2007/7 Are You Conservative Or Liberal? PDF Print Version
You might want to answer the questions in this survey form, for your own benefit. Jot down on a piece of paper your answer to each question - either Yes or No - and find out your score. There are 15 questions only all together. Of course, you can bypass this survey and go straight to read the article below it.
1. Do you agree that there is nothing wrong to worship in the charismatic way - including using the pop-band, singing modern choruses, having simultaneous prayer, hand-clapping when singing, hand-raising when praying, and even dancing?
2. Do you agree that this is the trend we must adopt, that all churches are going this direction and we must follow them?
3. Do you agree that we must adopt this style of worship, otherwise we will lose the youths in our churches?
4. Do you favour the appointment of women elders and women pastors?
5. Do you believe there should be more personal counselling in church rather than powerful doctrinal preaching?
6. Do you approve of introducing cell-groups and other modern church-growth techniques?
7. Do you favour the use of projectors and power-point presentations during worship instead of using the old fashion hymn books and relying on preaching alone?
8. Do you fraternise with charismatics, liberals and Roman Catholics?
9. Do you believe that Christians of all shades of opinion should be united and show love to one another?
10. As a church leader, are you afraid of being isolated by other churches and being accused of being narrow-minded and isolationist?
11. Does ecumenism (a desire for unity with all) appeal to you?
12. Do you believe that God speaks to us today through the Bible and also through dreams and visions?
13. Do you believe that miracles and healing must follow gospel preaching so that it will be easier for sinners to believe?
14. Do you believe that the Bible’s teaching on creation is true but we must make adjustments to our understanding to suit the theory of evolution?
15. Do you believe that the Bible is capable of many interpretations and we must accept the interpretation of others as equally valid?
Are You Conservative Or Liberal?
Are you conservative or liberal? When you ask someone this question, the answer you get will depend on whether you are referring to politics or to theology. It is possible for a person to be a liberal in politics and a conservative in theology, and vice versa. The words “liberal” and “conservative” can be applied to education, sociology, the arts and many other areas. Our interest here is in theology. In fact, our interest goes farther than theology, and extends into the whole of the Christian life - covering one’s belief, attitude, and choices.
One need not be a liberal, or a conservative, for life. There are those who were conservative, but today are liberal. There others who were liberal, but today are conservative. I have met people who are thoroughly liberal in theology, with whom I have almost nothing in common. I have met more people who do not hold to liberalism as their belief, but are liberal in attitude (or spirit). In fact, many do not even realise that they have a liberal attitude, thinking that they merely hold to different views on the teachings of the Bible. It is my intention to argue out a case in support of being conservative, in so far as our faith is concerned. I would like to convince you that it is right, and to your best interest, that you are conservative. I would like to show that we should remain conservative all our life.
What is liberalism?
We need to define what it means to be liberal and to be conservative. We begin with the meaning of liberalism as a system of belief. This definition is taken from a dictionary of theological terms.”1
“Theologically, liberalism means freedom from the necessity of believing the Bible to be God’s revelation to mankind. When once people are ‘free’ from this neccessity, they are ‘free’ to deny all the central doctrines of the Christian faith - the moral demands of God, the sinful nature of man, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary death of Christ, the resurrection, the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers.
Liberalism grew up in Germany in the nineteenth century and spread to England. The theory of evolution helped liberalism because if mankind has evolved physically, they are evolving morally also. All that is needed is to improve their outward circumstances in order to help their moral ‘climb’. In this way the ‘social gospel’ came into being. The first world war (1914-1918) did much to destroy this optimistic view of mankind.”
What does it mean to be liberal in attitude?
From this meaning of liberalism, we may derive a definition for the liberal attitude. To be liberal in attiude is to have a propensity to reject whatever is established in favour of something new or different, in order to please self or others, instead of pleasing God. A person with a liberal attitude will accept and do what he likes, or is convenient to himself, regardless of what the Bible actually teaches. He will attempt to reinterpret, or ignore, any teaching of the Bible that does not suit him while accepting other teachings as correct.
What does it mean to be conservative in attitude?
In contrast, a person who has a conservative spirit wishes to know, and do, what the Bible teaches and is slow to reject what is time-tested and has been blessed by God. He is always concerned to know what is most consistent with the teaching of the Bible and does not want to change things just to please himself or others. He fears offending God and going astray from what is right.
The same dictionary of theological terms which we have quoted from earlier defines a conservative as follows:”2
“A person who wishes to conserve (keep, or retain) the belief in the Bible as the revealed Word of God without mistake. This is in contrast to the liberal, who believes that the Bible is only a book produced by human beings and therefore containing mistakes.
