Monday, September 13, 2010

Conservative, but not Ultra-Conservative

Private Willis tells us that in politics there are two kinds of people: liberals and conservatives. The Aussie bloke tells us that the liberals are the goodies, and the conservatives are only interested in money.

In the church there are the same two kinds of people. And again, the liberals are the goodies (the ones interested in social justice, defending women from cruel overbearing husbands, action against climate change before the poverty-stricken island nations are drowned, and helping teenagers cope with unplanned pregnancies) and the conservatives are only interested in proving their interpretation of the Bible is better than everyone else's.

I'd like to put forward the view that there are not two kinds of people in the church but three: liberals, conservatives, and ultra-conservatives. To properly define the conservatives we first have to know what extremes they lie between.

Liberals
The word liberal literally means unconstrained - as in, liberation, or liberty. A liberal Christian is one who doesn't constrain themselves to the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. Of course, different groups of Christians have different views on exactly what are the basic beliefs of the faith and what matters are disputable (1 Cor 14:1).

The trouble with liberals is that once you take away the foundations of the faith the church is left to basically a majority-rules situation - and while that might work for a while (the majority want lots of social action and charitable work) there's no checks and balances against drifting. I've seen churches where they just listen to classical music. It's what the majority wants.

Ultra-conservatives
Ultra-conservatism is usually a reaction against liberalism. In a violent protest against the rejection of Christian principles the ultra-conservatives decide not only to keep the basics, but a long list of principles derived from those basics.

The trouble with that, of course, is that the derivation is made by fallible human beings - and while they might be good ideas, mindlessly imposing them on the whole body of Christ leaves the church open to ridicule - as irreverent cartoons such as the Simpsons and South Park have done many times.

Stuff ultra-conservatives like
Just a few examples so you can tell what I'm on about. After that you can extrapolate out the rest of the picture.
  • Teetotalism. Ultra-conservatives detest alcohol and will back any move to make things more difficult for those that sell it (even if the move itself is a completely useless one). While it's true that Proverbs and several of Paul's letters contain many warnings against drunkenness, there is no part of the Bible which forbids the consumption of any alcohol. In fact, Paul explicitly tells Timothy to drink wine rather than just water - and although the reason for this is unclear from the context and may not have been intended for all believers over all time, it very rightly gives ultra-conservatives a headache. Of course, there may be many good reasons (health, safety, etc) why it's a good idea not to drink - but equating a good idea with a divine command is blasphemy on a grand scale.
  • Solemnity. An ultra-conservative always behaves like they're in a funeral. It's true that some of what passes for humour in today's society is nothing but coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4). But as Pollyanna constantly told people, there are more than 800 sections of the Bible where we are told in so many words to enjoy ourselves and have a good time. And of course, on religious matters solemnity is doubly important. Anyone cracking a joke funnier than "Joseph served in the courts of Pharaoh" (surely everyone knows that one, don't make me tell it!) in an ultra-conservative church would be in danger of excommunication. An ultra-conservative church sermon lasts a minimum of an hour, and is delivered slowly and in a pious monotone.
  • Distrust of the modern world. Groups like the Amish take this to a fine art - horses and buggies instead of motor vehicles, no electronics, no labour saving devices, etc. That's an extreme example of course, but there are still plenty of other groups who still tend to stick with 19th-century hymns sung on an 18th-century pipe organ in 17th-century language, as if God wouldn't understand the way people communicate today. Paul didn't restrict himself to Egyptian papyrus ("Good enough for Moses, it's good enough for me") to write to the churches from his Roman cell though, did he?
  • Blind faith. "God put fossils in the ground to test men's faith" said an ultra-conservative minister after Darwin and Huxley popularised the idea that evolution disproved the Bible. "I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it" said another. While we have to accept that God's perspective is better than ours, which means He wins if there's any difference of opinion, we also know that God gave us senses which we should be able to trust to tell us the truth.
  • Lack of charity. Many ultra-conservatives see liberals focusing too much on fixing the ills of society (usually in well-meaning but misguided ways) and go too far the other way by totally ignoring Jesus' example of healing and evangelism. While it's true that the spiritual growth of believers is important, no legitimate church responsibility is so important that we should neglect another responsibility.
  • Exclusiveness. There are some ultra-conservative groups that refuse to socialise or even do business with non-Christians. While it's true that bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor 15:33) Jesus sent us to all the world to make disciples. Not all ultra-conservatives are way-out-there cults either - there are normal people in normal churches who simply choose to focus their lives around interaction with fellow-Christians. As a result they have no idea what non-Christians are like, the way they think or act - so how can they be effective in evangelism? Be shrewd as snakes, Jesus said - or as we might say today, forewarned is forearmed.
  • Sexual repression. Ultra-conservative parents won't let their children even talk to a member of the opposite sex alone once they turn 12. Anything that could be interpreted as showing off (for boys) or flirting (for girls) is forbidden. If the worst comes to the worst and there's an unplanned pregnancy to deal with, it's considered a mortal sin. While such occurrences have major consequences that last a lifetime, the Bible never refers to them as any worse than any other sin. Once again, there are many good reasons to repress the natural urges - but good reasons aren't the same thing as a divine command. That reminds me, one day I'm going to do a blog about teen pregnancy and all that... which will be a lot more shocking than this or any other blog post I've done so far.
  • Bipolarism. To the ultra-conservative, there are two kinds of people - the Christians and the enemy. Whenever an ultra-conservative is in a debate (especially one on religious matters) they are constantly on the attack and defence. There's no friendly banter - any light-hearted comment is interpreted as an attack and is repulsed in force. While it's true that Jesus said "Anyone who is not for you is against you", it's not exactly a good idea to attack the people we're trying to evangelise!
So as you see, there is an element of truth to each aspect of the failings of the ultra-conservatives. Everything they do stems from a correct principle - the problem is that they take it too far.

How many times did God tell the people of Israel "Don't turn aside from the law to the right or to the left"? It comes up many times. I'd like to put the idea that the right and the left are ultra-conservativeness and liberality - adding to and subtracting from the perfect law God gave us.

2 comments:

Jennifer Sara Jansky said...

Interesting thoughts.

I can gladly say I don't think I fall into any category other than Christian: willing to teach, willing to learn. I know what I know and what I don't know I pray God will show me someday. :D

DH said...

Michael, good post. I think a lot of conservatives (by your definition) don't even worry about labels. Social action is a by-product of faith, and exclusivity is gone because the call of the gospel is to "go therefore..."