What if There's No Longer Any Such Thing as "Going (Theologically) Liberal"?
For the longest time, anyone who thought new thoughts about a given passage in the Bible or about a social trend—or who started trying to love the poor or to work to correct some systemic injustice—ran the risk of incurring a label from some other church person of “going liberal.” What they meant by this label was that the erring person was leaving behind any historic concern for what the Bible said or even for connecting with God in their interest to seem trendy to secular people. In church circles, saying that someone was “going liberal” was to say they were leaving faith behind. They were trying to put a spiritual veneer over their secularism.
This came to mind this week when I got an email from someone who said he was a former pastor in my group of churches who, after long service among us, had to leave because my churches were “going liberal.” What was the heart of his complaint? They were talking about trendy things like social justice or women who preach, mostly. As his “heart broke” over our churches, what was it that he’d like to see from them? He’d like to see a concern for the Bible and a pursuit of God’s Holy Spirit. He’d like to see churches that helped out the poor in their community (though he most certainly did NOT want to see churches concerned about social justice for those poor people—that was liberal). He had a few more things on his list as well.
My thought after reading his complaint was that it was amazing what one could see if one looked through selective lenses. It seemed to me that I knew plenty of churches, my own included, who would fit his definition of “liberal” in that they, say, let women speak publicly and did indeed have things like task forces about human trafficking or similar issues. But each of these churches would, as I saw it, be able as well to check off every box of what he regarded as what good churches did. So what was his beef?
This got me reflecting about the epithet of “theological liberal”. Did it have any meaning anymore or was it a passing dispute? It originated in a response to modernism in the late 1800s. Churches who felt scorned by secularists of the day—because they, say, believed that miracles and answered prayers were possible despite them being unverifiable by the scientific method—responded in one of two ways (both of which disallowed God’s supernatural intervention, btw). They either became fundamentalists (a term coined in that era that meant “the most scientific people of all—we’ve found the atom you can’t split, the “fundamentals,” which are the truths of the Bible) or they became liberals (who, while disallowing miracles, followed Jesus’s model as a good citizen who cared for the poor). And those two got into an enduring death match with each other. Hence the epithet of “liberal” as being the worst possible insult from the people who believed in the Bible.
But that fight is long gone. Modernism itself is largely dead. The people I meet are pretty much never asking “are you theologically non-liberal?” It just doesn’t come up. People I meet are looking for a life that works informed by a genuine connection with an actual God. And then, if they discover that, they’re looking for how they can keep that relationship going, which usually requires a serious focus on the Bible.
The “conservative/liberal” label, under such circumstances, breaks down in a million ways. So the people in this angry email that are being called “liberal” pretty much all have a bone-deep commitment to experiencing Jesus and living according to the Bible. Which pretty much cuts the heart out of the “liberal” epithet, the whole point of which was to say that here was a person who’d abandoned a commitment to knowing and following Jesus and to learning about and following the Bible.
What more seems to be going on, from the perspective of this blog, is that Stage 2 church people have grown into being Stage 3 church people (which customarily involves a newfound concern for justice and a care for people one would never meet during the course of one’s usual day—sweatshop workers in the third world, say—along with a newfound concern that marginalized people in one’s own society are noticed and empowered). In much rarer circumstances, this label of “liberal” is given by Stage 2 church people to Stage 4 church people, who—ironically—are concerned with actually experiencing God at a MORE profound level than they’d pulled off in Stage 2. (The irony, on the off-chance that you missed it, is that the people being dismissed as godless are fought against because they want MORE of God.)
All to say, I find myself wondering if “going liberal” is a dying concern. In 1957, that could well be a sign of someone leaving an actual faith in Jesus for something else. In 2010, it seems to me that something very different is going on.