the danger of being a “conservative christian” (part 1)

A little while back, there was a newly planted church in my area that I was interested in learning more about, and as I was reading their Principles of Operation, one little sentence tacked on towards the end caught my attention. It read, “If we are to err (and we will at times), we would rather err on a conservative side.”

I found this to be immensely thought provoking, and an obvious question quickly came to my mind: when faced with an issue not directly addressed in Scripture, is it always best to choose the most conservative option? This is an immensely important question because the assumption in many evangelical churches is that the more conservative a person is, the better. In other words, a person cannot be a good Christian if he does not live a conservative lifestyle and adhere to conservative values. There can even be a tendency to look down on those that are less conservative, as if they are of questionable moral or spiritual character. After all, if being conservative is an essential element for being Christlike, then someone who is not conservative in some aspect of life must be living in sin or, even worse, may be unsaved.

The question, then, is what does it mean to be “conservative?” The standard broad (i.e., non-political) definition that I’ve found for conservatism is “the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conservatism). I would add that conservatism tends to avoid anything risky that could compromise a safe situation. So my definition for conservatism is a hesitancy (or refusal) to embrace a new idea that involves risk and/or challenges the traditional way of thinking on an issue.

“Playing it safe.” “Being careful.” “Trying to avoid being like the world.” These are all statements that you commonly hear from Christians as an apologetic for their conservative approach to various issues in life. And there is some warrant to this mentality. After all, many things that are new are, in fact, unbiblical. There are new approaches to the gospel, new counseling techniques, new clothing styles, new philosophies, etc. that go against Scripture (or at least appear to) and should be handled with extreme caution. That is to say, there are unbiblical trends happening all around us that we should approach conservatively.

However, there is an all-important caveat that I have already alluded to – handling an issue conservatively is only noble when obedience to the Scripture is at stake. Remember what conservatism is – a skeptical approach to new things that appear risky and/or violate a traditional way of thinking. Given a general situation in which a Christians feels compelled to react conservatively, he must ask himself, “Is the tradition that I am seeking to uphold one founded on Scripture, or is it a belief from the past that is not clearly delineated in Scripture?”

There are four possible answers to this question: 1) this tradition is not found in Scripture, 2) this tradition is based on a Scriptural interpretation that I hold, but there are other reasonable interpretations that conflict with mine, 3) this tradition is based on an application that I hold of a Scriptural principle, but there are other reasonable applications that conflict with mine, 4) this tradition is Scriptural, and there are no other potentially reasonable disagreements.

Most Christians struggle with answers two and three, because they fail to see the break between Scripture and their interpretation or application of Scripture. In our thinking the interpretation that we hold or the application that we practice is, in fact, what Scripture teaches. It is not merely “our take” on Scripture; it is Scripture. But it is both prideful and naive to think that our interpretation or application of Scripture is always what God intended for us to infer from His Word.

To give an example, Scripture teaches that we should give God our best (or “first-fruits”) when worshiping Him. Christian A may draw from that the application that a believer must dress up for a church worship service, since that would be his best clothing. However, Christian B may believe that the principle only applies to his worship proper, such as serving in the church, singing during the song service, etc. and that the way a believer dresses was not intended to be a part of the application. Both of these individuals believe that their interpretation is Scriptural, to the point that if Christian A attends a church that is made up of people that think (and dress) like Christian B, he will feel very uncomfortable or even offended. It doesn’t matter that his application is at best implied and never explicitly commanded in Scripture. He naturally places his interpretation/application on the same plane as Scripture.

Now before I go any further, it is important to recognize that Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 make it very clear that different believers will have differing opinions on Scriptural application, and these differing opinions are perfectly acceptable (so long as they are within Paul’s guidelines). So my point is not to denounce either Christian A or B for holding to their beliefs or even for feeling uncomfortable among those with differing interpretations. My point is simply that we need to recognize that once we formulate an interpretation or application of Scripture, it is very hard for us to accept that this interpretation could be wrong. If someone disagrees with us, it feels as if they are disagreeing with (or even disobeying) Scripture and this makes us feel extremely uncomfortable.

