On Becoming Conservative Liberals

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I love being a pastor for many reasons.

In more ways than I am able to count, our community at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville is a wonderful representation of God’s kingdom—a sweet manifestation of the aroma of Jesus. In a world of outrage, judgment, fear, posturing, and caricature, I especially appreciate how our community embodies love across lines of difference.

This excerpt from our Vision Statement tells the story best:

We will celebrate our diversity—opening our lives and hearts and homes to sinners and saints, doubters and believers, seekers and skeptics, prodigals and Pharisees, Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians, young and old, married and unmarried, leaders and followers, famous and infamous, our own races and other races, happy and depressed, helpers and those who need help, creative and corporate, conservative and liberal, American and international, affluent and bankrupt, public and private and home schooled—and all others who enter our doors. We will aspire to expand our “us” by carefully listening to, learning from, and being shaped by one another’s unique experiences and perspectives.

I guess you could say that we are advocates, as much as we are able, for the properly-defined gospel virtues of diversity and tolerance.

My former colleague and mentor, Tim Keller, says that tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. True tolerance, he says, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us.

Tolerance that “tolerates” only people who think, believe, vote, earn income, and live like us is not tolerance at all. It is covert prejudice at best, and thinly veiled contempt at worst. It is scorn covered with a mask of insincere niceness.

For our Christian witness to be taken seriously in the West’s increasingly pluralistic and secular environment, Christians must learn the art of:

  • Remaining true to our beliefs and convictions;
  • Genuinely loving, listening to, and serving those who do not share our beliefs and convictions; and
  • Consistently doing both at the same time.

If we do not value this combination, then instead of being a light to the culture, we risk becoming products of it.

If we cling doggedly to our convictions but fail to love, listen to, and serve those who do not share them, we become products of a moralistic Pharisee culture, which is not gospel culture.

If we do the opposite, we become products of a capitulating Sadducee culture, which is also not gospel culture.

Truth without grace is unwelcoming and shaming. Grace without truth is cowardly and enabling. Only when we combine grace and truth do we rightly embody the gospel.

Effective Christian witness—especially when the prevailing tone in virtually all public discourse is outrage, not civility—requires Christians to adopt an irenic tone that is counterculture.

For example, there are plenty of places in Scripture where God’s people move toward and even cooperate and partner with people who do note share their beliefs:

  • The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to advance the work of God’s kingdom.
  • Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar.
  • Jesus, a Jewish male, received a drink from a promiscuous Samaritan woman.
  • Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals.
  • All these were devoted, noncompromising people of faith living in deeply secular, pluralistic environments, who prioritized both grace and truth.

Contested issues like politics, the modern refugee crisis, sexuality, and racial and economic justice should be engaged in ways that build relational bridges versus burning them. Inviting others to belong and journey with us, sometimes even before they believe with us or agree with us, is a deeply Christian thing to do. This is also true of breaking bread with people and welcoming them into relationship, whether or not they ever end up agreeing with us. Do we understand this? Do we know how to make it real in our lives?

Jesus shows us the way.

When the rich ruler dismissed the Lord’s invitation to come follow Him, Jesus watched the man walk away in unbelief and loved him. And as the man walked away from Jesus, the man was sad.

Not angry or hostile or feeling judged…but sad.

Wherever love dominates the environment, it’s no condemnation first, then morality and ethics afterwards. With Jesus, love establishes the environment for the morality conversation. It is not our repentance that leads to God’s kindness, but God’s kindness that leads to our repentance. After 18 years of pastoral ministry, I have never met a person who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian scolded him about his ethics. Have you?

Gandhi, who claimed that his humanitarian ethic was chiefly inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus, chose Hinduism over Christianity. Why? Because of how poorly he was treated, and how much he felt judged, by the (deeply misguided) Christians that he knew. Chillingly and famously, Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

In a climate of hostility and “us against them,” we need to start building a different narrative.

In contrast to the above, over the years I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian or community of Christians loved, served, lifted a burden, and befriended them. When Jesus said to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven, He envisioned something more like this. He envisioned people being drawn irresistibly to Him, not in spite of Christians, but because of them. Drawn by the love of Christ, God’s wish became their command because God’s command had become their wish.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes, “Unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. Remember that on average, religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.”

It would be something else if more secular thinkers like Kristof began saying that the pompous, hypocritical caricatures of Christians are unfair, and that believers are actually doing more to create a loving, just, and beautiful world than anybody else.

It would be something else if more secular thinkers started to take note of good works done in the world and for the world in Jesus’ name.

One way we can strive to make that hope a reality is to give the world more of these lovely, life-giving things to talk about. Let’s let more of the light of Christ shine through us, more love and good deeds, more service and less self—so that, as the apostle Paul wrote, the world will not be able to find anything bad to say about us … and especially about our beloved Jesus (Titus 2:8).

There is perhaps no better time than now for Christians to rediscover and to reengage our hearts with the truth first embodied by Jesus Himself—the more “conservative” we are in our belief that every single word of Scripture is true, the more “liberal” we will be in our love toward our neighbors who are near, especially those who have need.

The more resolved we are to walk the narrow path, the wider our embrace will be to a poor, sorrow-filled, weary, wounded, sick, sore, and lonely world.

Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He invited lepers, tax collectors, gluttons, drunks, prostitutes, and Pharisees into His company.

To follow Him truly, so must we.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and love somebody, shall we?


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7 responses to “On Becoming Conservative Liberals”

  1. Venkat Varada says:

    Thank you Scott for this very relevant and challenging article. It is time for us Christians of this day to live out the greatest commandment and not just quote it.

