By Ken Marrs
Whatever the issue, the liberal and the conservative stand fundamentally at opposite ends to one another. Clearly, these “labels” come with some fairly emotional baggage, and at times have even over-shadowed the issue(s) at hand. Yet, neither of these “words” is perfect or perhaps even completely understood by the other. I believe a good heart and a better understanding of some of their respective tendencies would help to bring together the best in both of them as well as to eliminate the worst.
The conservative tends to be hard to move for-ward, to motivate into action. His tendency is to stand on the defense rather than take the offensive. The word “conserve” is defined to mean “to preserve from loss.” Projected over a number of years, the conservative finds this position to be counter-productive. He must ultimately admit that no war has ever been won, no crop ever harvested, and no city ever built from a constant defensive position. In conserving the status quo, he labors, but without new growth inevitably loses what he has through stagnation.
On the other hand, the liberal is hard to hold back. By definition a liberal favors reform or progress that tends toward more individual personal freedom. He is principally concerned with doing more, with reaching out, trying new things, conquering new territories, but often forgetting to defend and hold what he already has. Sometimes he finds himself a long way from where he started; and with difficulty or even little desire to find his way back. He labors but doesn’t really gain, losing what he had through neglect.
Neither position is uniformly static, but is found in ever-changing degrees among individuals.
Liberalism and conservatism are both potentially dangerous. Both of them skirt the precipice of extremes, and are only a half step from unfaithfulness. Liberalism tends to drift away from established authority. It sees little or no danger in departure, and tends to put confidence in the reasoning of good men, popular movements, and well intended aspirations rather than in the absolute authority of God’s word. There is a tendency to walk by sight rather than by faith. It matters not that a position or practice may be on shaky ground morally, ethically or scripturally. The battle cry of the liberal is: “the end justifies the means.” Truth, principle, or being right is not the main concern of the liberal … results are. No wonder liberals have problems among themselves . . . not all of them are that liberal.
On the other hand, conservatives tend to confuse custom and tradition with authority. It tends to walk by fear rather than by faith. It is so terrorized by the possibility of apostasy, that it freezes in its tracks and mistakes its fear for faith. The one talent servant of Matthew 25:24-30 was conservative . . . and he lost his soul. While departing from truth is a valid concern, the conservative’s attitude can at times paralyze the body and hinder future growth. It often sees nearly every new method and untried approach to the Lord’s work as a departure, or a potential departure from the faith . . . even though they may acknowledge it to be scriptural. There is a tendency to be intolerant even to the point of simply preserving personal preferences and prejudices. No wonder conservatives have problems among themselves . . . not all of them are that conservative.
Both have virtues. There is a distinct virtue in reaching out, in stretching for new horizons, and in seeking new ways to do the Christian’s task. As time and circumstance change, so must some of our methods change and adapt. But in our zeal for revival, we must never go beyond that which God has authorized.
In the effort to reach men, sometimes the liberal will change the message of the gospel to accommodate a different need.’ At other times in an effort to justify men the liberal will “reinterpret” the Scriptures to accommodate an unscriptural practice? Tragically, with this approach the liberal will bring men to a humanist way of thinking, rather than the Savior’s words. We will witness a fatal conversion to a “school of thought,” rather than to the “words of life.”
There is also a distinct virtue in holding fast the form of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13). We owe a great debt to those who faithfully stood against error in times past. But we must also take care not to mistake a fear or a prejudice for the faith. Repeatedly we are exhorted to remain steadfast, but this does not mean to stand still, doing nothing. There is a big difference between standing firm and standing still. As disciples of Christ we are to walk in the light. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking we are going anywhere spiritually when a refusal to act is mistaken for “the defense of the gospel.” While we must be steadfast and unmoveable, we must be abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).
Problems With Liberalism
Liberalism is deceptive. Liberalism reasons that the apparent goodness of a work will suffice as authority for that work. The final test in liberal thought is “how will this help/hurt man?” For this reason liberalism tends to be subjective in its faith. The fervor to do godly things in godly ways, gives way to doing good things in anyway that seems best to man. In the long run liberalism worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator.
Liberalism is wrong because its basic expression is one of unfaithfulness (read: doesn’t put its total trust solely in the word of God). God’s word is faithful and must be held fast (Tit. 1:9). However, liberalism considers additional criteria for its justification. In Numbers 22:18; 24:13
Balaam twice tells King Balak that he cannot go beyond the word of the Lord (this is the correct and scriptural attitude) . . . however we later discover that Balaam relents from this position and counsels Israel to trespass against the Lord (for personal gain, Num. 31:16; 2 Pet. 2:15). The basic problem Balaam had was that what he wanted to do was not approved of within the will of God, so he had to go beyond the word of God to find justification for his actions. This is liberalism as it is driven by human rational.