The phrase ‘conservative evangelical’ describes the person who believes in the evangel (the gospel message, the good news of Jesus Christ) and who is determined to preserve that belief.”
That is the definition of a person who is theologically conservative. Note that, here, we are discussing more than your belief. We are discussing your attitude towards the Bible, towards God, and towards living out the Christian life. It is, therefore, worthwhile to read again the definition of a person who has a conservative spirit, given above.
From these definitions, we see that it is possible for a person to hold to doctrines that are basically correct and yet have a liberal attitude. Equally, it is possible for a person to hold to wrong doctrines and yet have a conservative spirit. We would expect that a person with a liberal attitude will go farther and farther astray from the Bible’s teaching, with time. We would expect a person who has a conservative attitude to gradually come closer and closer to the correct teachings of the Bible. It is easier to teach a person with a conservative spirit than one with a liberal spirit.
II. Why many Christians are liberal
As we interact with more Christians from other backgrounds and denominations, we will find that many of them have a liberal attitude towards the Bible. You may wonder why that is so. Such liberal Christians find it unusual that conservative Christians should be so cautious about making changes and accepting new ideas. They take it for granted that it is natural to be ‘progressive’, to learn new things, and to experiment with new ideas. They find it hard to understand why Christians should be so conservative in a modern world. We shall try to explain why so many Christians are liberal, before showing why we ought to be conservative.
Living in a globalised world
The first reason why many Christians are liberal is that we live in a globalised world. With improved communication and transportation, there is constant movement of people and ideas around the world. In any one place or country, we can find people of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. In a pluralistic society, every normal and sane person would want to live in peace with others. That means we must accept one another, and pursue happiness together for our common good. This idea is extended to the church. In the church, too, we should learn to accept one another and tolerate differences of opinion. In our interaction with other churches, we should learn to accept one another and show forth a united front to the world. What matters is that we are all Christians and will be living together in heaven. Why don’t we unite together to win souls for Christ, instead of quarelling over doctrinal differences?
This seems to be the prevailing attitude of Christians at large. Globalisation has had an impact on the way people think.
Improvement in education
The second reason why many Christians are liberal is the improvement in education. The literacy level has improved, and more people can read. They are exposed to more ideas from all over the world. Advances have been made in science, engineering and medicine. The computer is widely used and people all over the world are interconnected via the internet and the mobile phone. Since impressive advances have been made, and are seen with the eyes, and enjoyed by almost everyone, it seems natural to trust in the advancement of human knowledge rather than just trusting the Bible. In fact, the Bible should be reinterpreted to suit the times. Take, for example, the theory of evolution. So many scientists and clever people continue to believe in evolution, and they are contributing to the advances we see in science and technology. Shouldn’t we reassess our view of Scripture and make some adjustments so as not to contradict evolution?
So pervasive is the acceptance of “evolution” that it is unthinkable to many that anyone should question it, let alone reject it. It requires effort to study the right resources to begin realising that the so-called theory of evolution, in fact, is a questionable model of the origin of life. But it already has had such a widespread influence upon people all over the world, and it certainly weakens trust in the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God among Christians.
Advancement in politics
The third reason why many Christians are liberal is that advancement is seen even in the realm of politics. The European Union was formed after the second world war to unite European countries economically and politically in order to secure lasting peace. It began with six countries in 1950 and gradually expanded until it stands at twenty-seven countries today. The Berlin wall was opened in 1989 and torn down in 1990, when Germany was reunited. In 1991 Communism fell in Soviet Russia and in Eastern Europe. Vietnam was reunited in 1975 and began to open to the world in 1986. In China, Mao Zedong died in 1976. Deng Xiaoping took over the power and opened up China to the world in 1978. In Korea, there is expectation that there will be reunification before too long. The mood of the world seems to be to unite, to work for the common good and prosperity, and to accept democracy as the best form of political governance. In democracy, everyone has a say, and consensus is the rule. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. When such a mood, and such an idea of government, are applied to the church there will be ready acceptance of everyone’s view, and everyone’s right to participate. Church leaders who are conservative will be under pressure to change, or resign, or be removed.
The influence of the general trend of politics in the world upon Christians must not be overlooked. It has had an impact upon many Christians, such that they are more inclined to be liberal in attitude.
Influence upon the church
All these changes in the world are dramatic, and almost breathtaking. Christians who are not careful have been influenced in the direction of becoming liberal minded. Are you one of those who have been so influenced? Do you have a liberal attitude to Christian things? Let us see how this manifests itself in some areas of church life.
