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When Being Conservative Is Bad

I have written about the labels conservative and liberal in the past. I try my best not to use them. Most of the time, they confuse rather than clarify. Conservative and liberal can mean whatever we want them to mean. They mean one thing in politics and another in religion. That’s not all. It gets more complicated. These labels mean many different things within the realm of religion. One person is considered liberal because they do not believe in the miracles of the Bible while another person is considered liberal because they use multiple cups when serving communion. Obviously, these two people are not in the same camp, but they are both labeled liberal because the definition of the term changes with each person.

Allow me to muddle these matters even further. When people say they are conservative or liberal, they may say one thing but mean another. There are many Christians who claim to be biblically conservative when in reality they are traditionally conservative. They are not that interested in going to the Bible and openly studying every issue that comes up, but they are very interested in maintaining the beliefs and traditions they grew up with. To be biblically conservative is always to be open to change. It is to go wherever Scripture leads us, no matter if that means changing our beliefs and traditions. To be traditionally conservative is to fight to keep things just as they are. A person seeking change in a congregation may be biblically conservative but traditionally liberal whereas the one arguing for everything to stay the same may be traditionally conservative but biblically liberal. This is important to understand because some well-meaning individuals believe they are standing up for truth when in reality they are standing up for tradition.

One of the reasons these two are confused is because we like the idea of being biblically conservative, but being traditionally conservative is much easier. To be traditionally conservative all a person has to do is stick with what they know. Being traditionally conservative is holding to what we have grown up with. This is comforting to many people. We like what is familiar, especially when it comes to worship and church-related activities. If you don’t believe me, then sit in someone else’s seat next Sunday and see what happens. We are creatures of habit and so being traditionally conservative comes naturally.

There is nothing wrong with wanting things to stay the same. In fact, allowing tradition to have a voice is something all congregations should do. Tradition is our friend, but there is a problem when people confuse tradition with the Bible. Many people are resistant to change, and we would like to believe our way is the biblical way. We see ourselves as always being in the right. Our political party is the right one. Our sports team is the right one. The way we do worship is the right way. Being traditionally conservative fosters our belief that we are in the right. As long as we stand strong and refuse to change then we are doing it the right way, and if we are doing it the right way, then we are following the Bible, or so we think.

People have good intentions but reasoning this way is wrong. If we begin with the premise that we are right, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. If we believe that our way is the biblical way, then we are not going to be very good students of the Bible. Why would we be when we already have it right? Most of our Bible study will focus on finding proof texts that support our positions. Instead, what we should be doing is approaching Scripture with a humble spirit and preparing ourselves to go wherever God leads us. This often makes us uncomfortable, but it is what we are called to do. Jesus does not call us to feel comfortable. He calls us to pick up our cross and follow him.

Being traditionally conservative also causes us to look at tradition the wrong way. Tradition is important. As Christians, we have certain traditions that are essential to who we are. Some of these traditions can be traced back to the first century or earlier. Some of them may date back to just after the first century, but they are still good traditions. How old a tradition is and who began it matters. We should give more weight to traditions started by Jesus and the apostles. We should be more careful about dismissing a tradition started in the 2nd century than one started in the 20th century. If a tradition is 1800 years old and Christians have always kept it, then there is probably a pretty good reason for it. Typically, people who are traditionally conservative don’t always seek to understand the history of tradition. The traditions they find meaningful are the ones they grew up with. These traditions may only be 50, 100, or 200 years old. Their interest is not in holding to the traditions that are ancient and meaningful, but in clinging to the ones they know.

Tradition, environment, and experience all have a strong influence over us. We are comfortable in settings that are familiar. We like things done in a certain way. We don’t like it when what we know is disturbed. We trust in the traditions we were raised with, the environment we grew up in, and the experiences we have had. Jesus was in constant conflict with religious people because he challenged what they knew. He challenged their traditions. He challenged the way they did things, and he challenged the way they understood religion and the world. Why would we expect anything different? When we read the Bible with open hearts, we will be challenged. The journey we begin at baptism is one of transformation. When we become Christians, we should expect to be changed.

What we need in churches is not for people to desperately cling to the way they did church 20, 30, or 40 years ago. What we need is people who open their Bibles ready to learn and grow. When we see something different, our first response should not be to go on the attack. We should take the advice of James and be slow to speak (James 1:19). We should reflect on what is being done and ask ourselves, “Do I not like this because it is different, or because I have a biblical reason?” If we want to be biblically conservative, then we will spend much time in God’s word. We will allow the word of God to mold and shape the way we think. We will saturate our lives with prayer, and we will seek to be like Jesus.

I must warn you that this is not an easy path. Jesus was hated and despised by religious people. People who were traditionally conservative sought to kill him. Sometimes people will defend their traditions even to the point of death. The way of Jesus leads to the cross, so if you follow him don’t be surprised if someone wants to crucify you. At the same time, we have been entrusted with a special mission. Following Jesus means we have the opportunity to help set people free from the burdens of certain traditions and philosophies. These powers are so strong that they enslave the people who adhere to them. When we show people Jesus, we are showing them a better way. We are spreading good news and inviting them to be a part of something that is radical and life changing. We are asking them to throw off the things that bind and be set free.

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

1 Comment
  1. Reply
    Arlene Galloway June 12, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Hi Scott,
    Thank you for your article. We battle with this even in Scotland – guess it’s a worldwide problem.

    In Him


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