Here are a couple of truths: Politics is a vastly complex topic. Theology is a vastly complex topic.
However, we always crave simplicity. Would that I could draw some cartoons for you! Ok, here’s ONE:
Nice and simple point, eh? No, I didn’t draw it, but in an effort to maintain this ‘simplicity’, I shall address both topics of politics and theology through the oft-quoted terms of ‘conservative’ and liberal’…
Right-wing political viewpoints tend to value the individual above society, and play down any importance of ‘state-interference’ in one’s ‘personal affairs’. Left-wing political viewpoints seek to address problems that arise in society by legislating against unfair practices and individuals who cause disadvantage to others, valuing the role of ‘the state’ above the concerns of the individual.
One can find the extremes of these viewpoints fairly easily. North Korea is one of the last bastions of ‘the state as religion’ that must be obeyed without question, while the free-market ideas of Thatcherite and Reaganite neocons actually require a suspension of belief that ‘society’ even exists! The majority of us who reside in the middle, along a long, long sliding scale from left to right, understand that we need a balance of the rights and freedoms of the individual with the laws and controls of government upon our society for the protection of all citizens against unscrupulous entities. Such is the basis for (as I said) very complex debates and negotiations.
Applying labels such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is very tricky, since it may only apply to the here and now. For example, free-market ideology was, at one point, the preserve of liberals like William Gladstone, who was the British PM four times, before the rise of Marx, Socialism and the British Labour Party, which rose to replace the Liberal Party’s place at the head of British politics. One wonders what Gladstone would think of his beliefs being adopted in the late 20th century by the party he opposed, but this serves to highlight such complexities.
These labels become even more difficult to attach in theological discussions, particularly as the political distinctions have transferred, and many use the labels (even as insults) to attempt to delineate who is speaking ‘the truth’ and who not. The common perception is that ‘conservative’ churches/ denominations/ ministers adhere to long-established doctrinal truths, while their ‘liberal’ counterparts are those who appear to embrace ‘new ideas’ and theological stances from ‘outside’ orthodox faith. This is far too simplistic. Yes, I myself have used such labels, even in my own blogs, but I know what I mean by them, so I shall outlay my distinctions:
I disagree with many, many fellow believers on many points. Note I said ‘fellow believers’ since I do not try to paint myself into my own little corner with a 50-point thesis that one must agree with to be called my ‘brother in the faith’. Theology is so gloriously complex that many viewpoints can be heard and argued, but not completely refuted. What do I stand on, then?
These two truths stand against all false theology, clearly and unequivocally:
Firstly, Jesus said
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Quite indisputable then, yes? This is not an interpretation of an apostle like Paul or a later theologian upon a debatable statement. These are the very recorded words of Jesus himself: no exceptions, he said. For me, transgressing this to include others who do not believe in him is a truly liberal stance that is errant. Therefore, many preachers who are viewed as ‘conservative’, such as John Hagee and Joel Osteen, are, in my book, liberal! Even Christian universalists (not multi-faith universalists) can be conservative by this definition. Unsure about that? Here’s an excellent blog on that which I could not better, if you’re interested:
Secondly, our means of salvation are outlined in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9)
The doctrine of grace was established from the start. It is by faith, not works, so the edifices of churches that came later, like the Roman Catholic church, with its insistence on the ceremonies and sacraments meted out by the church priesthood, and all those ‘legalists’, who maintain that we need to obey the Mosaic Law, seek to undermine the grace of God and Christ’s complete work of redemption through Calvary. The term ‘vicarious atonement’ which is the linchpin of the Christian faith means exactly what it says on the tin: Jesus has done it all, paid it all, so I am free from any further requirements to achieve salvation. He achieved it for me. Not sure you like that? I couldn’t care less if you don’t, it’s the gospel! The glorious, wonderful, graceful, encompassing good news that we do not need to strive to gain heaven anymore. Still not convinced? Go and read the epistle to the Galatians. And then read Romans as well, if you’re up to it.
So in my book, even the Church of Rome is liberal! Why do I feel like I’m sounding very narrow in my opinions, when in fact, I am much more accepting than most of my fellow evangelicals? Any difference in doctrine or practice that does not undermine the two points I laid out above, is not in opposition to my gospel, the one that my whole faith is built on. There are many doctrinal points I will not agree with, but those points are minor, and secondary to faith and salvation. If you find such differences to be irritating to your sense of ‘rightness’, I gracefully suggest that you look into the roots of your indignation, and ask if it comes from things you were raised to believe or that you heard from pulpits and not from any knowledge of the gospel that saved you.
If you worry that some very dubious churches do actually hold to these two points, here’s the litmus test: Do they add to them in any way? In other words, if they claim to have exclusive right to truth, they are a sect; avoid them! A true church will accept that others also have the right to claim citizenship of Jesus’ Kingdom and his salvation, and they won’t try to stop you from attending them. If a church ‘looks down their nose’ at other churches, well then there’s an attitude problem – deal with that as God leads you.
When you seek to attach these labels to viewpoints or opinions (or even people!), remember to use the theological ones, and not the political ones, which have practically nothing to do with Jesus’ message and everything to do with the culture in which you live i.e. ‘the world’!
[Now thinking that I may need to go back and revise a few of my own blogs!]
Grace be with you.