I consider myself a “conservative Christian”. What picture does that raise in your mind? You might be surprised, if you actually knew me, to find that I don’t fit certain stereotypes you assumed. Actually, none of us fully fit stereotypes. Last week I discussed “conservative Christian” stereotypes and tried to give a more accurate picture. This week, though, I want to challenge myself and others who fit, at least roughly, into the conservative Christian category. Like every part of the theological continuum, conservative Christians have tendencies toward certain weaknesses as well as strengths.
What are potential weaknesses in conservative Christianity?
1. It’s easy for us to confuse conservative theology with conservative politics
These two are not the same. Conservative politics is, at its essence, a philosophy of government regarding the role of the federal government relative to state government and individual rights. It’s not clearly taught in the Bible. The Old Testament had a theocracy and, in Heaven, we’ll be ruled by God as the ultimate King. It’s true that conservative politics more often align with conservative theology, but that’s not always the case.
2. It’s easy for us to be judgmental about those not in our camp
Just as I challenged non-conservatives to be careful about not stereotyping conservatives, so we need to show the same prudence. Don’t assume, for example, that a more liberal Christian is not saved, or that they’re not serious about living for Christ or even that they believe such and such. As I grow older, I’ve become aware of how many people, who are not completely in my camp theologically, still love the Lord and share many common spiritual beliefs and desires with me. Again, everyone is unique.
3. It’s easy for us to see conserving as intrinsically good
To conserve means to protect something; to save it. But what is it that we’re meant to conserve? Is everything worth conserving? Is everything worth protecting or fighting for? The answer is a firm “No!” Much of what churches (liberal as well as conservative) fight to conserve has less to do with the clear teaching of Scripture and more to do with their particular traditions or matters of theological opinion. We end up strongly protecting our order of service or the type of music we use or the way the church is organized and run or minor theological hobby horses. While these matter, they’re not core scriptural values, but more matters of preference, opinion and comfort. Conserving these is often more an issue of control – we claim we’re fighting for biblical principle, when in fact it’s more about who’s in charge. Which leads to the next question:
How can I be wiser about what I seek to conserve as a Christian?
1. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I remember that true Christian conservatism requires ongoing change
Believe it or not, a growing, holy, relevant church is always a work in progress. Some of that progress comes through the need to adapt to our changing culture. It’s important to speak in ways that are understandable and relevant to the age in which we live. Paul himself became “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”(1 Cor. 9:22b). He spoke differently to pagans in Athens, for instance, than he did to Jews in a synagogue. Without changing the essence of the gospel, it’s crucial that we too adapt to our times. Most churches, by the way, struggle with this, tending to lag pretty far behind the culture.
It’s also important that we change because sometimes what we’re doing in the church is either inefficient, ineffective or even just plain wrong. Read Paul’s letters to the churches. He often challenges them, not to conserve such and such, but to progress beyond it.
2. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I really know my Bible
Have you ever noticed that those who are most rigid and judgmental about their Christian beliefs and traditions are often those who rely on second-hand information? They’re repeating what others have told them – their preacher, their denomination, or some favorite author. Now, while we can, and should learn from others, it’s critical that we gain the capacity to also think for ourselves. This requires doing the hard work of reading and studying Scripture independently. When we do this, we discover that Scripture is not always as cut and dried on every subject as we’d been led to believe. We also gain the ability to weigh what is said or assumed more objectively. This, of course, is what the Reformation was all about – sola scriptura – the Bible, not Christian authorities or traditions, is the final judge of what is true.
3. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I recognize the relative clarity and importance of various doctrines
Some doctrines in Scripture are quite clear, others less so. Some doctrines are foundational to basic Christianity, others not so much. We should fight for basic truths like the deity of Christ and salvation by grace, but be more flexible about the timing of the rapture or the form of church government – which are less clear in Scripture and not essential to salvation. Again, this requires that you know your Bible.
4. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I guard my attitude toward other believers who differ from me
We’re called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), not be quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24), and to be humble and gentle (Eph. 4:2). Good doctrine does not excuse a bad attitude. And, too often, in conservative Christian circles, we let a critical, prideful spirit sabotage what may be a biblically sound message.
5. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I favor listening and dialogue over confrontation and arguing
While there is a place for taking a firm stand and even confronting, these more in-your-face tools are often counterproductive ways to convince the unconvinced. 1 Peter 3:15b counsels us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. . .” Too often we get anxious or angry and jump past the steps of first building rapport and gaining understanding with those who think differently than we. We get pushy, their guard goes up, and so we get even pushier. This isn’t helpful. So make the effort to build trust and allow time for others to process the alternatives we might offer. Also, be quick to find areas of commonality, with those less conservative and affirm these areas of agreement instead of just focusing on differences.
6. I’m wiser about Christian conserving when I’m willing to be the “loyal opposition”
Every group needs a few trouble-makers to keep them in line. I say that, tongue in cheek, but I’ve sometimes found that I have to protect conservative Christianity from certain conservatives. For the sake of our brothers and sisters and the church, it’s sometimes necessary, just as Paul challenged Peter in Galatians 2, when Peter went too far, so we have to help hold one another in line when it comes to overdoing doctrine or practice in the name of “conservatism”.
If Jesus were physically here, which denomination do you think He would choose? I believe that heaven will surprise us all when we see who’s actually standing next to us as a fellow member in Christ’s body.