The first test we will conduct is in the area of worship. Do you agree that there is nothing wrong in worshipping the charismatic way - including using the pop-band, singing modern choruses, having simultaneous prayer, hand-clapping when singing, hand-raising when praying, and even dancing? Do you agree that this is the trend we must adopt, that all churches are going this direction and we must follow them? Do you agree that we must adopt this style of worship, otherwise we will lose the youths in our churches? If you answer “Yes” to all these questions, you are liberal-minded.
Next, test yourself in the area of church structure. Do you favour the appointment of women elders and women pastors? Do you believe there should be more personal counselling in church rather than powerful doctrinal preaching? Do you approve of introducing cell-groups and other modern church-growth techniques? Do you favour the use of projectors and power-point presentations during worship instead of using the old fashioned hymn books and relying on preaching alone? If your answer is “Yes” to all these questions, you are liberal in spirit.
Then, test yourself in the area of interchurch fellowship. Do you fraternise with charismatics, liberals and Roman Catholics? Do you believe that Christians of all shades of opinion should be united and show love to one another? As a church leader, are you afraid of being isolated by other churches and being accused of being narrow-minded and isolationist? Does ecumenism appeal to you? If you answer “Yes” to all these questions, you are liberal-minded.
Finally, test yourself in the area of doctrine. Do you believe that God speaks to us today through the Bible and also through dreams and visions? Do you believe that miracles and healing must follow gospel preaching so that it will be easier for sinners to believe? Do you believe that the Bible’s teaching on creation is true but we must make adjustments to our understanding to suit the theory of evolution? Do you believe that the Bible is capable of many interpretations and we must accept the interpretation of others as equally valid? If your answer is “Yes” to all these questions, you are liberal-minded.
You do not have to hold to liberalism as your system of belief to be liberal in attitude. Some pastors outrightly reject liberalism and hold to the evangelical or Reformed doctrines of salvation and the Bible, but they are liberal in attitude so that it shows in their ecumenism and the way they worship. I wish to convince you that it is wrong to be liberal-minded. I wish to convince you that it is right to be conservative. If you are conservative in spirit, you are more likely to become more biblical in your beliefs. Conversely, if you are liberal-minded, you are more likely to lose whatever biblical truths you have now.
III. Why we must be conservative
Just as I have put before you three reasons why many Christians tend to be liberal in attitude, I must put forward three reasons why we need to be conservative. I am aware that I am ‘swimming against the current’, fighting against the prevalent attitude in society. I cannot expect much success if it were a mere matter of opinions. However, I am convinced that the truth will prevail, and that God will use whatever truth is presented to bring conviction “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement”.
The character of God
The first point I would present before you is that the character of the God we worship demands that we be conservative. God is almighty, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is holy, just, wise, and true. In Him is no darkness. Much more can be said about the attributes of God. What we must grasp is the majesty of God. “Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)
Man may be the highest of all God’s creation. Man may be the most intelligent of all God’s creatures. But man is only a creature - limited in wisdom, power, and ability. We owe to our Creator everything that we are, and everything that we have. We need to bow in awe before Him, and acknowledge that we are so small in His sight. A humble and submissive spirit before the all-powerful God will knock out of us any pride and reliance on human wisdom. A conservative spirit alone is consistent with our submission to God. A conservative spirit seeks to know God’s will in all things. Unlike the liberal spirit, the conservative spirit does not dare to make man the end of all decisions. We dare not insist on pleasing self, nor pleasing other people, for we want to please God alone. This is not to say we deliberately anger other people and show no kindness, courtesy, nor love to them. No, we seek to please God in all things and, in that way, we are enabled to love man correctly.
The nature of the Bible
The second reason why we must have a conservative spirit is that the nature of the Bible demands it. The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is unlike any other book. It is written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20). The Bible is the complete revelation of God. We do not expect new revelation to be given until Christ comes again. The book of Revelation, which is the last book of the Bible, written by the last surviving apostle, closes with these words: “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19).
The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible. The Holy Spirit gives us the new birth. The same Spirit continues to feed our souls with the word of God by illumining our minds and giving us understanding. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). The Bible is sufficient for all our needs. We do not have to seek out new revelation. We do not have to rely on human wisdom. We must not do things to please man, but to please God. The only way we can please God is to do what His word requires of us. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). A person with a conservative spirit will seek to know, and do, what the word of God says. He will not just please himself, nor others.
