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Conservatism and Liberalism

"Love one another," he said in the upper room. We often fail to comprehend what a difficult challenge he set them.
Read Time: 6 minutes

Reprinted from the September 2004 Tidings Magazine

Labels are distasteful to us because of their superficiality, their failure to comprehensively describe the diverse realities, complexities, and variations of human life. And yet, though flawed, they may help us to discern aspects of the tendencies, movements, and interactions we apply them to.

In some areas of the brotherhood there is a kind of cold war that exists between what one might label conservatism and liberalism. Taking a moment to reflect on this might help us to endure through the heated disagreements that can break out among us and build a better understanding of views different to our own.

The Conservative View

Conservatives want to conserve, to preserve what has been handed down through the generations and thus ensure a continuity and consistency of existence. In-depth Bible study, leveraging the riches of our early writers and those who followed them and preserved their line of Biblical exposition is a core focal point for conservatives.

Speakers in conservative ecclesias learn the ropes of exegetical exposition early. Stating and explaining what the Bible teaches are the points of emphasis. Matters of devotional and life changing application are sometimes less developed. If conservatism is our bent, we may tend to focus on doctrinal purity, and to have a penchant for formalism — the structures of form and appearance — sometimes at the expense of content.

We focus on dressing the “right” way and on saying and believing the “right” things. We can act like we view personal failure and fragility as spiritual malfunction, to be quarantined and “solved” lest the whole flock be infected by a person’s outbreak of “leprosy”.

Conservatives can be like the Lord’s men, who had a love of strife (Luke 22:24).

This way of viewing people’s problems, or their problematic thinking, can render us incapable of expressing the loving compassion and patience that some kinds of problems require of us. We can be harsh and condemning toward those who fall into moral ditches, but age and experience reveal our own, and our children’s frailties. Thus, it was the old Pharisees who were the first to turn and walk away from the woman they took in adultery.

Conservatism in Action

In our effort to conserve and to preserve our beliefs and organizational traditions, we can become rules-focused, rigid and mean spirited, perpetually suspicious and ready for contention and debate. We can, in extreme cases, become obsessed with the definition, categorization and unending search for doctrinal declension or sin in others.

And we can be excoriating when we believe we detect it, either in another’s life, his reasoning, or in his intentions. We hit, and hit hard, when we perceive that someone’s teaching is what we consider wrong or even different from the norm. We can be like the Lord’s men, who had a love of strife (Luke 22:24).

Is it possible that we need to learn to release our fearful obsession with sin and to refocus on love for each other? Can we strengthen what we have inherited by changing our (perhaps unconscious) “sin search” paradigm to one of “service search”?

Conservatives need to remember to love

If my ambition is to be like Christ, to serve with love and compassion, then this changes my whole emotional orientation toward you. Yes, we still need to address quirks, twists and diversions in teaching, and we must acknowledge the exceeding sinfulness of sin when it emerges. Still, our whole approach will be one of friendship, of fellow feeling toward those who have fallen, as Christ has shown with us, when we were wretched and without hope, dead in our sins, full of leprosy.

Conservatives need to remember to love, even the erring. Slashing, bitter, accusatory contention is not indicative of love or of wisdom. It indicates, ultimately, a misapprehension of the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Liberal View

Liberals are often warmly pastoral in their orientation. Liberals embrace the wounded and the flawed sheep with a generosity that is uniquely theirs. They create ecclesias where many broken ones go to find healing and acceptance. Sometimes, the emphasis for liberals is more on preserving emotional warmth and comfort in the ecclesial environment, with less of an emphasis on rigorous Bible study and presentation.

In extreme cases, the want of solid Bible grounding can lead to a kind of spiritual drift that indicates the need for better anchoring. Liberals want a diversity of voices. If this is our orientation, we want to be inclusive, to treat people with respect, even if we might disagree with them.

Liberal inclusiveness is opposed to the inherently exclusive tendency of conservatism. They can react with distaste and with horror against what they see as the restrictive straitjacketing and obsessive, empty formalism of their conservative brethren. They do not, contrary to conservative suspicions, dislike rules or structure. What they hate is what they see to be the hypocrisy which battles and brawls in defense of God’s truth and yet fails to acknowledge and to demonstrate God’s love, which is fundamental to His truth.

Liberals often are people who have been profoundly hurt by the insensitive hardness of their conservative brethren toward those the latter have deemed to be moral, doctrinal, or formalistic deviants. Liberals have a tendency, inclined as they can be to inclusiveness, to welcome too great a diversity of views.

