I often feel as that guy looks when I think and write about topics that are divisive and a source of arguments and contention for Christians. I’ve lived on both sides of many of these issues. When I was child, I was taught (by well-intentioned Godly men) that being conservative meant being correct and being liberal meant being wrong. I wanted to be right in the eyes of the people I loved and respected and especially in God’s sight, so I did the best I could to think, act and look conservative.
I didn’t realize until I was older that an approach like that was dangerous to my faith. Since then, particularly since leaving college, my thoughts and ideas have grown and evolved. The growth and evolving hasn’t just come as a result of age and maturity (though that certainly does add to a persons’ ability to critically think through ideas). More than that though, God has used my decisions (and their consequences) to mold my faith. After college I went straight into youth ministry. After about three years I realized that I just wasn’t ready for the magnitude of that job, so I went into secular work. It was during those next five years that my spiritual life bottomed out and I realized the mistake I had made in grounding my faith in being conservative. Unfortunately, damage had been done.
It’s important to clarify that being conservative isn’t wrong, or right. Neither is being liberal. That’s not the point. The point is the journey, the destination and the map we use while we travel on our journeys en route to our destination. You see, when I left college I had been on a journey to the wrong destination for much of my entire life. My destination was thinking, acting, looking and being conservative. I did a really good job and had essentially reached the destination; and yet my faith collapsed beneath me as if I were standing in quick sand. Why? Because God never once asked or desired for me to end up there. It turned out that I had spent a short lifetime aiming at the wrong bulls-eye. Once I discovered this, it was just a matter of finding the right bulls-eye.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone in choosing the wrong bulls-eye. Or in my attitude towards those who chose to think differently than I do. For example, I once heard an Elder boast to the entire congregation that he was proud of being conservative, as he denigrated a Christian brother who he referred to as a liberal. So what, you might ask? Well, here’s the problem with that statement. It’s a man-made term with man-made inferences. God never once, in His revelation, said to be conservative, or liberal. He just said to be holy. Notice Peter’s comments in his first letter, “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in your behavior; because it is written, ‘you shall be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
How often do we use and hear these four words: progressive and traditional, liberal and conservative? When it comes to these words, Christians have done more defining than Webster himself. We’ve used our own definitions of these names to categorize and group ourselves and then to throw rocks at everyone who wasn’t invited into our group. It really needs to stop. Every day, I live with the guilt of knowing that I spent years with my head down looking for the next rock to hurl instead of looking up, searching for my brother to serve. I’ve asked God to forgive me. After God, I owe more people apologies than I could ever name in a lifetime.
For me, the irony is overwhelming. Not only in terms of my own guilt, but because I have been called both a liberal and an ultra-conservative. How is that possible? It’s possible because of the inherent fallacy of the name calling. Like I mentioned, I have spent most of my life being taught to be a conservative and doing my best to live out my training. So, I’m really not shocked that I have been described as an ultra-conservative. But when a friend told me that I was thought of as liberal and the congregation where my wife and I had just placed membership would not allow me to teach Bible classes, I was devastated; and I gave Satan the foothold I knew to avoid. The fact is that I was called an ultra-conservative because of my narrow-minded views and judgmental attitude. I was ‘marked’ as a liberal only because I went to Harding University. I suppose I should have gone to Freed-Hardeman. Although, for those Christians, the Memphis School of Preaching would have been even better.
Enough of the rambling monologue. Here’s how I define those terms. Perhaps, this will help you to arrive at your own definition or increase your personal understand of how you have been thinking. The idea of being ‘traditional’ implies the idea of sticking to traditions. For example, the congregation where I worship and serve has a tradition of assembling twice on Sunday. We’re traditional in that sense. Whereas, another congregation chooses to meet only in the morning for worship and Bible study then chooses to meet in smaller groups that evening. That congregation would be thought of as progressive because of they have progressed forward away from the tradition of meeting twice on Sunday.
Conservative and liberal is considerably more abstract and relative, which makes them harder to define with consistency and accuracy. This is also one of the fundamental disagreements I have against using these terms in any capacity (as it relates to characterizing Christians or specific congregations). To you, I might be liberal. But to another person I am a rigid and conservative fundamentalist. For example, the fact that I have absolutely no problem with a praise team being used to amplify worship would make me a liberal to some of my brothers and sisters in the area where I live. However, because I am not comfortable with a praise team band, many other folks whom I love dearly would think of me as a conservative. So where is the baseline? How do I know if I am right to label myself (or someone else) one way or the other? You don’t and you can’t. There will always be someone more or less liberal than you. As well, there will always be someone more or less conservative than you.
This leads to the biggest issue I have with these names; and why I am so tired of hearing them. THEY ARE NOT BIBLICAL NAMES. I am proud to be affiliated with the Restoration Movement (though I could hardly classify it as a movement these days). One self-defining term of the restoration plea is calling Bible things by Bible names. I’m not sure if that holds any authority with you or not. But I find it terribly ironic that many who hold to that creed also hold dearly to the idea that conservative is right (correct) and liberal is wrong. None of these four words (progressive, traditional, conservative, liberal) were ever uttered from the mouth of our Lord or those that He commissioned to begin and grow His Church. Why on earth would I then do it?!
Instead of approaching conflict and differences of opinion by hurling rocks across the arbitrary line that we have drawn, let’s step across the line and take our brothers by the hand and love each other. We’re not always going to agree. And on some issues, someone is going to be wrong. But instead of taking on the role of judge and executioner with every issue, let’s reserve those roles for the one person who earned them. Instead, why don’t you and I focus on loving as best we are able, and teaching as best we know how?