What Does Conservative Christianity Conserve?

What Does Conservative Christianity Conserve? December 28, 2014

What Conservatives Conserve

[C]onservative Christians have long been engaged in a remarkably successful PR exercise to give the impression that they are the ones who are faithful to the Bible and historic Christianity. But in fact, what they conserve is an older but non-original form of Christianity as it came to be expressed in a particular historical and cultural context, which they have mistaken for (or deliberately misrepresent as) unchanging truth.

The quote comes from an older post of mine, “Progressive Christians and the Bible.”

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  • Well said. It reminds me of being in Israel and seeing Orthodox Jews. My Israeli friend said they think they are conserving true Judaism by dressing and acting like 13th Century Polish rabbis.

  • They conserve their ability to be about as un-Christian as it gets, while still wearing the name “Christian.”

  • Sean Garrigan

    Of course, a comparable observation could be made vis a vis most “Liberal” Christians. When you use the Apostle Paul’s style of argumentation to suggest that we today can thereby embrace something that Paul himself rejected, I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’re also selling something that is not faithful to the Bible or historic Christianity.

    I suppose the “superiority” of your position is that you don’t claim to be faithful to the Bible or historic Christianity, whereas many fundies mistakenly assert that they are. At least there’s that.

    • It isn’t fundamentally different than when liberal Christians have argued against slavery, rejecting something that the Apostle Paul embraced.

      • Sean Garrigan

        How do you know that the Apostle Paul “embraced” slavery? The fact that he accepted it as part of his age doesn’t mean he embraced it. Why he could even admonish Christians to conduct themselves properly as slaves without embracing it, just as we might admonish modern citizens of a country to conduct themselves properly as citizens of the government where they live even though we believe that all human governments are flawed and will eventually be replaced with God’s kingdom.

        • Sean Garrigan

          And I guess I should add, what is the nature of the slavery that Paul “embraced”? Christians are “slaves” of God and Christ, biblical speaking, but this is a choice (for non-Calvinists, at least) that ultimately results in our being set free, whereas the power-over (subjugation) model of slavery that comes immediately to the American mind is something quite different, it seems to me.

          • There are certainly passages in which Paul likens Christianity to a type of slavery or servitude, but when he instructs slaves to obey their masters in Ephesians and Colossians, he is clearly talking about subjugation under “earthly” masters (as some translations put it) practiced by 1st century slave owners, a type of slavery which could be as brutal as that of any other century.

          • Sean Garrigan

            True, but I’m focusing on the notion that Paul “embraced” slavery, not on the notion that he acknowledged the reality of slavery and counseled slaves to behave in a manner that would likely ultimately work out for their own good.

            As I said, I believe that all current earthly governments are temporary arrangements that will eventually be replaced by God’s good kingdom. The fact that I follow Paul’s advice and subject myself to the ruling authorities doesn’t mean that I “embrace” those authorities. Rather, I accept their necessity, and look forward to the day when they will be replaced by the kingdom that will never be overthrown, and within which pain, suffering, death, will be no more.

            That having been said, I certainly don’t deny the good that has been done by liberals vis a vis equal rights, etc.

          • I am grateful for the slaves and abolitionists of every age that declined to follow Paul’s advice in this matter.

            I also had a lot of respect for my mother as I grew up, who declined to follow Paul’s advice for women to keep silent in church.

          • Sean Garrigan

            There would have potentially been many slaves who would NOT have been “grateful” for insubordinate actions on the part of their fellow slaves, as this could cause unnecessary pain, suffering, and death.

            Paul no doubt felt that God’s kingdom – the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry – was ultimately the only true and lasting cure for such social ills, and I agree with him.

          • Sean – I am frankly speechless. You have just confirmed, better than I ever could, the evils of fundamentalism.

            You do realize that slavery still exists in the world today?





            Modern slavery (as in all ages) is frequently accompanied by rape, forced prostitution, and abusive beatings.

          • Sean Garrigan

            I’m not a fundamentalist, and the fact that slavery exists doesn’t really speak to the point I made. War exists too, yet, unlike most fundamentalists, I embrace what I consider to be the biblical pattern by not allowing myself to become embroiled in national conflicts. See “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Gregory Boyd or “It is Not Lawful For Me to Fight”, by Jean-Michel Hornus, or almost anything by John Howard Yoder.

          • Pacificism?

            What does pacificism have to do with the horrific notion that contemporary slaves are required to follow Paul’s advice to “submit” to their abusive slavers?

            It is not your pacificism that I find disturbing.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Hard to believe that you really don’t see the problem with denying that there is a point at which the two issues intersect. Oh, well…

            I get it, though. So, if you lived in a country where slavery was prevalent, you’d surely go around telling slaves NOT to behave in a manner that would likely reduce the incidence of pain, suffering, and death, for himself and his fellow slaves and family. You and they would surely be “grateful” over the suffering that followed from your advice.

