Re: Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?

16 Jul

So this post won’t necessarily have anything to do with conversational evangelism, but I will address a few worldview issues so read on if you’re interested. First a little background; my friend Ryan posted an article on Twitter which asks “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” We then had the following exchange:

Steve: His definition of Liberal Christianity is so wrong, it undercuts the entire article

Ryan: What do you read to be his definition of liberal Christianity, and what should it be?

Steve: “defining idea…faith should spur social reform” that’s not *liberal* christianity, just Christianity! too much else for tweet

Ryan: Social reform isn’t the “defining idea” of Christianity.

At this point I’m stopping the tweet madness and giving myself a home court advantage. Twitter is not the forum for meaningful discussion on topics like this.

First, the author clearly states that the defining idea of Liberal Christianity is that faith should spur social reform (and not just personal conversion). I believe this has nothing to do with liberal vs. conservative, as I mentioned to Ryan. Jesus calls the Apostles to teach new disciples to obey everything he has commanded them to do. This includes healing the sick, preaching the Good News and praying that God’s Kingdom would be made manifest on earth the same way it is in heaven. The grand story of our universe (or the defining idea, to use earlier terminology) is the redemption of all things to and through Christ. If Christians believe and act on that idea then our societies will change. We have seen this throughout history from the infancy of Christianity until present day. The idea that Christians should help the poor isn’t a product of 20th century innovation. Calling it ‘social reform’ might be, but all that means is changing the way a culture looks, and we’ve been doing that!

Therefore, I propose that personal and societal transformation is at the heart of historical, orthodox Christianity. What then is Liberal Christianity?

Liberal, when associated with movements is defined as being favorable to progress or reform. In fact, the article uses the phrase progressive reform to describe the Christians’ involvement in the Civil Rights movement. So liberal Christianity is open to progressive reform? Yes, and that’s often a problem.

Some philosophies and ideologies need to be challenged, changed or completely overhauled as times change – the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements provide great examples. (Though to be fair, slavery and/or discrimination were never good policies whose time simply expired but rather blatant evils that need to be extinguished). Other times, the philosophies are simply true and to challenge them is to bankrupt their effectiveness. The evidence for this is murkier and often depends on prior ideological commitments but it seems that the sexual revolution (sleep with whoever you want, whenever you want – this will have no consequences now that we can prevent unwanted pregnancies and diseases) is bunk.

I believe that Liberal Christianity happens to look for progressive reform in the worst places, and with worse results. Whenever I have read the work of a scholar who has labeled himself or herself liberal (or has been so labeled by others in the field) the most common divergence from historical, orthodox belief is in the scholar’s view of Scripture. In general, Liberal Christianity does not believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible (sometimes to the exclusion of all supernatural events, i.e. the Jesus Seminar) and this erodes the very foundation on which they propose to build. For without a transcendent, trustworthy source of knowledge we are left to our own devices and plans as we try to figure out what is best for the world. The author of the NY Times article says as much: “[liberal churches] don’t seem to have much to offer that is distinct from purely secular liberalism.” His conclusion is that they will continue to change to keep pace with cultural demands until their movements go extinct. The so-called social Gospel is no Good News if it doesn’t include the preaching of a crucified, Resurrected Jesus.

The problem for us Americans is our use of liberal/conservative is so saturated with political meaning that it is almost universally assumed within Christian circles that conservatives hate (or at least don’t care about) poor people and liberals don’t believe the Bible. (This is obviously a sweeping generalization, but it gets at the crux of the issue). Instead of debating over the use of monikers, the cause of Christ can best be served if those of us who claim to be his disciples abide by all he commanded. This means loving the triune God revealed in the Bible (to love him is to know him, and he has revealed himself most plainly through his word) and loving the people in his world with a special care for those who are least able to care for themselves. To do both of these things is neither liberal nor conservative, it is revolutionary and it is historical. It is creedal and it is orthodox. Put simply, it is discipleship.


5 Responses to “Re: Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

  1. Ryan July 17, 2012 at 6:16 am #


    Love travelling to the Wimmer Home Arena. My away record isn’t perfect, but hopefully I won’t embarrass myself.

    First, thanks for responding. I truly do appreciate it. I love hearing your thoughts and how you present them.

    I don’t like his treading into waters of “liberal vs. conservative” any more than you do and I think a few simple tweaks could have made this read a little more accurately.

    That said, I don’t think the spirit of what the author’s trying to say is wrong.

    When I use the words “liberal Christianity” I’m describing a Christianity devoid of trust in the Bible, opting rather for a flexible reading of a religious text that may or may not have something to speak into our lives — depending on the part you’re reading. Instead of letting the Bible be an objective text that speaks into our lives, “liberal Christianity” seeks to speak our lives into a subjective Bible!

    (FYI — I’d also lump church tradition into this, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll leave it at the Bible.)

    I think the author is using “liberal” in the same way — hence the statement in his second paragraph where he’s using the Episcopalians as an example of “liberal Christianity”:

    “[The Episcopal Church] is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

    You are right to say that “[i]f Christians believe and act on that idea (the redemption of all things to and through Christ) then our societies will change.” However — and this is where I’m interpreting differently from you — what I believe the author was trying to say about “liberal Christianity” is that by making the fruit of social reform the “defining idea” we ignore the vine and attempt to enact social reform without the “to and through Christ” part.

    Now, about “social reform” — I don’t think when the author uses the phrase “social reform” that he was thinking of teaching new disciples to obey everything God has commanded them to do. I believe he’s referring to a kind of superficial transformation, one where hospitals are devoid of prayer and soup kitchens feed only with bread. In fact, the author refers to this, making a rather explicit distinction late in his article:

    “…the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

    “Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism…”

    I agree that using the words “conservative” and “liberal” are confusing (at best) or insulting (at worst). But in 140 characters, there’s only so much explication one can do.

    Again, thanks for bringing this to a better medium for discussion. I hope my 7am ramblings make something of sense.


    • stevewimmer July 17, 2012 at 11:03 am #

      ryan i totally agree with everything you’ve said, and in retrospect i think the thing that bugged me was what seemed to be the perpetuation of the stereotype that liberal _____’s have the market cornered when it comes to caring for the marginalized. I think the other thing that bugged me was the author’s focus on social reform as being the key to liberal christianity, not their deviation from scripture/tradition. If the former is true, then maybe it can be saved. If the latter is true then there is no hope. thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Ryan July 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

        I too am frustrated that “conservative (fill-in-the-blank)” has been labeled as uncaring and lacking compassion. I walked away from the article believing the author to really highlight deviation from Scripture and church tradition as defining characteristics to “liberal Christianity” which I enjoyed, what with it coming from The New York Times.

        I’ve never left a comment on here, but I do read your blog and it’s very, very good, Steve. Your podcasts also earned more than a few listens each. When are you doing more?

  2. kstedman July 17, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    You nailed it. Especially the point that a theologian calling him/herself “liberal” usually means “I’m okay lessening the authority of scripture,” a point that seems to be overlooked so often! Over and over, that’s what it comes down to (as the original article points out when it says liberal Christianity is the same as other social movements, as you helpfully reminded us).

    You’re also right on with the political baggage of the terms. I don’t know how many times I’ve explained to people that I lean liberal politically, only to quickly throw in, “But I’m very conservative theologically”–by which I mean I hold to Biblical authority.

    (And good use of “moniker”!)

    • stevewimmer July 17, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      oh kyle – i’ll miss everything about you when you move. thanks to the digital age I won’t have to miss it so badly, but i can already feel the sting. thanks for commenting!

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