So this post won’t necessarily have anything to do with conversational evangelism, but I will address a few worldview issues so read on if you’re interested. First a little background; my friend Ryan posted an article on Twitter which asks “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” We then had the following exchange:
Steve: His definition of Liberal Christianity is so wrong, it undercuts the entire article
Ryan: What do you read to be his definition of liberal Christianity, and what should it be?
Steve: “defining idea…faith should spur social reform” that’s not *liberal* christianity, just Christianity! too much else for tweet
Ryan: Social reform isn’t the “defining idea” of Christianity.
At this point I’m stopping the tweet madness and giving myself a home court advantage. Twitter is not the forum for meaningful discussion on topics like this.
First, the author clearly states that the defining idea of Liberal Christianity is that faith should spur social reform (and not just personal conversion). I believe this has nothing to do with liberal vs. conservative, as I mentioned to Ryan. Jesus calls the Apostles to teach new disciples to obey everything he has commanded them to do. This includes healing the sick, preaching the Good News and praying that God’s Kingdom would be made manifest on earth the same way it is in heaven. The grand story of our universe (or the defining idea, to use earlier terminology) is the redemption of all things to and through Christ. If Christians believe and act on that idea then our societies will change. We have seen this throughout history from the infancy of Christianity until present day. The idea that Christians should help the poor isn’t a product of 20th century innovation. Calling it ‘social reform’ might be, but all that means is changing the way a culture looks, and we’ve been doing that!
Therefore, I propose that personal and societal transformation is at the heart of historical, orthodox Christianity. What then is Liberal Christianity?
Liberal, when associated with movements is defined as being favorable to progress or reform. In fact, the article uses the phrase progressive reform to describe the Christians’ involvement in the Civil Rights movement. So liberal Christianity is open to progressive reform? Yes, and that’s often a problem.
Some philosophies and ideologies need to be challenged, changed or completely overhauled as times change – the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements provide great examples. (Though to be fair, slavery and/or discrimination were never good policies whose time simply expired but rather blatant evils that need to be extinguished). Other times, the philosophies are simply true and to challenge them is to bankrupt their effectiveness. The evidence for this is murkier and often depends on prior ideological commitments but it seems that the sexual revolution (sleep with whoever you want, whenever you want – this will have no consequences now that we can prevent unwanted pregnancies and diseases) is bunk.
I believe that Liberal Christianity happens to look for progressive reform in the worst places, and with worse results. Whenever I have read the work of a scholar who has labeled himself or herself liberal (or has been so labeled by others in the field) the most common divergence from historical, orthodox belief is in the scholar’s view of Scripture. In general, Liberal Christianity does not believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible (sometimes to the exclusion of all supernatural events, i.e. the Jesus Seminar) and this erodes the very foundation on which they propose to build. For without a transcendent, trustworthy source of knowledge we are left to our own devices and plans as we try to figure out what is best for the world. The author of the NY Times article says as much: “[liberal churches] don’t seem to have much to offer that is distinct from purely secular liberalism.” His conclusion is that they will continue to change to keep pace with cultural demands until their movements go extinct. The so-called social Gospel is no Good News if it doesn’t include the preaching of a crucified, Resurrected Jesus.
The problem for us Americans is our use of liberal/conservative is so saturated with political meaning that it is almost universally assumed within Christian circles that conservatives hate (or at least don’t care about) poor people and liberals don’t believe the Bible. (This is obviously a sweeping generalization, but it gets at the crux of the issue). Instead of debating over the use of monikers, the cause of Christ can best be served if those of us who claim to be his disciples abide by all he commanded. This means loving the triune God revealed in the Bible (to love him is to know him, and he has revealed himself most plainly through his word) and loving the people in his world with a special care for those who are least able to care for themselves. To do both of these things is neither liberal nor conservative, it is revolutionary and it is historical. It is creedal and it is orthodox. Put simply, it is discipleship.