One thing that perplexes outsiders about American evangelicalism is why they seem so keen on impaling each other on secondary matters. I think I may have had an epiphany and I’m finally beginning to get a grip on this.
I remember once watching a GOP presidential debate where Ron Paul boasted that he was “the most conservative candidate” on the platform. It was true, which in my mind also made him the least electable candidate. But why would being the most conservative be a good thing? I thought it would be better to have the best policies for economic growth, creating jobs, national security, healthcare reform or whatever is good and makes sense to people. Let me say that I consider myself a social and economic conservative by global standards because I think it promotes justice and prosperity. But I would never prize myself on being more conservative than others, I just don’t see the attraction of the label.
But I began thinking if this kind of ideological value of he-who-is-the-most-conservative-is-the-most-righteous plays also into theology, and I think it does.
Instead of thinking of “conservative” evangelicalism as defined objectively by holding to the historical faith of the church defined by the creeds and confessions, I think some bastions of American evangelicalism define “conservatism” comparatively by a relative position to everyone else on the map. So when certain people or groups edge to the right to claim the label, “I’m more conservative than thou,” then every else responds by leap frogging over them in a race to the right. You end up with a denomination or seminary becoming far right just because they don’t want to be the least conservative group on the block. It also means you can end up being called a liberal just by standing still and refusing to follow the rightward drift.
You end up with a scenario that reads like a Monty Python skit.
Note: hyperbole approaching, not to be taken as representing real views of real people!
Women in Ministry
Person # 1: “My denomination is so conservative that we do not ordain women.”
Person # 2: “You heresiarch, in my denomination we are so conservative that we don’t allow women into the pulpit.”
Person # 3: “Liberal scum the lot of you, my denomination is so conservative that it doesn’t ordain women, won’t allow them to preach, or even let them do the Bible readings on Sunday.”
Person #4: “You illegitimate sons of Karl Barth, my denomination is more conservative since it doesn’t ordain women, let them preach, read the Bible in public, wear jeans, or speak to a man who is not their husband or father in public.”
Person #5: “You decrepit creatures of darkness, my denomination is so conservative that we force women to wear heard coverings, remove their vocal chords so they can’t talk, forbid them from seeking a college education, and flog them weekly on suspicion of harboring beliefs in equality.”
Person #1: “My seminary is so conservative that we do not teach JEDP theory or multiple-authorship of Isaiah.
Person # 2: “A pox on you, my seminary is so conservative that we mandate subscription a literal six day creation, Job is historical, and Paul wrote Hebrews.
Person #3: “My ears have been defiled with your filth, my seminary is so conservative that we deny the relevance of ANE literature, insist that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, and we once picketed an ETS conference for allowing Zondervan to sell John Walton’s book on charts on OT background.
Person #4: “You bunch of papal Jezebels, my seminary is so conservative that we deny the existence of ANE literature, insists that the earth is round, the only Bible is the KJV, and we sacked three professors for attending an ASOR conference.
Person #5: “You illegitimate sons of Hilary, my seminary is so conservative that we bulldozed our library (with the librarian still in it), have purchased the DSS collection just so we could burn it, banned the study of Hebrew and Greek, and once crucified two of our professors for uttering the words, “Mesopotamia.”
I’m not saying that if you are more conservative than me on women in ministry or on biblical criticism that you’re bad. Not at all. Let me say that I have friends and colleagues to the left and right of me on many issues.
Here’s my point: Evangelical Christians should be conservative in the sense of intelligently preserving the historic faith of the church – the faith once for all delivered to and by the saints – NOT engaged in a race to the right so one can boast that “I’m-more-conservative-than-thou” NOR living in fear of being the least conservative kid on the block. Fidelity should be determined objectively by adherence to “the faith,” rather than comparatively to what the seminary or denomination down the round now insists counts as conservative. Remember that it is possible to move to the right in a way that departs from orthodoxy, divides the church, and injures witness to the gospel. There is no prize in heaven for being the Ron Paul of evangelicalism. That’s my two cents.