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.

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25 Responses to Christians Need to Be More Conservative, Not Less

  1. Thanks for this. It reminds me of the rather stunned, bemused and hesitant look on the face of my missionary brother-in-law when I tried to tell him that “liberal” was actually a “good” word!

  2. ckseguin says:

    Largely, I agree. the problem is that expressions like “conservative” and “liberal” have such broad cultural definitions they mean little if anything anymore. Personally, I find the expression “Theologically conservative and culturally liberal” tends to get my point across more often than not even if it is a mouthful.

  3. John Calvin says:

    You must realize that this makes literally no sense at all. Scripture tells us that all Scripture is God breathed. God cannot contradict himself or lie. So biblical innerrancy makes a lot of sense. To let go of it is to call God a liar. Wooops that seems to be literally unorthodox.

    • Michael Pahl says:

      I’m saying nothing here about Scripture being true and trustworthy for the purposes for which God has given it – I fully believe this. I’m talking about the particular doctrine of “biblical inerrancy,” which is a modern invention. Also, your approach makes some specific assumptions about what 2 Tim 3:16 means when it speaks of Scripture as “God-breathed,” and uses a logic which Scripture itself never explicitly uses. You may wish to do a bit more reading, and reading widely, on these topics before you come to some hard-and-fast conclusions like this.

    • marciglass says:

      Biblical innerrancy makes no sense. Yes, scripture is inspired and God still speaks to us through scripture today. AND scripture is full of contradictions because it is a library of books written by many different men over many, many years.
      And, quite frankly, if we believe in a sovereign and omnipotent God, then that should leave God free to contradict God’s self all God chooses to do. Why would we expect God to be constrained by human words? Surely our God is bigger and mightier than that?

      • Scott Kelsey says:

        Just because one doesn’t fully understand a thought or phrase and how it connects to another doesn’t nessesarily make a contradition! It may very well be that ones vantage point is a bit skewed and needs deeper thought and understanding.

    • Zeke says:

      And who are you to dictate to God that He can’t tell a lie or contradict a previous statement?

      • Greg says:

        Titus 1:2 In hope of eternal life, which God, THAT CANNOT LIE, promised before the world began;

      • Michael Pahl says:

        Amen! Though this doesn’t say anything about whether a God-breathed collection of human writings can contain errors of history or science – notice the focus here on salvation, and the emphasis on infallibility, that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

      • Zeke says:

        And who is Paul to put limits on what God can do?

  4. So, are you saying a conservative Christian should not be a young earth creationist?

    • Michael Pahl says:

      Leona, I’m saying that young earth creationism is not a historic Christian perspective but rather a modern innovation. Take one of the cornerstones of young earth creationism, for example: that the “days” of Genesis 1 are literal, 24-hour days. Contrary to what one often hears, non-literal views of the “days” of Genesis 1 were not developed as some “liberal” response to Darwin in acceptance of evolution – they were around among Jews and Christians centuries before Darwin. Undoubtedly many ancient interpreters read the “days” of Genesis 1 literally, but many did not.

      My point is that this is simply not a matter of historic Christian orthodoxy, or being biblical, or upholding the gospel. And even further, when we confuse this, thinking that beliefs like young earth creationism are a matter of historic Christian orthodoxy, or being biblical, or upholding the gospel, then we are at risk of actually distorting the gospel.

      • Leona Iriarte says:

        I understand that you believe this view has been around for a long time. Why would you call it “liberal” instead of “conservative”? Second question, assuming you don’t believe in evolution, did the animals die before the fall? I know this is not the focus of your paper, but I wouldn’t mind trying to understand your view of being more conservative. I would’ve thought that would’ve meant creation, 6 days. I haven’t discussed this on the net before, so please do not feel attacked or annoyed, I would like to discuss this, if you don’t mind. Thank you!

      • Michael Pahl says:

        I understand “conservative” to mean “conserving the essentials,” or something along those lines. Many “conservative Christians” believe they are doing just that, but they include things like young earth creationism in those “essentials” that they are attempting to “conserve.” My larger point, then, is that many of these kinds of views are in fact fairly recent novelties when one looks at the whole history of Christianity, and that we should in fact go back before them to the “essentials” of historic Christian orthodoxy and the apostolic gospel. These are the “essentials” we should “conserve,” and thus be truly “conservative.”

        I haven’t actually said I don’t believe in evolution – I just see belief about that as irrelevant to whether or not one is theologically orthodox or “biblical,” to whether or not one holds to the gospel. Put another way, you can well be a genuine Christian, even a truly orthodox, Bible-believing, gospel-believing, born-again Christian, even a truly conservative Christian, and believe in evolution and an old earth. On your particular question of death before the fall, check out http://biologos.org/questions/death-before-the-fall. You may find answers on that website to any other questions on Christianity and evolution you may have.

