there is much to be gained by the historical Jesus quest I reject this kind of response completely. The conclusion of the Jesus Seminar, at least to date, has been to debunk almost everything important that Jesus ever uttered, or at least everything that we believe he uttered as recorded by the four Gospels. This same approach can be seen in the misuse of the science of biblical criticism. Scholars often become radical revisionists who separate Israel’s real history from the Old Testament record/story. As an example, it is one thing to have honest questions about how to understand the way Genesis 1-3 works given the conclusions of modern science and quite another to reject the theology of the narrative which has a great deal to teach us about God the Creator, the creation, the fall of the human race, male and female (both made in God’s image) relationships and marriage.
In all my thinking and writing I intentionally seek to avoid the extremes as much as possible. I want to help ordinary thinking Christians make sense of their faith and live it out as faithfully as possible in confusing times. I reject the idea that faith and history are incompatible sources of knowledge or truth. I reject the idea that there is not a core to Christianity that is true and always will be true. I want to be able to affirm all that is true without insisting that I know all truth.
In all of this my goal is to know Christ and to make him known. Tomorrow I will develop this in one final post in this series of five.
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Thanks for sharing on some issues that touch all of us in one way or another.
Here are a few of my impressions on all this:
1. John Stackhouse wrote an article several years ago where he says the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are not really meaningful anymore and they produce a very political, polarized kind of Christianity. I have certainly observed this too but I still don’t have any problems with the terms if people want to use them (I really don’t care one way or the other).
2. Whether we like it or not, I think confessional Christians by definition will get pigeoned holed as conservative (that includes you John and me and many people on this list) if for no other reason that the Evangelical center and Christianity in America continues to lean and move towards the left.
I still remember a conversation I had with Joseph Stowell when he was the President of Moody Bible College in 1991. Evangelicals were in crises and were losing their influence and identity way back then.
They chose at the ‘Evangelical Affirmations’ conference two roads for the future of Evangelicalism.
1. The first was to be ‘big tent Evangelicals’ and put the focus on size and inclusivity.
2. The second was nobody wanted to be associated with Fundamentalists or fundamentalism so cultural mandates for being relevant, successful, and reasonable (scientific and culturally respectable) became the calling cards of the day.
Joseph Stowell said back then that if this is the direction that Evangelicalism is going to go, some of us are probably better off calling ourselves fundamentalists because tommorows fundamentalists are todays Evangelicals and todays liberals are tommorows Evangelicals.
I appreciate this latest series of yours, as it fits well with my overall convictions and sensibilities. As I have been reading your recent posts I was reminded time and again of a sermon I heard by Tim Keller wherein he says:
“No one had ever seen a group of people that held to all those practices. They were aliens. They weren’t like the Greeks. They weren’t like the Romans. They weren’t like the Jews. They were aliens. Well, you say, “That was then.” Well, okay, now think about this for a second. What if there was a group of people now that were following those same set of biblical values?… Rejecting blood thirsty sports (militarism), empowering women, reveling in the combination of races and classes, radically serving the poor. What kind of group is that?… Sounds liberal. Forbidding abortion, forbidding sex outside of marriage, forbidding same sex practices, insisting that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and what’s that sound like?… It sounds like a horribly conservative group. Guess what, we’re still aliens. We do not fit into Western relativistic individualism; we don’t fit into traditional hierarchical legalism, we don’t fit. We don’t fit conservative, we don’t fit liberal. We’ve always been aliens.”
I think there is strong resonance with what you are saying here, and what Keller expresses.
On a more personal note, one of the things that most get’s under my skin is how many Christians seem to toe-the-line with the options that the world gives us regarding politics and culture. When Jesus stood before Pilate and said that his Kingdom is not of this world, I believe one of the implications is that following him means that we are not going to fit very easily in either the conservative or liberal camp.