They are terms that you tend to hear frequently if you are in ministry, or studying theology, or spend much time at church.* Since all three of those descriptions fit me, I have definitely heard the terms a lot. I have also used them both, and I have even seen or heard myself described with both of them before. Despite their widespread use, I dislike them, and have come to believe that, without significant contextualization, they are basically meaningless. Let me explain.
What makes someone liberal? Well, there is a wide degree of difference between people who claim to be Christian, so it really depends which type of “Christian” you ask:
- If you ask a Catholic, a liberal might be someone who advocates the use of birth control or believes that priests should have the right to marry.
- If you ask an Amish person, a liberal might be someone who drives a car or fastens their clothes with zippers.
- If you ask an evangelical Christian, a liberal might be someone who denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, or advocates that practicing homosexuals should be able to serve as priests or pastors.
- If you ask a member of the mainline Churches of Christ, a liberal might be someone who believes that baptism is not a part of the process of salvation, or that instrumental music is acceptable in the worship of the church.
- If you ask a member of the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ, a liberal might be someone who thinks it is permissible to eat in the church building, or that churches should provide assistance to the local poor.
- In other sub-groups of the Churches of Christ, a liberal might be someone who advocates having a Bible class for children, or believes that the Holy Spirit personally indwells Christians, or thinks that it is okay to use more than one cup for the juice in the Lord’s Supper.
We could repeat the exercise with the term conservative, but hopefully, my point has become clear: if Person A, who denies the divinity of Christ, and Person B, who zips up his pants, and Person C, who thinks that a Bible class for children is a good idea, can all be described by the term “liberal,” then it’s not a particularly useful term.
How these terms are used depends almost entirely on our own perspective—where we are located on the conservative/liberal spectrum. In my own case, I am definitely conservative in the wide spectrum of Christianity, but would consider myself to be pretty middle-of-the-road within the context of Churches of Christ. Others (on both sides) would dispute where I placed myself though. In fact, based solely on the fact that I am a graduate of Harding University, some would label me as a “crazy liberal” while others would write me off as a “backward conservative.”
All that brings me to this—the labels only have meaning if you’re talking to someone who is in the exact same location on the conservative/liberal spectrum as you are.
Of course, there’s a reason why we like to have labels like this. They enable us to put people into categories and treat them accordingly. If we think of someone as a “crazy liberal” it is much easier to just write them off as unfaithful and never address any of the issues they bring up. And if we think of someone as a “backward conservative” we can condescendingly poke fun of their close-mindedness and never study any of their viewpoints or any of the cautions they raise.
What’s the alternative? Well, I guess we could look at people as individuals and get to know what their specific views are. We could try to learn why they think the way they do on a given issue, perhaps reexamine our own beliefs on that issue, and see to what extent both viewpoints are rooted in Scripture. And when we disagree with them, we could give the benefit of the doubt to people who claim to love God and want to do His will, rather than automatically question their motives or their intelligence.
But…that seems like a lot of work. Labels are definitely easier; maybe we should just stick with those.
*This blog post addresses the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in a religious sense, not a political one. The fact that the two terms are also used in the arena of politics and that they don’t always line up (people who are conservative religiously are not always conservative politically, and people who are liberal religiously are not always liberal politically) adds to my overall point.