In Numbers 20 when Moses was instructed by the Lord to speak to the rock, instead he struck the rock and consequently was not allowed to enter into the promised land. We discover in verse 10 that Moses considered himself the main character in this episode and thus acted upon his own judgment of right and wrong concerning the circumstance. This too is liberalism.
The liberal sees the personal individual as the yardstick by which every situation is finally discerned. The liberal tends to treat the integrals of the gospel as peripherals of judgment and opinion. Thus ultimately, liberals cannot agree among themselves except it be to oppose all conservatives.
Problems With Conservatism
Conservatism has its expressions of faithlessness also. Fear is the great danger and mortal enemy of conservatism. Fear serves to discourage the hearts of brethren and to deter (sometimes even prevent) solid scriptural works. The example of the twelve spies is well-known. The ten spies whose report was eventually believed and became the cause of Israel’s 40-year journey through the wilderness, was prompted by fear (Num. 13:31-14:3). They were unwilling to follow God’s will in moving forward and taking the promised land, but rather wanted to select a new leader to take them back to Egypt. This is conservatism as it is driven by human fear.
The conservative sometimes may feel it necessary to accept some extreme position for sake of consistency. Even though he may doubt the position, he cannot satisfactorily explain it .. .so he accepts it. With a few experiences like this he can easily become ultra-conservative. Forgetting the intention of a particular teaching in the Scriptures, it may be mistakenly extended and a judgment reached according to appearance or preference rather than by right (Jn. 7:24). The example of the Pharisees comes to mind. In their zeal to protect the Law of Moses, they not only established their own code of rules and conduct, but when they felt that system threatened, they crucified the Son of God. This is ultra-conservatism.
The conservative will many times unwittingly surround (read: smother) the gospel with a standard or code of personal preferences and prejudices that are designed to repel liberalism and conserve conservatism. Yet, because these preferences are of such an individual nature and origin, there is confusion and even strife among the conservatives as to which of these “standards” is to be employed. Conservatives tend to treat the peripherals of judgment as integrals of the gospel. Thus conservatives cannot agree among themselves except it be to oppose all liberals.
Both can be reactionary. For example, a charge is made from the community that the church is discriminating against women. An outspoken sister of the congregation wonders why she can’t publicly address the assembly. She has some biblical knowledge, is capable, and after all we don’t want people in the community thinking we’re sexist . . . so the decision is made to let her preach. This is liberalism as it inevitably responds in kind.
In another case, a preacher was appointed to be an Elder and he proved unfaithful. Others saw this and reacted later by refusing to appoint another preacher to the eldership (even though they acknowledged him to be qualified) because he might also prove to be unfaithful. Such is more than mere conservatism, it is an expression of unfaithfulness as surely as any liberalism is.
Both liberals and conservatives lose. The liberal plays it loose in hopes of gaining more, and the conservative plays it safe to protect what he has. Neither is fully consistent with the faithful life as described in the New Testament.
In the story of the twelve spies, Joshua and Caleb are the heroes because they put their trust in what God said, and determined to follow it regardless of personal feelings . . . this is neither liberal nor conservative but scriptural. One must never be blind to dangers, but neither must the child of God be afraid to do anything scriptural.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Liberal or conservative? Why hold out such a poor choice? Why not just be faithful; perfectly united in our collective efforts to follow the unadulterated gospel of Christ, and liberal in our love toward one another as concerning our personal opinions and privately held judgments? Seems simple enough if we genuinely have the spirit of Christ. After all, it is the good and faithful servant who will enter into the joy of the Lord (Matt. 25:21) . . . not the liberal or conservative.
‘Observe the “social gospel” as the main message in the religious world today appealing to man’s “need” of self-esteem, meaningful social relationships, etc. rather than his sense of sin against God and what God has required of him.
‘One principle that has served me well is to recognize that one of the earmarks of a liberal’s attempt to defend an unscriptural practice is the inevitable change in arguments. The “interpretation” of a particular passage may temporarily meet the criteria of an immediate situation, but when circumstances change or the former “interpretation” is proved wrong, a new “interpretation” or argument is quickly adopted. Witness the “new hermeneutic” for those who would defend instrumental music; or the changing interpretations of “commits adultery” in Matthew 19:9 by those who would defend adultery in a second marriage.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 17, p. 20-22
September 1, 1994