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Miniblog #74: Conservative Christians Are No Better Than Liberal Christians

by Carson T. Clark on July 28, 2011

Nothing I’m saying here is novel. Just thinking aloud…

Quite often I’ve heard conservative Christian rail against their liberal counterparts. The accusation is that they’ve abused the faith, if not having abandoned it altogether. Yet it seems clear to me that conservatism within Christianity is quite often equally as problematic as its liberal counterpart.Sure, conservatives technically maintain right doctrine, but their conduct speaks otherwise. They don’t get the whole orthodoxy-orthopraxy tension. It’s like they’ve missed the whole spirit of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Many conservatives I’ve known believe all the right things, but are straight up fundamentalist (I use that in a historic descriptive sense rather than a pejorative sense) pricks (I use that in the pejorative sense). Trust me, I say that with firsthand experience as one who used to be fundamentalist. Their legalism, militancy, condescension, self-righteousness, and utter lack of love, grace, humility, compassion, mercy, civility, benevolence, and the like completely contradicts their espoused faith. It’s like they’ve never read the book of James, or Jesus’ parables in the Gospels for that matter. In my experience, conservatives tend to be better (although not great) with doctrine, i.e. knowing the faith, while liberals tend to be better (although not great) with action, i.e. living the faith. What is more, for both sides the other’s weaknesses and vices are fully publicized, but a tragic epidemic of Plank-in-Eye disease prevents them from even being aware of their own errors and pitfalls, much less repenting of them. I’m reminded of Charles Williams’ comment that “Many promising reconciliations have broken down because while both parties come prepared to forgive, neither party come prepared to be forgiven.” Sigh. If only these conservatives and liberals could together have their blinders removed so that they could learn from one another.

  • http://www.nicenejosh.com Josh Vestal

    I know what you mean Carson. As a recovering fundamentalist, I’m still very much struggling to move more towards thoughtful compassion rather than exasperated indignation. And I’ve come to believe orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy is important. Unfortunately I’ve gotten out of the routine of orthopraxy and am trying to re-orient myself back to a right living aspect of the faith.

    Both sides indeed need to realize that neither have a corner on the Gospel, and chances are, they are blind men each only recognizing a part of the whole elephant.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Orthodoxy and orthopraxis exist for each other’s sake. The problem is that conservative and liberal Christians use one to excuse themselves for not partaking in the other.

    I help people and fight for “good causes,” so why should I be holy and chaste in how I live my personal life? OR…

    Believing the right things about Jesus is all that matters, so why should I make the world a better place when God’s just going to destroy it anyway?

    Here’s a blog where I describe the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/orthodoxy-for-the-sake-of-orthopraxis/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=696379574 Jeremy Sargent

    Good and balanced article. I was actually thinking about this recently. So much so that I posted the following as my profile status on FB:

    “Food For Thought: Today’s emergent Christian evangelicals are exhorting a complacent conservative church to remember the value of liberty, mercy, and repentance from self-righteous piety. I wonder if in forty years, the new emergent Christian evangelicals will be exhorting a complacent liberal church to remember the value of temperance, chastity, and repentance from irreverence.”

  • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

    In the interest of tension, I should mention that just as all conservatives aren’t negligent of the poor, for example, so all liberals aren’t abusive of theology. This post is dealing with tendencies, not rules.

  • Ian Sansot

    I didn’t read this because it’s full of liberal blasphemy.

  • http://twitter.com/EdwardBGreen Edward Green

    I bogged recently that I am not sure most conservatives are Orthodox. I suspect that Evangelicalism in particular is a long way from orthodoxy.

    http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/?e=35

  • http://leorningcniht.wordpress.com Matthew Brench

    Carson, I think you’re getting a little too soap-boxy here. The praxis vs. theology divide of liberal and conservative is a caricature betting decades which are rapidly fading away. Yes many of the “conservative” Protestant churches are still struggling to include the social aspects of the gospel, if you will, but all you need to do is hang out with some young adult evangelicals outside the more fundamentalist (technical/historic sense) camps. If you want to complain about how off-track the fundies are in their treatment of the world, go right ahead. But you’ve got to dig up that root of bitterness and cast it into the fire, man, or it’ll mess you up.

    Besides, there’s nothing liberal about caring for people and enacting the social gospel. But someone’s caring for others “in the name of Jesus” has no connection to his theology other than a vague “God loves everyone!” motto, then it is entirely unorthodox. “Meeting people where they’re at” is great and valuable. But leaving them there (never preaching salvation through Christ) is tantamount to murder. So I must respectfully but firmly disagree with you; liberal christians are not on the same level as theologically orthodox christians.

    (I’m not saying that believing the right stuff, per se, is what saves a person. But a rocky and troubled relationship with God is much more salvific than a relationship with a false god.)

    • http://leorningcniht.wordpress.com Matthew Brench

      sorry too early in the morning… “betting decades…” = “belonging to past decades…”

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      “I think you’re getting a little too soap-boxy here.”

      It rather confuses me how bringing more tension to an issue can be soap-boxy.

