Liberals, Conservatives, and Defining Terms in Political and Theological Life

Ever since the late 1990’s and the discussion of the definition of “is”, as well as the meaning of a few other words uttered during Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, one need has become more and more obvious. I am speaking of the need to define terms. Not only do people have limited vocabularies, we also have a vocabulary that is constantly changing.

By change I am not merely referring to the fact that some words become “dead” due to overuse while new words are being added every day. I am more specifically pointing out that certain words occasionally change meanings with various contexts. Therefore, not understanding a specific context in which a word is used can cause one to skew its meaning and perhaps incorrectly judge the political or religious position someone is taking.

So let’s try to clarify a few terms which have been known to cause a little confusion.

We will begin with the word conservative. Almost any thesaurus will list words like traditional and moderate as being synonymous with conservative. However, on the political spectrum, a conservative is someone who is clearly to the right of a moderate on most issues.

I actually see more confusion when conservative is erroneously equated with traditional when it comes to religious life.

Theologically, I am a conservative. By that I mean that I believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who literally died for our sins and physically rose from the grave. I believe that salvation only comes through faith in Christ, that there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain, and that Christ is returning one day to make all things right.

As a conservative, I accept as authoritative all the Bible teaches us concerning creation, miracles, angels, the roles and differences of men and women, marriage and family, human sexuality, and the mission of the church in the world.

But the word conservative does not necessarily mean the same thing as the word traditional when speaking of the church. A church can be conservative theologically and very contemporary stylistically. On the other hand a church can be extremely traditional in style and at the same time be liberal theologically.

Let me illustrate. Years ago a lady shared with me that her church was much more conservative than the church that I pastor. I was surprised to hear her say this. I happened to know that at that time her pastor did not believe in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ, the infallibility of Scripture, or the reality of an eternal hell. The church was lacking in godly male leadership in most ministry areas. They had rejected so many conservative ideals which our church had always embraced. Yet she assumed we were more liberal by comparison?

Actually it quickly occurred to me what she meant. The style of worship at her church was more traditional. They were going to sing songs from a hymnal usually accompanied only by a piano and organ. They were going to hold tight to traditional Baptist programs. So in her eyes that made her church more “conservative” than ours. I would have described her church as more traditional, but far more liberal theologically. She was focused on style while giving little thought to doctrine.

To reiterate, it is possible to be conservative theologically while at the same time contemporary or innovative stylistically. And it is also possible to be liberal theologically and very traditional in style. While conservative evangelicals actually took the lead in the modern contemporary style movement, style can no longer be an indicator of a church’s theology. You will have to dig a little deeper than outward observations to see where a church stands theologically. Neither musical preferences, elements of worship, Bible translations used, nor the appearance of the facilities serve as clear indications as to where the church stands doctrinally.

Let’s look further at the word liberal. Again, context will determine connotation. The Bible encourages us to be liberal in areas such as giving to meet needs, offering forgiveness, and showing love. The Bible says that God liberally gives us wisdom when we ask for it without doubting (James 1:5-6). But that is not what we are referencing when we refer to a theological liberal.

A theological liberal is one who usually rejects the infallibility of Scripture. Often having been influenced by Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible, theological liberals reject doctrines like the exclusivity of the Gospel, a literal eternal hell, and the virgin birth of Christ. A theologically liberal church may have a worship style that is traditional and often very liturgical.

In politics, and occasionally in religion, liberals embrace the title progressive which is a reference to certain social reforms they deem necessary for making progress. The assumption is planted in the minds of young students that political conservatives do not like progress. However, conservatives and liberals both believe in progress. They just bring different sets of values and convictions by which progress is defined and measured. What one calls progress, the other sees as disruptive of progress because we have vastly different goals, standards, and visions of which we are in pursuit.

The word moderate is also a biblical concept. The Bible speaks of moderation as being a healthy thing when it comes to certain areas of diet or exercising religious liberties. But when the word moderate is used as an excuse not to take a stand on an issue in order not to offend someone who is more conservative or liberal on the same issue, we need to be reminded of the many biblical admonitions to have convictions and standards. I would not want to use the concept of moderation to excuse the lukewarm condition Jesus rebuked in Revelation 3:16!

What’s my point? In today’s world we must do more than embrace labels or judge others by the labels they embrace. We need to find out what they mean by these terms, if they even know for themselves. And we need to clearly articulate what we mean when using the same terms… as I’ve tried to do here. I sure hope it helps!

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Standing in Agreement When We Disagree on So Much

Endorsing or standing in agreement with people of influence, when we do agree, doesn’t mean that we endorse everything about that person’s beliefs or character.

Can I confess a great struggle to you? This is a subject that I am learning to navigate my way through, both spiritually and intellectually, with more grace as I get older. Its the struggle of applying Romans 12:18 and “as much as depends on [me], live at peace with all men.”

