Liberal and Conservative: Insufficient Labels

Political Spectrum Horseshoe

5 segments on a scale instead of 2 is still too simplified in politics and in theology.

The labels of “conservative” and “liberal” Christianity are becoming less and less useful. For that matter, the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” politics aren’t really even that useful. To demonstrate, in my seminary and the church I was attending at the time, I was definitely a “conservative”; in many of my interactions now, I am definitely a “liberal.” My views haven’t substantially changed, just who is doing the judging.

Ways I am a “Conservative”

I have a very high view of Jesus. I see Jesus as Lord (meaning practically following his teachings and example), as fully God, and as fully human.

I have a high view of the Bible. I believe it is useful for teaching Christians about following Jesus. I believe it is completely true and trustworthy in accomplishing its self-identified purpose of pointing us to Jesus.

I believe in spiritual forces, both good and evil, active in the world today. I believe this spiritual warfare is happening around us.

I believe in spiritual gifts, including the charismatic ones like speaking in tongues and prophecy.

As a matter of fact, I agree with the entire Nicene Creed, even that weird part about Jesus descending into Hell between his death and resurrection. I’m not necessarily clinging to that as an essential belief, but yeah, right now I would agree to that.

I think evangelism matters, that life and afterlife are better with Jesus.

I don’t think churches should be forced to perform same-sex marriages if they don’t believe those marriages are within God’s design. I don’t think these churches are inherently failing as Christians because I do believe that you can love our LGBTQ brothers and sisters – in practical ways of welcome in the community, not empty statements of “love the sinner, hate the sin” – without agreeing with that their marriage is God-approved.

Ways I am a “Liberal”

I tend to vote centre-left in Canadian elections. That’s not directly a theological position, but many will judge my Christian camp based on that.

I support same-sex marriage. If I was a pastor and my denomination allowed it, I would perform a same-sex wedding. For reasons purely political, this tends to be litmus test for many now.

I do not believe in biblical inerrancy, at least not how it is popularly defined. I think it is falsely forcing modernist answers to modernist questions onto a pre-modern text.

I’m not afraid of academic conclusions such as that Paul probably didn’t write the letter to Titus. That doesn’t diminish my faith at all.

I do not believe in a penal substitution understanding of the atonement. My understanding of the atonement is most heavily influenced by the oldest understanding, Christus Victor.

I do not believe in eternal conscious torment for those who reject Jesus. I would tend toward a purgatorial conditionalist view of Hell and a much fuzzier line of “those who reject Jesus” than simply who has explicitly said the right prayer.

I do not believe texts like Revelation and the Olivet Discourse are speaking about the future. I believe they were meant to be practical encouragement to the people who heard them – relevant to their context, not only for people 2000+ years later – and can still be practical encouragement to us now.

I believe Israel committing very close to genocide against Palestinians is wrong.

I believe all violence is wrong. Oddly taking Jesus’ seriously when he says to love our enemies makes me a liberal, not a conservative. I don’t get it either.

The Problem with Camps

It should be obvious that one problem with these particular camps is that they are rarely accurate. The conservative camp can find lots of reasons to dismiss and dehumanize me as a liberal. The liberal camp can find lots of reasons to dismiss and dehumanize me as a conservative. So which am I? Does that make me a “moderate,” a term that never seems to mean good things?

The bigger problem, though, is how often we dehumanize those in the other camp. Liberals assume that all conservatives are stupid bigots. Conservatives assume that liberals are wishy-washy overly concerned with not offending anybody and probably not even really Christians. Both assumptions tend to give the other camp lots of reason they feel justified to treat each other as inferior. I’m not talking about talking openly about where we disagree. We need to be able to talk openly about where we disagree. We just need to do it while remembering the humanity of the other. I can’t dismiss your point because you’re a bigoted conservative or because you’re a wishy-washy liberal. I can’t conclude that you aren’t really a Christian. I can’t deny your voice. I can’t deny your sincerity in following Jesus. I can’t deny your basic human rights. No matter which camp we put people in, they are still first and foremost humans. Labels may be useful sometimes – not this time – to summarize what you think, but they can never supersede that every “liberal”, every “moderate”, every “conservative”, and everybody without one of those labels including those outside of Christianity are first and foremost human beings dearly loved by God.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.