      “The praxis vs. theology divide of liberal and conservative is a caricature betting decades which are rapidly fading away…”

      Repeating my above comment:

      In the interest of tension, I should mention that just as all conservatives aren’t negligent of the poor, for example, so all liberals aren’t abusive of theology. This post is dealing with tendencies, not rules.

      “If you want to complain about how off-track the fundies are in their treatment of the world, go right ahead.”

      Dude. You completely missed the point. I’ll repeat the final line of the post:

      If only these conservatives and liberals could together have their blinders removed so that they could learn from one another.

      “But you’ve got to dig up that root of bitterness and cast it into the fire, man, or it’ll mess you up.”

      I’ve searched my heart before God and I’m not bitter. You’re simply wrong on this one.

      “Besides, there’s nothing liberal about caring for people and enacting the social gospel.”

      Agreed. Of course, there’s nothing conservative about it, either.

      “But someone’s caring for others ‘in the name of Jesus’ has no connection to his theology other than a vague ‘God loves everyone!’ motto, then it is entirely unorthodox.”

      That’s an oversimplification.

      “‘Meeting people where they’re at’ is great and valuable. But leaving them there (never preaching salvation through Christ) is tantamount to murder.”

      K.

      “So I must respectfully but firmly disagree with you; liberal christians are not on the same level as theologically orthodox christians.”

      It seems to me you’re missing the point. Fundamentalists may well have done many good things, but they’ve also done profound, perhaps unspeakable, damage to the Body of Christ. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who won’t even listen to the Gospel because of the actions of these people, much less the Christians who’ve abandoned their faith ‘cuz of them. Their militant demeanor, politicization of of the church, self-righteousness and all the rest truly become a stumbling block for many. You brought the issue back to liberal Christians not being “on the same level as theologically orthodox Christians.” First of all, same level? Second, not all liberal Christians reject historic orthodoxy. Third, even if their doctrinal error is great, from personal experience I can tell you that it causes no more harm to the Body of Christ than the actions of fundamentalists, which was my whole point. They both do things well. They both do things poorly. They need to learn from each other. I really don’t get how you can object to that.

      “(I’m not saying that believing the right stuff, per se, is what saves a person. But a rocky and troubled relationship with God is much more salvific than a relationship with a false god.)”

      James 2:17.

    • Ian Sansot

      Matthew, a part of what Carson was discussing was the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. They flow naturally from one another. I would go so far as to say that a person who claims to believe ‘orthodoxy’ and yet does not practice love and grace does not, in fact, hold to true orthodoxy. You really can’t have one without the other. Carson’s point is that both ends of the spectrum emphasize some really good things. If you could just combine those good things you’d have a fully functioning Christian.

      I would have to say, at least from my own experience, that, while Carson is making a point about all Christians, he does tend to use the fundies as the whipping boy more often than the liberals. However, my perception could be skewed (being someone tending toward conservatism, those posts tend to jump out at me more). It also could be the fact that within the “Christian community” and culture, the liberals get their proper chastisement while the fundamentalists don’t. That said, he still tends to piss off everybody equally.

    • http://leorningcniht.wordpress.com Matthew Brench

      Perhaps there’s some issue of how we’re defining liberals and conservatives, then. Carson’s definition seems a little more politicized than I’m used to using them, whereas I’ve usually heard them in terms of theology. Hopefully that sheds more light on my reaction: theological liberalism = heterodoxy, theological conservatism = orthodoxy. But if he’s going back to that old social vs. spiritual gospel emphasis then I see his general point.

      Carson; ironically, I was just thinking earlier this afternoon the same thing you just posted half an hour ago on the Facebook discussion group. What if we only posted in our blogs things that we’d be comfortable saying in the pulpit? I think all our online interactions would be a lot more well-thought-out, honest, and careful. If I heard you (or anyone) read this blog post in church or even ‘in the public square’ so to speak, I’d be a little annoyed. Not so much because I consider myself a conservative Christian, but because you’re stirring up complaints and making us Anglicans look all reactionary and separatist from our protestant/evangelical counterparts.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Matthew,

      “What if we only posted in our blogs things that we’d be comfortable saying in the pulpit?”

      The vast majority of what I write I’d feel comfortable sharing from the pulpit or in another public forum. Granted, I’d never fill the pulpit in probably 99% of churches. I accepted that fact long ago. (FYI – I share just about everything I write on my bishop’s wall.) Please keep in mind that my goal to help a unique demographic. My passion is to help struggling people work out their faith with fear and trembling as part of a holistic worshiping lifestyle. That is, I sense that my calling is to be a clergy-writer who plants a church aimed at reaching those non-Christians who struggle to accept Jesus primarily for reasons of intellectual honesty and sincere Christians who struggle with angst, doubt, unanswered questions, wounds (especially those inflicted by the institutional church), etc. I want to be the pastoral equivalent of Philip Yancey, if you will. You and a number of others think I’m being negative and harming the church yet I receive regular comments, fb messages, and emails telling me that God has used my blog to help restore their faith. This illustrates the conundrum that literally the exact same words seem rejuvenating for some and poisonous for others. All I can conclude is that my ministry is to a specific group of people.