Only once we come to grips with the fact that our interpretation could be 100% wrong can we truly love our brother who interprets Scripture differently than us. Otherwise, if we fail to see that we could be wrong, we will naturally be reckless in following our application of Scripture (putting our brother’s faith at risk) or look down on those who don’t have the same interpretation as us (judging our brother), and either way we fail to walk in love.

There is, however, a secondary importance to recognizing the distinction between Scripture and our interpretation of it: it should cause us to be skeptical of our interpretation. In other words, once we accept that there are other possible legitimate interpretations to Scripture that conflict with ours, we should be mindful to evaluate the other interpretations (and to reevaluate ours) to make sure that what we believe is truly Scriptural. If a Christian is not reevaluating his faith and seeking to live biblically, then he is seeking to live the Christian life comfortably and without any real challenges, as opposed to living it in a way that most glorifies God. Reevaluating your faith is hard, and having to admit that you were wrong is humiliating. But the process of evaluation and refinement of one’s Scriptural interpretations is essential to the Christian who seeks to grow.

And this where we come face-to-face with the danger of being a “conservative Christian.” Remember we said above that the conservative Christian must ask, “Is the tradition that I am seeking to uphold one founded on Scripture, or is it a belief from the past that is not clearly delineated in Scripture?” This question is not an easy one to answer, because we must wade through the mire of our personal opinions to extract what is truly Scripture from what is merely what we believe Scripture says. If we are able to do that, then we will find that our faith much more closely rests on the Word of God instead of man’s (our) opinion. Yes, the answer to the question is extremely tedious but extremely rewarding, for it brings us closer to the heart of God and demonstrates to him that our faith is full of sincere obedience.

Choosing to err on the side of being “too conservative” is not a biblical strategy, primarily because it is not always the biblical choice in a situation (which we will consider in Part 2), but also because that mentality seeks to simplify the Christian life in a way that God never meant for it to be simplified. He wants the Christian life to be challenging and thought-provoking. He didn’t give us a 500,000 page book detailing for us what to do in every situation. That strategy would never touch our hearts, for we could mindlessly memorize and obey the commands without ever thinking about what we were doing or why. But it is our heart that God wants, not mindless obedience, and He accomplishes this by commanding us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, all the while expecting us to scour through the numerous narratives, letters, songs, prophecies, etc. of Scripture to determine exactly how that love plays itself out.

Consider this on a human level. If an intern is approached by his boss to start a new project and the boss shows him multiple examples of past projects that he liked or disliked, there are two different ways that the intern can respond. He can either simplify things for himself by trying to precisely copy the projects from the past that his boss liked without putting much thought into improving them (“This may not be the best way to do this, but I don’t want to risk trying something new that he may not approve of.”) or he can seek to improve on the past projects, all the while digging deeply into those examples in an effort to determine exactly what it was that his boss liked or didn’t like (“I’ve isolated the key similarities between the projects that he liked and those that he disliked. Now I can work on building one from scratch that works the absolute best for this company.”). Is it plausible that either mentality could get the job done in a way pleasing to the boss? Of course it is, but only the second of the two mindsets demonstrated the spirit of earnest obedience that seeks to perform the task as best as possible, and that mentality is most likely the one that will yield the best result, despite clearly being the riskier of the two.

Similarly, when God gives us a command, we then must do our diligence in determining how to obey the command. Like the interns in the example above, we have to look at the numerous other commands, examples, etc. that God has given us, and then determine where we “draw the line” in our application of the command. The foolish decision is to draw the line as close as possible to violating the command, so that you are practically sinning even though you are not technically crossing the line. The conservative decision is the draw the line as far away as possible, ensuring that you never have to risk even coming near the line, let alone crossing it. The biblical decision is to evaluate each situation individually, drawing the line in a different spot each time (sometimes near, sometimes far) according as it appears that God would have you to.

