Please Note: The next three posts were supposed to be a single post about why I’m cautiously optimistic regarding the churches of Christ in the 21st century. However, because I’m long-winded, I thought it best to break this into three posts so as to avoid writing a novel. The first two parts will focus on the negative, with the final point focusing on the positive. You will have my dearest thanks if you consider all three posts together.
Growing up in a group is a double-edged sword of sorts. Yes, one might gain a special appreciation for their roots and maybe even have a feeling of nostalgia, but there is also the possibility of a frustration not at all dissimilar to seeing your child doing something embarrassing. I’ve found this to be the case with my experience growing up in the churches of Christ. There is the appreciation I have for our broadly conservative and intellectually driven history, yes, but there’s also been a fair share of times I’ve simply had to watch the train wreck and shake my head in disbelief. It’s this mix of admiration and consternation that brought me to the point of writing this series. I have high hopes for the churches of Christ, but those hopes are matched by what I perceive to be serious issues that have to be acknowledged and addressed. With all that said, let’s talk about what I think is good, bad, and overblown. Of course, this will be lengthy, because I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of writing in brief. The first topic is something I’ve heard talked about for years, but not all the talk has been helpful.
Liberalism: Our Favorite Bogeyman
Growing up, I didn’t hear the words liberal and conservative very frequently outside of the occasional political discussion, usually set within the context of a history or government class. After I graduated from high school, however, I began to notice the term getting thrown around more and more frequently, sometimes jokingly, sometimes very seriously. Now, here is the strange part of it: few, if any, people ever seemed to have a consistent definition of what a liberal or a conservative is. Sure, there’s the very broad definitions of liberals being people who tend to eschew tradition while conservatives tend to cling to tradition, but such definitions can only take one so far. As a case in point, consider a choice exchange between myself and a fellow Bible major during my undergraduate years. This guy, whom we’ll call Jack for the sake of narrative, was bemoaning how a particular congregation had embraced liberalism and how disappointed he thought a noted 20th century preacher would be by the state of this congregation today. In his elegy for all things good and pure at this particular congregation, he never spoke of specifics and that bothered me, so I asked him a question. “What makes that congregation liberal?” It seems like a simple question, right? As such, I expected a simple answer. What I got instead was Jack looking at me as if I had sprouted an arm out of my forehead. “Uh, um, well, they’re just liberal!” Jack exclaimed, apparently dumbfounded either by my inability to read his mind, or by my not simply accepting his assessment of things. Bear in mind, this was no novice. This was a fellow Bible major, who was either a junior or senior at the time, who came from a family of preachers and teachers, one of whom teaches at a brotherhood university today. He should’ve been able to identify this congregation’s departures from truth with relative ease and yet, when pressed, he could point to no such thing that made this congregation “liberal.”
This is illustrative of part of the issue of liberalism in the churches of Christ: no one seems to be able to nail down what a liberal is and efforts to do so will occasionally be met with, at best, strange looks. The other issue is a bit more insidious and illustrated by another incident. When I had free time in my college years, I’d visit various congregations, and it just so happened that I visited one congregation fairly frequently: I liked their adult Bible class, and the people there were friendly, as well as it being a convenient place to go. A friend of mine balked at my going there and asked me why I would go to a “liberal” congregation. I don’t really consider myself a liberal, so I was puzzled and asked what was so liberal about this congregation. “They clap during worship,” this person said. I had two issues with this claim: 1) It wasn’t, and isn’t, true and 2) That’s not really “liberal,” not from a historical or academic perspective at least. When I challenged this person, they brushed off my eyewitness testimony with, “Well, that’s just what I heard.” I’ll get to the whole “that’s not really liberal” bit of my objection a bit later, but the uncritical acceptance of such accusations is troubling, especially when evidence to the contraire receives little more than token acknowledgement. Given how seriously some people take labels like liberal and conservative, would it not make sense to ensure that the use of such labels is grounded in reality?
These two issues are the basis of why I think referring to liberalism as a bogeyman is especially appropriate. Notice how children discuss the monsters in their closets and under their beds. They use the same names to describe the foul beasts that encroach upon their dreams and yet, what they see (or more precisely, think they see) differs from one to the other. The differences are apparent even between siblings and of course, the basis for each description tends to be based more on what each child may think is scary as opposed to what may actually dwell in the dark recesses of their bedrooms. Worse still, when first confronted with the notion of a bogeyman’s existence, children seem eerily readily to accept the concept. Even when their parents say, “There are no monsters under the bed,” this seldom satisfies. Instead, parents often have to go through the motions of searching the room, chasing the monster out, and taking some measure to ensure that the monster won’t come back. Even then, a child may only possibly be satisfied. They may dream up yet another creature or, worse still, be told of unspeakable eldritch horrors on the playground the next day. It is only when a child begins to develop a greater capacity for critical thinking and understanding of the differences between fantasy and reality that they can be free of the relentless pursuit of the demons plaguing the corners of their imagination. Sadly, “liberalism” is often the same way. It is spoken of frequently from pulpits, coffee tables, and Facebook groups, and each time, it looks and sounds slightly different. To some, the liberal bogeyman is the daring brigand preaching from something other than the KJV. Others envision the bogeyman as the happy go lucky song leader encouraging people to clap along as they sing. Others still toss and turn, tortured by visions of praise teams and their devilish scheme to bring the instrument along in due time, or bolt awake in a cold sweat as their nightmare culminates in people wearing jeans on Sunday morning. I speak, of course, glibly here not to minimize the importance of the underlying issues at play but instead to get at something else entirely. The next time you hear a discussion of liberalism, take a mental note of what gets discussed. How frequently, for example, do you hear people express their concern that a local preacher denies the deity of Christ or the historicity of the virgin birth? How often do the same people who take note of the congregations that allegedly permit clapping stop to consider whether or not they attend a congregation where people assert that the Bible isn’t inerrant but rather, that the Bible contains some truth, but isn’t itself entirely true?