      Someday I will plant this Anglican church body that I keep writing about. As I’ve written, it will be patterned after a house church back in GA. The long-time pastor there often had new people come up to him and voice similar concerns to what you’re saying here. After listening intently he would graciously reply, “I understand your concern. I do. What you need to understand, however, is that this church meets the peculiar needs of a certain group who aren’t being fed and healed elsewhere. What we’re doing is a ministry to them. I’m not suggesting all churches should be like this one, but I am saying I’m unwilling to sacrifice that which makes us unique in order to accommodate others. My conscience won’t allow it. From what you’ve described, it seems like there’s plenty of good churches out there for you. I genuinely love you, but if you’re dissatisfied by this local body and want us to become more like everyone else, then I’d simply encourage you to find another church home. I would send you forth with our love and blessing.” In all likelihood I’ll be saying the same thing in the future. My point? The same general spirit is true of this blog. I know it’s helping a great many people. If it’s not doing that for you, then I’d encourage you to visit other blogs.

      “Not so much because I consider myself a conservative Christian, but because you’re stirring up complaints and making us Anglicans look all reactionary and separatist from our protestant/evangelical counterparts.”

      Reactionary? That puzzles me. Take my “A Moderate Assessment of Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins'” post. That’s probably the *least* reactionary post on the topic I’ve seen. The same is true of my extended homosexuality posts. The same is true of my Driscoll post. The same is true of my recent political post. Do I respond to things? Yes. Am I reactionary? I’d say no. Perhaps it’s a matter of how we define/understand “reactionary,” though.

      Also, Yancey often experiences confusion when people say he’s stirring up complaints, causing trouble, or that sort of thing. Paraphrasing him, the problems are already there; he’s simply being honest about them rather than casting a blind eye. When someone has a broken leg, it will not do to ignore the problem and hope it’ll go away. The bone has to be set. It’s usually a painful process, but it’s necessary for long-term health. That is precisely what I’m trying to do.

  • Morgan Guyton

    All I’ve got to say is there’s nothing orthodox about Ayn Rand. The fact that her super-fan Dave Ramsey is so popular in “conservative” evangelical congregations speaks volumes. That’s not conservativism. That’s middle-class-self-idolatrizing populism.
    http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/why-dave-ramsey-is-the-problem/

    • Ian Sansot

      There’s nothing Christian about Ayn Rand. Her entire system is one centered around selfishness. Dave Ramsey, on the other hand is a great voice in getting people out of debt.
      Also, we could talk all day about the pros and cons of different economic systems but I have to ask. What the crap does that have to do with this blog post?

  • Morgan Guyton

    What does it have to do with this blog post? It’s somewhat tangential and I’m being somewhat of a troll, but the priorities of “conservative” evangelicalism reveal that it’s not so much about seeking God’s Biblical truth as it is about coming up with an alternative narrative to the one where Jesus says love your neighbor and God says to defend the widows and the orphans. Dave Ramsey is my case in point.

    Dave Ramsey is a disciple of Ayn Rand. Sorry, I watched his Great Recovery video and there is no difference between what he’s preaching and what Rand had to say except that he quotes a few Proverbs that are mostly common-sensical. Listen to what Ramsey is actually saying. He’s not just talking about individual’s debt. He’s using this anti-debt “movement” as an opportunity to indoctrinate evangelicals with laissez-faire capitalist ideology. There is nothing ecclesiological about his supposedly Biblical vision. The “conservatives” eat up his economic narrative because it means that the poor are responsible for whatever mess they’re in and there’s no reason for us to feel bad about not helping them. It’s a gospel without kingdom and without mercy which makes it very compatible with a nihilistic predestinarian view of the world.

    This isn’t an issue that “got resolved decades ago” (which is a pretty lazy rhetorical tactic for dismissing somebody else’s perspective by the way). It’s going on right now — the battle between individualist and kingdom-centered Christianity. That’s where I see the fault-lines. The obfuscating tactic of the individualists is to try to narrate the duality as Biblical vs. not-as-Biblical, but the viability of that meme is crumbling. All will be revealed in God’s time.

    In reality, we should all try to be Biblically conservative but true theological conservativism looks very different than the middle-class self-idolatry that masquerades as “conservativism” in our society in which all that “Biblical” signifies is sexual chastity. Biblical also means we wrestle with the fact that God prohibits usury and commands jubilee. And a whole lot of other things which aren’t easy to put a white picket fence around and say we’re perfect, there’s no need to change anything.

    The problem is these terms like “conservative” and “liberal” are fluid and have had their meaning completely perverted such that it’s hazardous to even use them anymore. It is my Biblical conservativism that consumes me with zeal about calling out middle-class self-idolatry that pretends to be “conservative.” And I’m going to keep on calling it out, though I’ll try to so in as gracious and humble a way as possible. God bless you guys!

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