The third reason why we must have a conservative spirit is that we will be held accountable before God. God is sovereign. He is in control of all things. He requires that man lives according to His will. Those who are redeemed by the blood of His Son has every reason to live for Him. The sovereign God holds us accountable for the way we serve Him. There will be a day of judgement, when all will be called to account. God’s word is sufficient to guide us. His Spirit is willing to enable us. His grace will be sufficient for us. Therefore, we are to serve Him willingly, and faithfully, to the end of our lives. King David’s dying words to Solomon are equally relevant to us: “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever” (1 Chron. 28:9).
We do not want to go against God’s will. We must, therefore, do what His word requires, and not introduce anything of our own in the worship of God, and in our service to Him. Remember how Uzzah was struck dead for trying to stabilise the ark of God (2 Sam. 6:6-7). In the same way, we deserve to be struck dead for not only failing to believe in the sufficiency of God’s word but also for trying to introduce innovations to improve on God’s revealed will. Remember how the two sons of Aaron - Nadab and Abihu - were struck dead for offering “profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them” (Lev. 10:1). In the same way, we deserve to be struck dead for worshipping God in ways not instructed by His word. A conservative spririt is called for if we want to serve God faithfully. “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
We have covered three reasons why we should have a conservative spirit. A conservative spirit is demanded of all Christians, and all servants of God, (i) because of the character of God, (ii) because of the nature of Scripture, and (iii) because of our accountability to Him.
IV. Four mistakes to avoid
Not human traditions
Let me now make some qualifications so as to prevent misunderstanding in other people, and also to avoid mistakes in ourselves. Firstly, when we advocate having a conservative spirit, over against a liberal spirit, we do not mean defending and retaining human traditions. We emphasize that it is God’s word that we follow, not human traditions which have been handed down in the church. The Pharisees were very good at insisting on the tradition of the elders in the name of God when they were actually breaking the commandments of God (Matt. 15:1-9). Churches have many cherished traditions which must be re-examined in the light of Scripture. Having the right conservative spirit requires that we have the courage to remove whatever is unbiblical and do what is biblical.
Sometimes, we may be doing what is commanded by God, but the manner by which we obey Him may be unhelpful or wrong. Take, for example, passing around a bag to make the collection during the worship service. Making the collection is right, but using a bag that is passed around may not be the best way. It makes visitors and new believers feel obliged to give, causing them unnecessary distress and embarassment. Some might not come back to church to avoid facing the same situation again. We find in the Bible, in both the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, that offerings were made by the people voluntarily going to a box to place in what they have decided to give (2 Kings 12:9; Mark 12:41-44). I regard this as a small matter. The important thing is that there is an offering made during worship. The way that is done is of small importance. But if a better way, which has biblical precedent, is pointed out to you, wouldn’t you consider adopting it? Or would you cling on to what the church has always done? In that case, you have a traditionist spirit, and not a conservative spirit.
Take another example, which is more serious. Today, in many church circles, the “altar call” is accepted as a legitimate way to evangelise the masses. In fact, it has become an indispensable element of their “revival meetings”. Any criticism of the altar call will be frowned upon and even resisted with hostility. Since its introduction by the early Methodists in America over two hundred years ago,”3 the practice is now so entrenched in many churches. I would appeal to you not to defend the altar call simply because it has been widely practised, for so long. It is a practice that arose from Arminianism. Preachers who practise the altar call would appeal for sinners to come forward to the front of the church with the same urgency that they appeal for them to repent and believe. It is inevitable that sinners will associate their action of coming to the front with repentance and faith. It is a fact that many who “walked to the front” do not show signs of true conversion afterwards. The Bible does not link repentance and faith with the action of walking to the front of the church. Repentance and faith occurs in the heart, when the sinner hears the gospel preached. The altar call is a human tradition that is harmful.
The second mistake likely to be made by those who are conservative in spirit is to expect uniformity in doctrine and practice among all believers. This is an impossibility in practice, and it is something that is not taught in Scripture. Instead, Scripture teaches us to expect differences of doctrine and practice among believers. Scripture permits differences in non-fundamental matters, but it does not approve of such differences. Effort must still be made to minimise the differences by coming to the correct teachings of the Bible. These might be obvious to some, but to others they are not. We, therefore, need to explain.
In 1 Corinthians 11:19 we read, “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” The context shows that Paul did not approve of the factions among the Corinthian Christians. But he accepted the fact that there were factions among them. He also expected that among those who differed, there were those who right, and there were those who were wrong.
In Philipians 3:15 we read, “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” Paul expected Christians who were spiritually mature to have the same belief and attitude about pressing on in spiritual growth. He also expected that there would be minor differences of view which would be ironed out as everyone progressed.
