Conservative vs. Liberal

Conservative vs. Liberal

These two terms are used a lot in discussions about religion and politics. For this study, we want to focus on the use of these terms in the area of religion, particularly as they relate to our approach to God’s word. Should we have a conservative or a liberal approach to the Scriptures? Does it matter? While the Bible does not use these terms, it does address the concepts. One of them describes the mindset we must have when studying and seeking to apply the word of God.

First, we must be clear about these terms. What do we mean by conservative and liberal? One who is conservative favors traditional views and values and tends to oppose change. As it relates to Bible study, this means a strict adherence to the word of God and opposing changes to the gospel. One who is liberal does not view themselves as being limited to established or traditional attitudes or views. Regarding Bible interpretation, a liberal approach favors a loose or approximate view of the Scriptures rather than a strict, literal interpretation. Basically, one with a liberal approach to the Bible believes there are a number of ways in which one may acceptably interpret God’s word, while a conservative approach seeks to find the one way that God intended us to receive His word.

Conservatism

When it comes to studying the Bible, we must approach it with a conservative mindset. I do not say that because that is my preference. I say that because this attitude is consistent with what God’s word tells us about how our attitude should be towards His law.

Some things do not change. One with a conservative mindset will be content with this. God does not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). While this means that His love and concern for us remains constant, so too does His attitude about how people respond to His word. Something else that does not change is our need of a remedy for sin (Romans 3:23; 6:23). That remedy – the gospel (Romans 1:16) – also does not change. Peter said, “‘But the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). Paul said that those who change the gospel will be condemned (Galatians 1:6-9).

We also have a conservative approach to God’s word commended to us in the warnings about deviating from the path that God has given. As Joshua was preparing to assume leadership of the people of Israel following the death of Moses, the Lord said, “Be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left” (Joshua 1:7; cf. 23:6). Jesus said, “The way is narrow that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). We are not free to do as we please but must follow the path God has shown us. Therefore, a conservative approach to the Bible is necessary.

When studying God’s word and seeking to apply it, we must go back to what was said, see what God intends for us to do, and not change the message. Notice the following passages:

  • Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16). The good way was not to be found in the ways of their own invention or those of the nations around them. God’s law was the good way.
  • You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). How would the people keep God’s commandments? By following His law just how it was revealed. There is a similar verse at the end of the New Testament: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).
  • Retain the standard [Hold fast the pattern, NKJV] of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). We must be content with the standard that God has given us.
  • Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teachings of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). We are to remain within the bounds of Scripture. Those who progress beyond the teaching of Christ lose their fellowship with God.
  • Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God” (1 Peter 4:11). How can we speak the things of God? It cannot be by speaking any one of many “acceptable” messages or else the myriad different messages would make God the author of confusion, and we know that is not who He is (1 Corinthians 14:33). We speak the things of God by presenting His word in the way it was revealed without any changes to it (cf. Galatians 1:6-9).
  • Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). To do something in His name is to act by His authority (cf. Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 6:46). We are not free to do anything we please in our service to God. We must do those things which He has authorized.

All of these passages reinforce the importance of a conservative approach to the word of God. We are to believe, teach, and practice just what we find in His word.

Liberalism

In contrast, one with a liberal mindset takes liberties with the word of God that God has not granted. We certainly have a degree of liberty in Christ. Paul wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Christ makes us free from sin (Romans 6:22) and free from any obligation to follow the commands of men in the realm of religion (Colossians 2:20-21). But this is not enough for those with a liberal mindset. They want freedom in their message, their practices, and their fellowship. The Scriptures are too confining for them. They want to go beyond God’s standard.

The liberal mindset allows one to teach almost any message, based upon the whims of the teacher and/or audience. If he wants to use the Bible to condone social drinking or adulterous marriages, or use the Scriptures to teach that one is saved by faith alone, he can do so if he ignores the context and adapts the truth to fit his thinking, rather than adapting his thinking to fit the truth like he should. The liberal approach to God’s word leads one to change the word or even ignore certain parts of it. Both of these are condemned in God’s word (Galatians 1:6-9; Acts 20:20, 27).

Just as a liberal approach to God’s word allows one to teach and believe virtually any message, it also allows one to practice nearly anything as well. We see people using instrumental music in worship, observing the Lord’s Supper on Saturday, preaching the gospel through a missionary society, and many other things. None of these are authorized by God in His word. One with this liberal mindset does not see this as important, but Paul told us that it certainly is important (Colossians 3:17). The liberal expects God to accept whatever service he decides to render to Him. What we need to do is render to God the service He requires.

The liberal approach to the Bible will also erase the lines of fellowship God has drawn for us. John warned, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 10-11). Paul said, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). If, as the liberals believe, there are many acceptable standards of belief derived from the Bible, then there is no reason for them not to have fellowship with those whom they differ on matters of faith. Yet John’s warning was very clear. One who does not remain within the teachings of Christ loses his fellowship with God (2 John 9). If we have fellowship with such a one, we lose our fellowship with God as well (2 John 10-11).

Ultra-Conservatism?

We have seen from the Scriptures that God expects us to have a conservative approach to His word. Having a liberal approach leads to believing and teaching things that are false, practicing things that are wrong, and having fellowship with those who do not have fellowship with God. But there is another term that is sometimes used that I want to consider – ultra-conservatism. What is it? Should Christians be ultra-conservative?

Understanding what it means to have a conservative approach to the Bible, we might ask the question: Is it even possible to be something more than conservative? This is what the term ultra-conservative suggests. But it really is not an accurate description.

The Pharisees may be the best example of the concept of ultra-conservatism due to their careful attention to detail and making additional rules on top of what God commanded in order to keep others from doing things that might lead to sin. Those who would condemn “ultra-conservatism” will allege that both of these turned out to be points of contention between the Pharisees and Christ. There are two points we need to remember:

  • First, the Pharisees were not condemned for their careful attention to detail. Jesus said of the Pharisees, “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Many seem to want to frame the discussion this way: we must make a choice to focus either on the details or the weightier matters. That is not what Jesus taught here. He said they were to do both. The Pharisees’ fault was that they focused on one thing and thinking they were then free to ignore something else in God’s law. Jesus said they were not free to do this.
  • Second, the Pharisees, by adding further restrictions to God’s commands, ended up changing His law. Earlier the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2). Was there anything wrong with one washing their hands before eating? Certainly not. But the Pharisees had made it a religious requirement. Jesus said that by binding these requirements that had been invented by man, they “invalidated the word of God” and made their worship “vain” (Matthew 15:6, 9). They had changed God’s message by adding their commands.

If this is the concept people have of ultra-conservatism, then this is not conservative at all. It is another form of liberalism. The conservative seeks to believe, teach, and practice simply what the word of God teaches. The liberal believes there are many different messages and practices that are acceptable. Those who take an ultra-conservative approach to the Bible, as described here, are just like the liberal in taking liberties with God’s word – liberty to keep certain instructions while ignoring others and liberty to add one’s own opinions.

Conclusion

When these terms are used in politics, conservatives are on the right, liberals are on the left, ultra-conservatives are on the far right, and somewhere in the middle you have those that are called moderates. When it comes to studying the Bible, we can think of liberals being on the left, ultra-conservatives on the right, and the conservative approach to God’s word is the path that runs straight down the middle. We are not to deviate from God’s pattern “to the right or to the left” (Joshua 1:7). We are not to take liberties that God has not given, nor should we bind upon others what God does not require. We must do all that He has commanded, believe all that has been revealed in the Bible, teach all that His word says, and be content to remain within the bounds of Scripture.


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