I am speaking primarily of the ability and need to stand in agreement with those with whom I find so much to disagree on.

There seem to be a couple of extremes to approaching this subject. The sanctification of the church and the defense of the faith says, “Come out from among them and be separate!” (2 Cor. 6:17) And often the “them” I speak of are folks with whom I disagree on many things. But not necessarily everything. At other times I find myself in strong disagreement with “them” that are a part of the church. So I want to be clear where I stand by whom I identify with.

On the other hand, Romans 13 suggests that even pagan governments can stand for what is good at times, in which case I should support them and cooperate with them unless their statutes are clearly contrary to God’s Word (Acts 5:28-29). We are also warned that there should not be factions within the church (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

When you consider the whole of Scripture, we should come to a place where we stand in agreement in areas where we find agreement, but clearly communicate where there is disagreement on things that are sacred and of utmost importance. No need to sweat the small stuff and make a big deal of little things… which is another discussion all together.

So let me give you a few areas where I have to address this issue with wisdom, grace, and (hopefully) maturity.

The Sanctity of Human Life. While I have significant theological disagreements with Mother Theresa, I know she was one of the greatest advocates ever for the unborn. I stand with many Roman Catholics on this issue of abortion, but reserve the freedom to disagree with their understanding of the sacraments, prayers to saints, and other beliefs that I perceive as extra-biblical.

While on the subject of the sanctity of human life, we must not neglect the speaking out against racism. As with Mother Theresa, I also have theological disagreements with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I can stand in agreement with powerful and truthful statements against discrimination.

Endorsing or standing in agreement with people of influence, when we do agree, doesn’t mean that we endorse everything about that person’s beliefs or character. For we all have flaws.

Speaking of that, is there a more polarizing subject than President Donald Trump? If I agree with a statement he makes on religious freedom, the economy, or the sanctity of life it doesn’t mean I endorse everything he says or does. I can vocally disagree, and have, with many other statements he has made as well as language he has used. Discerning people commend that which is good and reject that which is vulgar.

I can’t recall a president in my lifetime with whom I agreed with on every issue. My support of George W. Bush did not prevent me from warning people of the dangers of the strings attached to some of his faith-based initiatives.

It seems that with famous people, you are supposed to love all they represented or reject them completely. I don’t get that. Only Jesus was perfect all of the time!

What about various denominations of the Christian faith? I am not one of these pastors who believe the very existence of denominations is evil, anymore than Israel having various tribes or Sunday School programs having a way of organizing people according to age or subject matter would be considered evil.

Denominationalism, or the worship of a denomination, on the other hand is a problem. But when we realize that our denomination is not the equivalent to the Kingdom of God (I hear a Baptist gasping, “It’s Not?”), denominations can actually promote unity by keeping us from arguing over many secondary issues while we unite for missions, evangelism, and theological training.

Therefore, when we a major on the majors with other denominations, we need to lock arms with them and stand in agreement for the sake of God’s glory and His church. I have dear friends from a variety of denominations, including that denomination of non-denomination, who agree with men on things like:

  1. The authority of the Bible.
  2. The virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, literal resurrection. and certain return of Jesus Christ.
  3. The Holy Trinity.
  4. The exclusivity of the Gospel.
  5. Our call to win the world to Christ.

Certainly many denominations are forsaking these convictions. But with those who haven’t we can and we must stand together in agreement on such convictions. Even then, however, I reserve the right to disagree with them on polity, hermeneutics, and strategies for which I personally find it difficult to support with Scripture. Perhaps that is why you attend the church you attend. Interestingly, there are more Southern Baptist churches than of any other evangelical denomination. Yet you are not likely to find two of them very much alike in style and structure in a given geographical area.

One more popular conversation in this area has to do with church music. I recently read a post about old hymns that we sing which we “didn’t realize had bad theology.” I agreed with some of the observations, and disagreed with others. But I had a problem throwing out solid songs with good lyrics even when the author had been exposed to bad theological foundations.

As theology professors have often said, “All truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found.” If I were to go all David Koresh or Jim Jones in the future, it wouldn’t make the truth I have proclaimed in the past any less true.

In the same way, there are modern worship movements whose theological foundations I question. But as the old adage goes, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.” Occasionally a powerful and truthful song (sometimes even the simple recitation of Scripture and creeds) comes out of a movement that embraces some things with which I disagree. If they proclaim “Christ is risen” while asserting some weird stuff in other songs and sermons, we do not have to avoid singing “Christ is risen!” Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Bottom line? Use discernment. Learn to stand in agreement when you agree. Don’t interpret one’s agreement with someone else on an issue as a total endorsement of all they stand for.

If various denominations and political parties can gather in a stadium to cheer on the same football team, surely we can stand together on a few other things of greater relevance.