Let’s look at one last illustration. Scripture commands women not to wear clothing that appears masculine. Let’s assume that a Christian (Bob) concludes from this that women should not wear pants. After all, that was the traditional standard from years gone by – men worked in the field and wore pants, while women stayed at home and wore dresses – and it’s a tradition that continues in various forms today. So, he reasons, it’s best to just play it safe because the trend for women to wear pants may violate the principle of gender appropriateness, even though Scripture gives very few guidelines as to the application of this principle.

Now let’s say that Bob gets married and has a family, and he and his wife decide that she and all the female children should avoid wearing pants or shorts, since this may violate Scripture. They aren’t fanatical about it; it’s just their way of making sure they safely honor the Scriptural principle of gender appropriateness, and they make sure not to judge others who hold to a different standard.

However, they find it very hard to fit into their society. The girls are looked down on in school because they seem averse to modern (yet modest) styles, and Bob and his wife find that those outside of their conservative circle tend to avoid them, some of them specifically mentioning the dress issue as one of the main reasons for their avoidance. The few unsaved friends that they have rarely listen to them share the gospel, and this becomes a source of frustration for them.

One day, while Bob is speaking to an unsaved coworker, he mentions candidly how frustrating it is to have so few that are willing to listen to his faith. He is confused because he knows he is commanded to be separate from “the world,” but at the same time he is called to reach the world with the gospel. At this point Bob’s coworker interrupts him.

“Bob, people respect you because you are a man of principle. They see that you and your wife hold to some standards that appear unusual to the rest of us, but they also see that you do this because you feel like you are obeying your God this way.

“Non-Christians are able to understand when you try obey God and not sin, but where we get confused and turned off is when you go so far out of your way to avoid things that don’t appear to be wrong. Let’s take the issue of clothing, for instance. The first thing that we see when we run into your family is that the females always wear dresses and stay clear of the more modern styles. We can understand and respect the principle of modesty that your Bible speaks of, but when Christians start applying that in other ways and start teaching their families that modesty means avoiding cultural trends and styles, it becomes very confusing and unattractive to us. What other hidden things within our culture does God expect us to avoid? It feels pretty impossible to be able to serve a God who not only commands you not to sin but who also places you within a culture and then demands that you avoid living in a culturally acceptable manner.”

Although Bob doesn’t necessarily agree with what his coworker has told him, he certainly has a dilemma. He has to obey God’s command for gender appropriateness, but God doesn’t give him very many guidelines for it. If he makes a conservative decision, then he will continue to do the “safe” thing which is to do what he knows was fine in the past and will continue to be fine in the present. However, this option causes an unnecessary stumblingblock to the gospel for some people that Bob comes in contact with.

On the other hand, he could accept that there are some modern styles that are both modest and gender appropriate for women and allow the women in his family to wear some of these clothes, provided they followed some clear Scriptural guidelines. That way, his family is obeying Scripture and bringing honor to God by eliminating the unnecessary hindrances to the gospel.

I believe that either decision would obey God. They both follow the commands for women to wear modest, gender- appropriate clothing. The issue here is not obedience. The issue is that one decision honors God more fully than the other because it not only avoids sin, but it does it in a way that also glorifies God among the unsaved.

There is no doubt that erring on the side of being too conservative eliminates risk and simplifies things for a Christian. You don’t have to worry about whether or not an action is sinful, because you are always going to draw the line as far away from sin as possible and resist any new ideas encouraging you to do otherwise. But in simplifying the Christian life, you risk not availing yourself of something new that God may place in your life in order to help you glorify Him and further His kingdom more fully.

Ultimately, the spirit of obedience that most pleases God is not the one that simplifies the Christian life by responding conservatively to every situation. It is the one that evaluates all the factors – avoidance of sin, glory to God, edification of other believers, openness for the gospel, etc. – and determines which choice will ultimately bring Christ the most honor.

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  1. “A great deal more failure is the result of an excess of caution than of bold experimentation with new ideas. The frontiers of the kingdom of God were never advanced by men and women of caution.”

    ~J. Oswald Sanders

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