A multiplicity of opinions might be seen as of equal value and worthy of consideration. In extreme cases, a cacophony of diverse and conflicting views can lead to the conclusion that we can’t be certain about many things therefore we can just find a way to peacefully allow all views to live together in the ecclesia.

This is not helpful to ecclesial health and unity and can endanger its sustainability. Not all views are of equal value or relevance. Some are harmful and destructive when thought through to their ultimate conclusions and outcomes. The Bible is our final arbiter in all matters of opinion. Deep and continuous engagement with the Biblical text is fundamental to ecclesial strength and health.

Liberals are often warmly pastoral in their orientation.

We weaken our hold on the Truth when we are not thus engaged, and fail in our desire to heal and help the flock we are members of. If ideas or preferences do not align with scripture, they need to be rejected, not tolerated, no matter how much affection we may have for those who espouse these. And this reality can lead to sober, reflective and uncomfortable dialogue which should not be avoided.

Living Together

“Love one another,” he said in the upper room. We often fail to comprehend what a difficult challenge he set them. It was a command, not a suggestion. Liberals and conservatives need to learn to work together, and to lower their suspicious distrust of each other’s intentions and motives.

Was Christ a liberal? Was he a conservative? You would be hard pressed to answer that question. No simplistic label applies to him. Did he call liberals and conservatives to be his disciples? It would seem so. How must Simon Zelotes, the extreme nationalist, have gotten on with Matthew, whom Simon would (but for the call of Jesus) have considered a traitorous, Roman minion? To them both, and to us all, he said “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

Christ called liberals and conservatives to be his disciples

Christ’s ecclesia (i.e., his disciples) consisted of liberals, conservatives, and moderates, all together. When brothers and sisters of diverse perspectives learn to work together, they help to build healthier ecclesias. These can grow in ways that are not easy for ecclesias created in support of a liberal or conservative crotchet, ethos or personality.

It is not always spiritually helpful for us to migrate to an ecclesia (conservative or liberal) comprised of people who all share our specific orientation or view on a particular issue. Those kinds of ecclesias are founded often on a negative principle and sometimes implode as a result. We need our thinking and our assumptions to be challenged so that they can become better, more balanced. This happens when we learn to respect and tolerate each other, in an ecclesial environment where there is a mixture of personalities and points of view.

Our Own Bent Rooted in Our Past

In Christ’s ecclesia in the gospels, liberals and conservatives had to walk away from their assumptions and prejudices to be one in Christ Jesus. Can we do the same? Have we the courage to do it? Will conservatives and liberals rend the body of Christ in their zeal for its defense?

I have been thinking, observing myself, about the degree to which a person’s tendency toward either conservatism or liberalism is conditioned by his/her experiences in life, especially in childhood. So much conservative thinking and behavior seems a fear reaction against the unstable, unpredictable randomness of the environment around us, and our own individual and powerful propensities.

We control to feel safe. We feel safer with clear definition, with classification and with schedules and practices which change only if improvement is certain. No doubt a tendency toward liberalism is also rooted in our past. Here the reaction is a fear of being controlled, demonstrated by a deep-seated reaction against the suppression of the individual in the interests of others.

Although liberalism and conservatism can be viewed as reactions to how we have been treated, we need to develop the empathy to understand not just our own mindset but those of brothers and sisters whose thinking may be unlike our own.

One might amplify the Lord’s words in that upper room without doing damage to the sense he intended: “Love one another, as I have loved you, in all your diversity, your different points of view and your individual struggles. I am giving my life for all of you. So choose to love one another.”

Dev Ramcharan,
Toronto West Ecclesia, ON

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Graham Edwards
6 months ago

Thank you bro Dev for a really thought provoking piece.

I agree with much of what you have said. I come from a family background that always tried to position itself as neither liberal or conservative but balancing in the middle. That’s a position I personally try to hold today. I think you missed an opportunity to highlight in your article that middle ground is a viable option.

I was really looking forward to reading a balanced assessment of both “sides”, highlighting both the pros and cons of each (and there ARE pro’s and cons of each).

After reading and rereading your article though, I think it’s a shame that while you focus in detail on conservatisms traits and problems (none of which I dispute) when it comes to Liberalism, you do not take the same approach in terms of focus or critique – in fact I couldn’t see one critique of those favouring a liberal approach.

If we are attempting a balanced assessment of something then a fair representation of both sides is surely the goal. Otherwise only the conclusion to be reached is that you are writing from a firmly liberal standpoint seeking to promote your preference (which is fine) – but I believe you should state that position clearly. In the article.

Still enjoyed reading your thoughts though brother!

Graham Edwards

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