Be careful of those categories, Christian. Take the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” for instance.
Liberal is a bad, bad word these days, in politics as well as in religion in this country. But it has a noble tradition and needs to be salvaged. Conservative is the “in” word, at least in the portion of the world where I live. But the news about it is not all positive.
The scripture can throw some light on the matter of liberals and conservatives:
On another sabbath, He went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:6-11).
There is no place in the work of the Lord for cowards and wimps. To follow the Lord Jesus means to take risks, to stay focused, to confront evildoers–no matter how highly placed–and to bless people, no matter the personal cost.
Sometimes in the Scriptures, I am struck by how the Lord’s most blistering messages were directed toward the religious. I’m religious. That tells me I must be very careful. There is something about religion that captures the very people it claims to liberate. Captures and binds and enslaves. It burdens down, wears away, and blinds the eyes.
We religious people must always be on our guard lest our faith turn us into professional nay-sayers, the kind of people who put doctrine ahead of obedience to the Lord, our convictions ahead of compassion, our way ahead of the Lord’s way.
I remember the first time I became aware that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were theological conservatives. I’m a theological conservative. It pained me to realize the most blistering sermon of Jesus–that would be Matthew 23–was directed toward the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the greatest stumblingblock to Jesus’ ministry, instigators of the charges against Him, and collaborators with the scribes and Sanhedrin to have Him arrested and crucified and neutralized.
Those of us who call ourselves theological conservatives must be on constant patrol, alert to those forces that would turn us into enemies of the Savior, obstacles to the Spirit, pawns of the devil himself.
In no way do I claim to have the last word on this subject of theological liberalism and conservatism. I don’t even have the fourth or fifth word. What I do have, I hope you will agree, is the opening thought.
If being liberal means the liberty to live freely for Christ, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in whatever enterprise He is engaged in today, without first consulting the ruling elite to see what is kosher, then I am a liberal. If it means putting obedience ahead of my personal convictions, putting people above my stubborn prejudices, and putting the Lord above everything and everyone, then I hope to always be a liberal. Like Jesus.
First, let me offer a few thoughts on the story of our Lord’s healing this man with the withered hand in Capernaum’s synagogue. (Mark’s account of the story can be found in chapter 3, and would seem to place this in that city’s worship center.)
The conservative Pharisees and scribes were on a heresy hunt that day.
I fear for people who get their kicks from ferreting out heretics. And yet, there they were, on the job, searching for even the slightest reason to bring charges against Jesus.
Why? What had He done? He had brought a fresh word from God, for one thing. And the defenders of the status quo never like that sort of thing. Skeptics need only look at the settled little city where nothing new has happened in generations, and then watch what the preachers do when a new minister enters the city and begins to awaken the Lord’s people. They flock to his church and get excited about Jesus. That church explodes with growth and its members excitedly blanket the city with joy.
That enrages some of the old-time preachers there whose churches haven’t grown in generations and who have had a tacit agreement with one another that “I won’t rock the boat if you won’t.”
Jesus, the consummate boat-rocker. The provocateur.
The Lord Jesus Christ knew precisely what He was doing.
He knew their thoughts, knew His own mind, and did not hesitate to act. There was nothing tentative about Jesus.
At times, He had a way of taking out of town, away from the crowds, the person He intended to heal. But not today. This healing needed to be done in front of the world.
“Sir, stand up in front of everyone.”
Now, having pastored for two generations, I can well imagine that fellow responding, “Well, Lord, I just don’t want to be seen in front of a crowd. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. If we can do this salvation-thing privately, count me in.”
I cannot tell you the times I have heard people excuse themselves from confessing Christ publicly and joining His church with similar flimsicalities. (Made up that word. Like it?)
Jesus tossed in a little logic, just to show up the heresy-hunters for the evildoers they were.
“Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath? Good or evil? To bless a life or to destroy it?”
Had He been seeking an answer to his questions, Jesus would still be waiting. No way were they going to do anything as risky as answer an actual question on their behavior.
In just so few words, the Lord revealed the conservatives in that room (they were the defenders of orthodoxy, gang; let’s call it for what it was) as evildoers, as destroyers of life.
They put their grasp on orthodoxy ahead of any human need.
In healing the man, Jesus asked him to do the very thing he was unable to do.
“Stretch out your hand!”
Uh, Lord. Excuse me? Lord, the guy’s hand is withered. It’s deformed. Shriveled. The one thing he cannot do is stretch it out. And yet you are asking him to do just that.
That’s the plan. It’s always the plan. In whatever area the Lord chooses to grow us, He puts the focus and directs the commands. He will stretch us in the area of our deformity.
If we are racists, He will call on us to get involved in some minority ministry, the last thing on the planet we would choose to do.
If we are hospital-phobic, His Spirit may lead us to become visitors of the sick or volunteers in the ICU.
The critics reacted precisely as Jesus knew they would.
“They were furious. They began plotting how to kill Jesus.” That’s what Mark says in 3:6. In fact, these wonderful Pharisees and scribes, the conservatives, the defenders of orthodoxy, join up with the Herodians to do this, Mark adds.
Ain’t that the way.
What is there about us conservatives that makes us love the worldly crowd–people with little or no religious convictions–far more than we do our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree theologically. We ought to be ashamed.
A pastor friend told me recently of the day in seminary when a longtime buddy of his–one who went on to a measure of fame in our denomination as a defender of conservative values–walked up to him and said, “I’m not having anything else to do with you, you old liberal.”
That was the last time that man ever spoke to him.
How does he do that, I wonder. How does this defender of the faith stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, preaching before those television cameras which beam his message of the Lord Jesus into the world, speaking of the love of Christ, when all the while he has been unkind and unloving to his brethren in the Lord, all because he saw things a little differently from them?
Those of us who consider ourselves conservatives should take care.
–Take no pride in your label. The label on a jar can be meaningless.
–Exercise caution in dismissing someone else who is a liberal. Their “liberalism” may mean something entirely different to you from what they actually profess.
–Keep your eyes on the Lord Jesus. Keep your life close to Him, your heart yielded to Him, your ways aligned to His.
–Be conservative (ahem) about spreading labels around too (ahem again) liberally. As the old saw goes, “labels are libels.” Deal with people for who they are and what they profess, not by what someone has said about them.
–Be quick to check into internet attacks before repeating them. Too many people in the public eye treat Christians as weak and shallow, and know that we will parrot their lines without double-checking to see if they have told us the truth. If you cannot verify it, do not pass it along.
A conservative–a real one–takes care to conserve truths like, well, like Truth, and love and compassion and integrity.
A real liberal–the kind the Lord Jesus was–is generous in opening arms to others, particularly those in need, and giving of himself.
Jesus said, “Freely you have received; freely give.” Freely is another word for “liberally.” Let us be faithful, brothers and sisters.