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.
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.
You’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.