The differences between Christians should not be such that the fundamentals of the faith are affected. When fundamentals of the faith are affected, we will need to separate from those who are wrong. This is the teaching of such passsages as Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-16; 2 John 9-10; Galatians 1:8, 9, and Jude 3. As long as the differences do not affect the fundamentals of the faith, we must live with those differences, and work towards minimising those differences so that we may be “of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This applies to doctrine and to practice. This applies to individual Christians and to churches. We see, therefore, that Christians who have a conservative spirit do not necessarily share the same doctrine and practice. However, it is expected that as they study the Scripture, they will share more and more truths in common as differences are sorted out. They are recognisable as a people who share a conservative spirit, and a conservtive theology, different from those who are liberal-minded.
Not harsh dogmatism
The third possible mistake is to associate the conservative attitude with a harsh dogmatism and a critical spirit. The commandments of God are summarised by our Lord under the two great commands: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). Love for our neighbours, and especially for our brethren in Christ, should characterise every Christian. Showing love might mean having to correct those in error, but there is no need to assume a harsh and judgemental attitude. Many Christians do things that are wrong in our view because they do not know any better. They have not had the opportunity to sit under systematic, expository, preaching. They are ignorant because they have not been exposed to the truth. It is not right to put truth across to them in an unfriendly and critical manner. You might be able to win the argument in your engagement with him, but you would have lost the person.
Not inefficient and unfruitful service
The fourth possible mistake is to associate the conservative spirit with inefficient and unfruitful service to the Lord. The desire to retain what is right might be wrongly extended to the retention of what is comfortable and convenient to ourselves. The avoidance of unbiblical novelties and human innovations might be wrongly extended to the avoidance of new opportunites in serving the Lord. Every field of service has its peculiar difficulties and opportunities. The servant of the Lord would want to face the challenges and opportunities with boldness and courage, trusting the sufficiency of the Bible and the enabling of the Spirit. Those who aim to please God alone do not fear criticism from friends or foes. If it is the right thing to do, we will do it, once we have prayerfully weighed the matter and are convinced that it does not violate any biblical principles. The truth should set us free - free from the power of sin, free from the fear of man, free from the shackles of traditions, and free to be guided by the Spirit to do God’s will. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states this: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from all doctrines and commandments of men which are in any respect contrary to His Word, or not contained in it. Thus to believe such doctrines or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience. The requiring of an implicit faith, and absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.””4
When Martin Luther was asked to retract much of what he had taught, he respectfully but boldly said, “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
A conservative spirit characterised those who have been most used by God, and who have been most fruitful in missions. We can mention George Whitefield, a mighty preacher greatly used in Britain to win souls for Christ, who travelled to America to preach in days when motorcars and aeroplanes had not been invented. We think of C. H. Spurgeon, “the prince of preachers”, who was most enterprising in gospel outreach. We think of William Carey, “the father of modern missions”, who went to evangelise India, translated the Bible into over 30 languages, and was instrumental in abolishing the practice of widow-burning. We think of Adoniram Judson, a paedobaptist missionary who was bold enough to re-study the the subject of baptism and became a baptist, who pioneered in Burma (now Myanmar), who was bold enough to remarry after the death of his wife, despite the criticism of friends! These were conservative men, whose hearts had been set free by the truth. They may truly be called ministers of the free Spirit!
There is a proper place for Christian flair, and holy courage, as we serve God.
Christians who are conservative in theology are in the minority today. Christians who are conservative both in theology and in spirit are even fewer in numbers. Many conservative Christians feel isolated, pressured, and disdained by the liberal-minded Christian majority. The latter show their liberal attitude by adopting charismatic doctrine and practice, Arminian theology and methods of evangelism, and possessing an ecumenical spirit and a readiness to adopt questional methods of worship, church-growth, and evangelism. Those who are conservative should understand why many are liberal-minded, and why it is wrong to follow them. We must stand our ground and continue to be conservative, for we know that we are pleasing God and living for Him, and not for man.
Being conservative or liberal has to do with your belief, your attitude, and your choice. Those who are liberal must reconsider their position. Is your belief right? Is your attitude right? Is your choice to be liberal right? Do you truly revere God? Do you truly love the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you truly want to obey His commands? “The LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:10). “Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
May God help us to be conservative in spirit and in theology. Amen.
1. “A Dictionary of Theological Terms”, M. E. Manton, Grace Baptist Mission (1990), p. 83.
2. Ibid. p. 38
3. “Revival & Revivalism, Iain Murray”, pp. 185-190, Banner of Truth (1994).
4. “The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith”, Chap. 21, Article 2.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~