        You may also be interested in another blog post of mine: https://mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/taking-the-bible-seriously/. In that post I very briefly look at Genesis 1-2, and point out that when we read it “literally” it actually raises questions about whether a young earth creationist perspective is the best way to read Genesis 1-2.

        Thanks for asking!

  5. paulwalker87 says:

    Thanks for this!

  6. Excellent post! Fully agree with your articulation of the truth that frees all.

  7. Cloud Ponderer says:

    Well said.

    It took me a long, long time to learn to distinguish that which was truly Christian from that which was merely cultural expression (which may or may not be orthodox). If I’d only turned to the creeds, it might have been a much shorter journey.

    It pains me to see so many western Christians so staunchly defend their church sub-culture, rather than the true tenets of the faith. Perhaps the disliking and misunderstanding we get from so much of society is deserved?

    Thanks for helping us begin to trace the origins of our beliefs, to discover the essence of the Way. I hope and pray that this post gets lots of exposure, helping many to begin that journey of growth in faith and life.

  8. Adam says:

    Mr. Pahl,

    Thank you for your writing. I have several questions which I hope you can answer to provide greater clarity:

    1. Could you cite (here or in a future post, perhaps) some examples of Scriptural errors? Since you do not hold to inerrancy, it stands to reason that you have found genuine errors in Scripture. It would be beneficial to view these and also reconcile them with the term ‘authoritative’ (perhaps you could provide your definition of this?). I think you will agree that, whether it is a “later development” or not, if the Bible is without error (“error” in the context of the theological doctrine of inerrancy), then it is without error and, if it is not, then it is inerrant. Or, are you perhaps objecting to those who hold this view based on their (errant) implementation of it? Could you cite any basic tenets of inerrancy (say, from the Chicago Statement or other list) which you object to?

    2. You reference historic orthodoxy, for which you seem to imply Protestant orthodoxy. Can you confirm this? If not, then I think it will be helpful to have this term restated or contextualized in light of the schism, Reformation, etc.

    3. It would be valuable if the terms “family values” and “traditional marriage” were better defined, otherwise I fear you are attacking a straw man.

    4. In regard to marriage, can you point to specific Scriptures which support or allude to a ‘non-traditional view?’

    5. You criticize a comment writer “John Calvin,” for using a logic not “explicitly” used in Scripture. Can you elaborate more on this particular ‘logic’ objection? Based on your Trinitarian devotion, I’m think you would agree that this doctrine itself is not explicitly taught, but is implied?

    Thank you.

    • Michael Pahl says:

      Thanks for your questions, Adam, and the tone with which you have asked them (and even implicitly disagreed with me!). Let me give a few thoughts in response – apologies if these don’t fully answer your questions, but I don’t have time now for fuller responses. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that, as I said in the post, I don’t necessarily disagree with all of the examples I’ve given, though I may understand them in a different sense or hold them rather loosely.

      The examples I gave in the post are not always easy to pin down, I’ll grant that – though they are no less true for this “fuzziness” (we seem to have no trouble speaking of “socialism” in generic terms, for instance, criticizing it or praising it as the case may be, even though there are many different forms of socialism and a wide array of socialists). But what I mean by these terms is what I have seen those within “conservative Christianity” to have meant by those terms, in particular “conservative evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” in North America, and especially the United States. These are themselves fuzzy terms, but I’m thinking of that range of the Christian spectrum inhabited by groups such as Focus on the Family, Liberty University, and the Evangelical Theological Society (knowing, again, that not everyone in these organizations thinks of these things exactly the same way). My assessment is not from the outside looking in: I grew up in this milieu, and have lived and worked much of my adult life in it.

      In these contexts “biblical inerrancy” typically involves two things: 1) the belief that the Bible is true not only in its intended affirmations regarding the gospel (or salvation or Jesus or God—theological or salvific teachings), but in any assertion or even casual reference it makes related to history or the natural world; and 2) the belief that the Bible must be interpreted “literally,” especially in seeing its narrative portions as all straightforward records of history (e.g. the days of Genesis must be 24-hour days, the Gospels cannot contain any fictive or midrashic elements). Suggesting otherwise can get people fired at these institutions (like me, or Peter Enns, or any of a growing number of others), or cause them to lose their standing among these groups (like Robert Gundry or Mike Licona).