This puts forward a third reason why the bogeyman is a fitting metaphor for a view of liberalism that is all too common in the churches of Christ. At the root of a child’s fear that something in their closet is coming to get them is a fundamental question of whether they are safe. Even the routines that parents go through to assuage their children address this concern and assure the children that they are in fact safe and sound. In the same way, concerns over liberalism today point to a deeper concern for the integrity of our understanding of Biblical truth and that is a fundamental concern of tremendous importance. With that said, the way we go about addressing this concern needs to be healthy and the aforementioned anecdotes illustrate the worst of unhealthy efforts. When one can’t or won’t define their terms, they risk creating an arbitrary and peculiar standard that essentially ensures that they are the only one in the right and the only orthodox believer. Bluntly speaking, an orthodoxy of one is likely an orthodoxy of preferences, a set of beliefs based not on what is good and true but on what is liked. Further, if we do not carefully and fairly examine the beliefs and actions of others on the basis of what is true, then we risk not only attacking those who have done nothing wrong, but also perpetuating falsehood, something that Christians should oppose at every turn. Summarily, yes, we should be concerned about what is true and right and that should affect the way we approach disagreements of any caliber.
This brings me to the fourth and final reason that I think that liberalism is fittingly called a bogeyman. On the whole, the bogeyman is not nearly the threat that a child perceives it to be and there is in fact something far more dangerous they should worry about instead. There is no monster in the closet, but the chemicals in the cabinet exist and are fatal if misused, for example. This is not to say that Christians should not worry about liberalism, but rather that we shouldn’t let ourselves become paranoid about it. That assertion may be puzzling to some, but I will attempt to explain why liberalism is not the threat that I think it is. Largely, this boils down to a distinction that I think ought to be acknowledged more frequently. Theological liberalism, in the academic sense, has nothing to do with instruments, clapping, and the like. Instead, theological liberalism typically refers to beliefs that fall outside of historic Christian orthodoxy. This would include denying the inerrancy of Scripture, denying the, historicity, deity, or resurrection of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, and other rejections of fundamental Christian belief. This is important for two reasons: 1) These beliefs are essential and foundational to the Christian faith as it has been known for 2000 years. Without them, the faith is either forfeit or so radically altered as to be unrecognizable. 2) These beliefs are the substance of intense debate throughout history and across all of Christendom. No council was ever convened over whether one could clap while they sang, yet multiple councils were called together to fiercely discuss questions about Jesus. That is not meant to say that we shouldn’t figure out whether clapping is acceptable or not and then act accordingly; rather, it is meant to insist that without fundamental beliefs of the faith, a discussion on clapping or another similar subject is meaningless. While the issues that often come to the forefront in churches of Christ matter, they are ultimately secondary to fundamental truths about God and the historical facts of the Christian faith. As such, I think it is wise to differentiate between theological liberalism proper and liberalism as it is sometimes thought of, perhaps by referring to them as foundational liberalism and pragmatic liberalism. The exact terms used are not so important to me as the distinction made.
With all of that said, I think that the two categories of liberalism will meet different ends in the churches of Christ. Foundational liberalism, with its rejection of central truth, will eventually go the way of mainline Protestantism, as some branches of Episcopalianism and Methodism, as well as some non-denominational churches, have gone. Exchanging historic and inspired truth for inclusivity and openness, it will be absorbed into a semi-tangible group of churches whose only relation to the Christian faith, and to one another, is found in the ways it departs from historic Christianity. This will, I think, have a comparatively small impact on the churches of Christ. Pragmatic liberals will eventually go one of two routes. Some, who are either willing to be persuaded or unwilling to cause division, will make themselves comfortable within the churches of Christ, either because they change their mind on pragmatic issues or because they simply don’t think it’s worth fighting over. Others will find churches that accommodate their pragmatic preferences, whether they be likeminded churches of Christ or some other group, and migrate without much of a stir. While this will potentially be of greater impact than the exodus of foundational liberals, one thing is indisputable, I think. Neither foundational liberalism nor pragmatic liberalism are the harbinger of the doom of the churches of Christ. Should the churches of Christ cease to exist as we know them now (and I don’t think we will) it will be because of other causes. Those causes are the subject of part two of this series and the source of much frustration and grief for me. In the meantime, dear reader, if you have made it this far, you have my thanks. If I may be so bold, I’d ask you to stick with me for the rest of this series, and I pray that it will be helpful to you.
Soli Deo Gloria!