I am a conservative evangelical Christian. A good many of my friends label themselves as moderate. I also have a smaller but still significant number of people in my life who would classify themselves as liberal. (Please note, these are not political uses of the words conservative, moderate, and liberal and are not associated with the advancement of any particular political agenda. Rather, they are umbrella terms to help define where a person falls in their understanding of the Christian faith, especially as it relates to the Bible and the implications of the Bible on our lives and responsibilities.) For the purposes of this article, I want to discuss an ongoing and no doubt never-ending problem that surfaces when conservatives and moderates begin talking with one another. It’s a good thing to do, ya know. If we conservatives only talk to other conservatives, the conversation will get boring fairly quickly and we won’t have any true substantiation to why we believe what we believe. The same is true for moderates. Having said that, and after having been in many a conversation and having read a great deal of stuff written by both conservatives and moderates, I have come to this conclusion:
Conservatives and moderates are so concerned with being correctly identified as a conservative or moderate that they do not allow themselves to agree with various positions held by either group, especially when labels are in play.
Now, let me flesh out that conclusion.
First, there are some significant and somewhat substantial differences between conservatives and moderates. I have no problem with someone clearly defining where they stand. For me personally, there are some serious concerns I have with a moderate and liberal position on certain things. No problem – that is absolutely one of my duties as a Christian, namely, to be studying, reading, and determining what I believe and where I stand. Others will disagree and it is ok for me to demonstrate those differences to help clarify my own positions. Nor do I believe that we should ignore our differences and just “all get along” when it comes to organizing ourselves. If there are substantial differences between our theology and our practice then there may be times when it is necessary to draw some clear lines so that everyone can serve and work toward a common goal with a common mindset. The problem comes when I am so determined to not look like a moderate that I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge an area where we agree in fear of being misunderstood as a moderate. That ultimately leads to only negative consequences and, quite frankly, is childish. But we all do it. And more often than not the problem comes with the introduction of labels. The best way to explain is to cite two examples.
The first example is a way in which conservatives will fight with moderates even though they actually agree. The label for this disagreement is “social gospel.” As soon as conservatives (and I am generalizing obviously) hear the phrase “social gospel” the light switch turns off. Moderates, for the most part, place a greater emphasis on the social aspects of the gospel and the second great command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Do conservatives really think that Christians should ignore the needs of other people? Do conservatives really think that the Bible is silent in regards to how we should be engaging the people in our community and in our world by meeting physical needs? Are conservatives completely blind to the incredible compassion our Lord Jesus Christ showed on all whom he met? Of course not. So why the resistance?
The reason is because, in part, the term and notion of “social gospel” has been taken to the extreme by some folk who see this as the primary way God is going to save his people and usher in his Kingdom. So, the “spiritual” gospel message of salvation by grace through faith is trumped by being nice to each other. Nevertheless, not one of my moderate friends believes that. They all believe that faith in Christ is essential for salvation, but that “faith working through love” will bring about a strong desire to serve, love, and show compassion to our fellow man. And we conservatives believe that as well. But we will fight, scream, scratch, poke, and run from admitting the legitimacy of the aspect of social justice and ministry. Even though we believe it with all our hearts. It’s just silly.
The second example is a way in which moderates will fight with conservatives even though they actually agree. The label for this disagreement is “inerrancy.” As soon as moderates (and I am generalizing obviously) hear the phrase “inerrancy” the light switch turns off. Conservatives who believe in inerrancy believe that when God “breathed out” Scripture and when the authors of the Bible were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit, they were able to write with their own personalities and style exactly what God desired to be written about Himself. So that, since Scripture is ultimately from God and God cannot lie, Scripture is truthful in every detail, free from error in the original autographs (manuscripts). Here we are in the 21st century with a plethora of varying translations, no original Greek or Hebrew manuscripts, and the reality of human copying from generation to generation. How can the Bible be inerrant? Well, inerrancy does not even begin to suggest that what we have today in our English Bible’s is exactly what was written 2000 years ago. It readily acknowledges textual variants, translation philosophy, and difficult passages. It readily acknowledges that the Bible is first and foremost about God and salvation and is not a “how to” manual for every possible subject under the sun. It readily acknowledges the importance of understanding genre and the task of when to take passages literally or symbolically. So that, at the end of the day, inerrancy holds that because the original authors wrote without error, and because the transmission of the text has been preserved in downright remarkable ways, what we have today is confidently the word of God, without error in what it teaches. That’s it. Inerrancy is not concerned with whether a “but” was actually an “and” and so on. It says that we can be confident with the entirety of Scripture and that the church cannot rewrite what God has written.
Most of my moderate friends believe that with all their heart. Yet they would rather been seen as an atheist than as a believer in inerrancy. Why? Because inerrancy has been taken to the extreme by some folk who believe that every single word, typically of one translation (usually the King James Version), is exactly what Paul wrote in the 1st century A.D. These people are now seen as “fundamentalists” and they are the devil in flesh for moderates. They had rather be anything than a fundamentalist. So, even though most moderates fully know that is not the true nature of an inerrancy position, they refuse to be anywhere near an association that extreme and will replace the word inerrancy with the word “infallible” and provide some wiggle room in there for proper separation.
Now, do some folk really believe that the social implications of the gospel are all that matter? Yes, and they should rightfully be corrected. Do some folk believe that the Bible has sections that can be chosen over other sections because it is not all truthful? Yes, and they should be corrected. But I believe for the most part that a majority of conservatives agree with the fundamental concept of the social gospel but just don’t want to go there. I also believe that for the most part a majority of moderates agree with the true meaning of Scripture’s inerrancy, but don’t want to go there. I may be wrong. But it would be nice if we could acknowledge when we agree and give the other side a little credit. They might actually have something important to say.