      In these contexts “traditional marriage” means heterosexual, hierarchical marriage (with at least lip-service to this marriage being lifelong, though divorce and remarriage are increasingly acceptable), and “family values” includes not just upholding things like family commitment and respect and mutual care, but also opposition to abortion and gay rights, along with the notion that the nuclear family is the foundation of society. My point in mentioning these is not that they are necessarily wrong, or that they don’t reflect historic Christian perspectives. Rather, it’s that the particular manifestations of these today are highly politicized and enculturated, and are even elevated to near-idolatrous levels in ways that many non-Western or non-modern Christians would find very odd, if not dangerous.

      I have virtually defined “historic Christian orthodoxy” as signified by the ecumenical creeds, in particular the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds (see earlier in my blog post). Thus, this is not a “Protestant orthodoxy” that I am referring to, but a truly ecumenical orthodoxy that is rooted in a history shared among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. My perspective on these two creeds in particular, how they connect to apostolic teaching and why they are sufficient reflections of Christian orthodoxy, is too complex to outline here, but you may wish to check out some stuff that I’ve written, in particular a bit in my lay-level book From Resurrection to New Creation, or my proposal in a book chapter called “Scripture and Tradition: Seeking a Middle Path.” See http://www.michaelpahl.com for links to these.

      Sorry I don’t have time for more. Thanks for your questions!

      • If I could add something to one point – “traditional marriage,” when we look at the Bible really starts with polygamy. In fact, most of the Patriarchs were polygamists and it seems that God didn’t have too much of a problem with that. Yet, I have my doubts that people who use the term “traditional marriage” are talking about this form of marriage.

      • Adam says:

        Michael,

        Thank you for your reply and comments. I appreciate and am interested in your emphasis on ecumenical orthodoxy. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

        Best,

        Adam

  9. jshepherd53 says:

    Hi Michael, I thought I’d give you a bit of friendly pushback from my own perspective.

    First of all, I think there is a lot of good stuff in the article, and I certainly share some of the same concerns you have. And, no, you are certainly not a theological liberal. But I do think there are some problems in the article, in that at some points I think it is informationally misleading, and at other points, I think it should have been more carefully nuanced.

    I think it is misleading in that you refer to a number of items, such as young earth creationism, penal substitutionary atonement, and the rapture as having “crept into” Christian thinking over the past few centuries, and you claim that they are actually “recent theological innovations.” But these things are not recent innovations at all. They are present in the New Testament, and they are present in the early church.

    Now, what I think, and hope, you meant to say was that particular forms of these items may be recent innovations. And you may be right in some cases; but that is where I think better nuancing would have been appropriate.

    In any case, when you say that Christians should be even “more conservative” than they are, I, of course agree. And when you say that we need to go back to “genuine, generous, historical Christian orthodoxy,” back to the “original, apostolic, gospel story of Jesus,” back to the “sacred Scriptures,” I completely agree. The problem I have with this, however, is that I don’t think the article quite keeps to the thesis..

    You list several things in the article: biblical inerrancy, young earth creationism, penal substitutionary atonement, rapture, family values, traditional (heterosexual) marriage. And you suggest that they are all either recent theological innovations, or that they have grown out of our “particular Western culture, with nothing timeless or universal about them.”

    But the problem with this, however, is that all of these things are in the sacred Scriptures, and they are in the early church fathers, the ones who developed those two creedal formulations we both appreciate.

    All the New Testament writers and all the early church fathers (except for heretics like Marcion) believed that the biblical texts, to lesser or greater degrees, were inerrant, and even when they did admit the presence of errors in certain incidental details, they certainly still held to theological inerrancy.

    All of the early church fathers were young earth creationists. Now, of course, they were so because there was, in fact, no other position to hold. They held various views as to the literalness of the creation narratives, but they were all “young-earthers.” (By the way, I’m teaching a course on Genesis this fall at Lendrum, and my own view of the creation account is that it is a symbolic impressionistic narrative, and one that does not need to be in any way harmonized with contemporary science. I’ll be glad to pass along greetings for you).

    Penal substitutionary atonement is not a recent theological innovation. For sure, the church fathers did not pen extensive theological treatises on the subject. But statements which give the essence of this teaching are to be found in church fathers such as the Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Ambrose. And of course, I definitely believe it is the teaching of the New Testament. Anselm did not invent the doctrine, nor did the Reformers. Indeed one of the mottoes of the Reformers was “ad fontes”—back to the sources!—by which they meant both the Scriptures and the early church fathers. So they would have certainly welcomed your call to go back and be even more conservative.