  2. Bonnie Jean says:

    Walking with Jesus and Balancing Grace and Truth in our lives and actions with others is a bit of a tightrope walk in today’s world. It did not seem so difficult in the 70’s when I was a teenager or the 80’s when I was out working… in the 90’s when I married and had children it became a bit harder as I had so much to consider and the world became increasingly more invasive. You couldn’t even watch TV without a commercial that was inappropriate for children and offensive to my Christian beliefs. And just as it did in Ancient Rome, moral degradation steadily increased leading eventually to the fall of Rome. Sometimes I think America is headed down the same path and it is a bit frightening to be truthful. I find it hard to even speak to some of my left leaning friends that I hope to lead to Christ. It is not that I don’t want to, it seems that there are so many “dangerous topics”. I have a son who has been brainwashed by the liberal academics at his college and now the young man who left home with high hopes and dreams; and who was a believer who had accepted Christ as a young boy… but waited to be baptized until he really understood what it meant…and who was compassionate and cheerful… is now often cold and like a robot repeats the pablum he has been fed and claims that he is now “agnostic”. It breaks my heart. I have tried to become a better listener and to speak little (as it says in God’s Word)… and I find that helps out in the world too and with my liberal friends and acquaintances. I also have to be consistent in my own faith walk… to be a “witness” in the way I live and not just in what I say. The world is watching. So everything we do and say matters.

  3. Cindy says:

    Bonnie, we are around the same age for your references. Had the same experience but the twins I sent to a leading Christian college who returned like you described just returned to church a year later and are jumping into the programs at church impacting our community and serving in youth group. Our God is a mighty God. I too have changed my attitudes. We have to so Jesus is first. Scott—this is a great one!

  4. Kathryn Fischer says:

    So thankful for your wisdom. Just wondering by your last name, are you Jewish?

  5. Crystal Pruitt says:

    Scott Sauls you have hit upon a timely topic for the sake of Christ. Thank you for your diligence to God’s Word and His ministry. God is transforming many through you!

  6. Sharon says:

    Bonnie, did you know that there are left leaning, liberal Christians? This questions is not intended to sound condescending, and if we were talking in person you could hear the tone of my voice, but in print it sounds awful! The fact that words in print often sound unloving, argumentative, and condescending makes the case that these discussions ought not to happen online, but personally, face to face, so we can really hear each other’s hearts. But….back to my original point….I used to be a conservative, raised watching the 700 club, Focus on the Family, talk radio, etc., all of which are considered conservative. I’ve changed my thinking considerably over the years, and I believe it has brought me deeper in my understanding of Christ and His Word. This has also opened the door for me to be able to have wonderful discussions with non-Christians who are left leaning. One example: at the Women’s March this year, I held a sign that said “Jesus is a feminist” (which I believe because how he treated women in a patriarchal culture that dehumanized women). That allowed me to engage in some really great discussions about Jesus with my fellow marchers! So to Scott Saul’s point, I would encourage you and EVERYONE: take some time to really listen to the other side, both from liberal Christians and liberal non-Christians. I believe fundamentally that both sides want good for the world. So we listen to the ideas, the rationale, and the true heart of what others are saying. Validate those good motives. Create a bridge, not a wall. Once the bridge is created, you can come in with the Gospel. What differentiates Christianity from all else is that we know that CHRIST IS THE GOOD! Only He can bring true freedom and life.
    But above all and over all, we pray pray pray for God to change our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh; loving, compassionate, humble, broken.

  7. greg says:

    As you know, I tend towards being a truth guy. Even with this, I must say that I do agree with some things in principle here. I absolutely agree that the Christian should show respect, kindness, patience, goodness and self control in their attitudes and actions, including those times of witnessing the gospel. I absolutely disagree with the idea that folks become members of God’s family by sort of socializing them into the fold with our ability to sort of waft them there with kind gestures, friendship or other such fruit. After all, telling a person that they are sinners in need of forgiveness by grace through Jesus so there is no grounding for human boasting does not sound very kind to those who are unsaved. (1Cor 1:18) I sure was not impressed as a non-believer upon hearing this but ultimately it took a fellow student in college to call me a “hypocrite” to my face for me to realize my need for salvation that places my hope in God and not me!

    The gospel of grace is the power unto salvation but may we never forget that forgiveness by such grace cost Jesus separation from the Father and a heinously tortuous death on the cross as He absorbed the wrath that we deserved. The cosmic reaction to such grace in Jesus is well described in Php 2:8-11 The churches reaction to such grace follows and starts with a “therefore” in verses 12-13. If the church would do less attempts of trying to waft non believers into the fold with business marketing, socialistic techniques and approaches and would place more of it’s focus on the principles held in these Phillippians verses, I believe that churches become more alive and more involved to reach the world with the gospel. Counter intuitive maybe. But powerful nonetheless no doubt.

    The seeker church model I cannot find Biblical evidence for, and Charles Spurgeon was very wise in battling such in his time. History in cyclical so in today’s world, I believe that the one most vibrantly carrying the torch to swerve us back to the Biblically grounded gospel focus is John MacArthur who wrote a book “Ashamed of the Gospel” which speaks perfectly well to this same trend in the seeker model churches. The principles in this book at no way deny the Christian’s responsibility to be kind and loving. But the principles in this book most definitely give a proper outlook of what church should be like and what gospel ministry truly is. Presbyterian pastor Frank Barker was and would be agreeable to MacArthur on this point. He was a kind, compassionate, caring man who gave the clothes off his back and literally opened his home to those in need where he gave so much of his income to those in need that he had to drive an ancient rusty car to church and back…yet he was true to the gospel, gospel ministry and trust with teaching in every word of Scripture in context from Genesis to Rev. As a result, some say that a literal revival from God occurred as a result of this Biblical gospel driven ministry there in Birmingham! May we follow this example as this followed the true example from Jesus who gave us His Word.

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