On Becoming Conservative Liberals
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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