    I would certainly agree with you that the sensationalistic, Hal Lindsey, LaHaye-Jenkins, pre-tribulation rapture of the church is indeed a recent theological innovation. But the rapture itself is biblical. It is of course there in 1 Thessalonians. And whether one today understands the language there as literal or symbolic (a la NT Wright), the early church fathers tended to read it literally.

    Family values? Perhaps the family values expressed in the household codes and other NT texts are not identical to our Westernized values, but the concept is certainly there. Family values, as a concept, are certainly present in the NT.

    Traditional heterosexual marriage? Is there any other kind advocated in the NT? And as far as homosexuality is concerned, biblical scholars who would be against same-sex relationships, such as Robert Gagnon, and those who would allow or be in favor of them, such as William Loader, both admit that as far as the biblical text is concerned, it is universally and unequivocally against homosexual acts.

    Other things you mentioned, like “Christian nation,” “supporting war efforts” (as well as peace efforts), “gun rights,” “free-market capitalism,” and “abstaining from alcohol”—I concur with you on those. But for the ones I elaborated on above, certainly good arguments can be made that going back “ad fontes” on these items would be part of becoming more conservative.

    Sorry for making this so long. Blessings on your continuing ministry.

    • Michael Pahl says:

      Hi, Jerry. So this got round to you, eh? I’ve been shocked at how far around the world this little post as traveled.

      I would certainly agree with you that the post could have been more nuanced. That’s the benefit of academic writing—nuance and precision—but this is not an academic piece, and it wouldn’t have resonated with people the way it has if it were. Still, I have tried to be careful in my wording: you’ll notice my qualifying statements throughout (see the paragraph starting “Some of these sorts of things…”), and I’ve been careful in what I’ve specifically described as “theological innovations” and what I’ve described as “growing out of our particular culture.” You also might find some of my previous comments helpful, where I have tried to define more precisely the things I’m talking about.

      All this means, then, that I disagree with you about the things you’ve mentioned. Oddly, I think some of your comments actually support my perspective. Your description of some church fathers admitting the presence of errors but still holding to theological inerrancy—that’s not what “conservative Christians” mean by “biblical inerrancy.” Your admission that “perhaps the family values expressed in the household codes and other NT texts are not identical to our Westernized values” fits nicely with what I’ve said about modern “family values” as an enculturated phenomenon.

      Some other things you say are either much debated within academic circles—as you and I both know—or you are in fact presenting a minority position among academics. Whether penal substitutionary atonement is in fact a fully developed doctrine before Anselm (some might even say later) is a matter of some dispute. Whether it is even present in the New Testament is a matter of even greater dispute. Certainly, many if not most scholars would at least say it is not an exclusive or even major interpretation of Jesus’ death in the New Testament and the church fathers—again, if it’s there at all.

      The rapture is not present in the New Testament. This is the near-unanimous consensus of NT scholars working in the relevant texts. (I did my dissertation on 1 Thess 4:13-18.)

      Other items you mention seem to me to be at least as lacking in nuance as my initial statements, maybe even somewhat misleading as well. To call the church fathers “young-earthers” is a bit much—they don’t develop whole systems of thought around creation anything like “young-earthers” of today, and when they do speak of Genesis or creation it is often in ways that today’s “young-earthers” would find problematic. And sure, certain elements of today’s “traditional marriage” are found in various parts of Scripture (again, remember, I don’t disagree with all of the examples I’ve given), but it’s always worth remembering that if anything the normal marriage in biblical times—Scripture’s “traditional marriage,” if you will—was not what “traditional marriage” advocates today think of: it was normally an adult man marrying a post-pubescent girl as arranged by the man or his father with the girl’s father, in large part to provide some economic or other pragmatic advantage for these men.

      One final thought, and it is at the heart of my piece: Regardless of whether each of my specific examples is in fact found in one part of the Bible or another, or found in some church fathers in rudimentary fashion or even fully developed, none of them are reflected in the New Testament’s gospel summaries or summaries of apostolic teaching (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-5; Acts 10:36-42; Rom 1:2-5; 2 Tim 2:8), and none of them are found in the earliest ecumenical creeds. At best, they are secondary elements, and so we need to be very cautious about how tightly we hold them and how central we make them. At worst, they are distortions of the gospel—or additions to the gospel, which is a distortion of the gospel—and they need to be abandoned. This is my central claim in the post.

      Thanks again for commenting. Blessings on you in your ministry as well, and please do say hi to folks at Lendrum for me!

  10. All I want to say is: Thank you! You put into words, what I have been thinking for a long time (cf my Twitter ID and self-deception).

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