          • Ah, Sean, I do live in a country where slavery was prevalent. Are you really telling us we would all be better off if the American slaves had just submitted to their abusive masters?

            The Quakers in American history were instrumental abolitionists. They were pacifists who actively supported the cause of fugitive slaves.

          • Sean Garrigan

            You seem to be totally missing the point, Beau. Paul’s pragmatic approach to a reality of his time doesn’t suggest that he “embraced” slavery. That’s the point at issue, in case you’d like to get back to it.

          • No, Sean, no matter how snidely you suggest I am “missing the point”, you are the one who is suggesting that Paul’s advice for slaves to submit to their masters is still relevant. Or are you now backpedalling to say that Paul’s approach is only for the “reality of his time”?

            Your vacuous worry over the semantics of “embraced” may be a point at issue for you, not for me. I had forgotten why I find interactions with you so tiresome. You always end up introducing silly little “gotcha” scenarios (“So, if you lived in a country …”), and when I answer in kind, you become petulant and accuse me of “missing the point” and say I should “get back to it”. Give me a break.

          • Sean Garrigan

            No, Beau, you are missing the point, completely. Just go back and read the thread from the beginning. All I ever intended to suggest was that James was overstating his case by saying that Paul “embraced” slavery. This isn’t a minor issue over semantics. Words have meaning and those meanings are important, esp when it comes to honestly portraying the actions and character of others. There is rather important difference between taking a pragmatic approach to an institution of your time and “embracing” that institution.

            And you think dialogue with me is tiresome? Sheeesh! You’ve been shooting the equivalent of intellectual spitballs at me since just about the day we “met”. You are quite attuned to the straw in the other’s eye, but blind to the rafter in your own.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Oops, please replace “attuned” with “attentive”, i.e.;

            “You are quite attentive to the straw in the other person’s eye, but blind to the rafter in your own.”

          • I’m aware of my own sarcasm, at times, as much as yours. It is not “intellectual spitballs” that I find tiresome.

          • No, Sean, you are missing the point of James’s original post, completely; your “thread” is pointless by comparison.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Of course my comments are pointless to you, but I didn’t offer them for your benefit. I offered them in defence of the Apostle Paul, who was as attentive to important distinctions as I am. I trust that he would appreciate my efforts in this regard, were he here to comment.

          • I started down this thread to point out that James’ original comments about Paul and slavery are completely valid.

            In one way, I think you are correct. Paul’s attitude towards slavery is precisely what one would expect of a free Roman citizen living in the 1st century. Acceptance of the status quo, even to the extent of borrowing the practice as an analogy for a theological relationship between Christians and their God.

            We now understand human ownership as a brutal and immoral system, plagued with physical and sexual abuse, and the inhumane tearing apart of families in every age in which it has been practiced. While we might not judge Paul any more harshly than anyone else of the first century for his acceptance of the system, his “advice” in the matter of slavery is a teaching we should completely reject today.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Paul’s primary objective was preaching the good news about the Christ. God didn’t give him a different objective, i.e. end all social and political ills. Moreover, Christianity didn’t have the political clout in Paul’s day to accomplish the obliteration of the institution of slavery, even if it collectively wanted to do so. In light of his God-given objective, I think that his advice to slaves was actually sound.

            I can understand why this wouldn’t satisfy an atheist, but Christians should recognize that God is in control, and if He wanted Paul to break the institution of slavery then He would have motivated him to do so. He didn’t motivate Paul to do so, however, just as he hasn’t motivated James or you to take up arms in an effort to end modern slavery in those places where it still occurs.

            It seems to me that if you’re not going to personally work to end the institution of slavery then you really have no business giving any other advice than Paul gave.

          • Well, of course, I’m more interested in ending social and political ills than I am about the gospel; and, I’m not interested in making some 21st century judgement against a man who’s been dead for 2000 years.

            My only concern is that modern “interpreters” of Paul don’t try to see his 1st century advice about slaves as something applicable today – because it isn’t.

            Sean, not only do I personally work to end the institution of slavery, I believe it is all of our responsibility to do so. I give regularly to the Polaris Project and have joined campaigns to raise awareness of human trafficking:


            I’m not the only American giving advice on the topic of slavery, Sean, and those who do include many Christian organizations. You should learn more, yourself:


          • Sean Garrigan

            What advice have you personally given modern slaves?

          • Though I think you are only flailing at some sort of sarcastic point with this question, I’ll answer. I’ve only spoken to a few victims of human trafficking after they had been freed from the system, at awareness conferences (and a fellow student at my college – I helped him with an essay on the topic). However, we can indirectly (but vitally) provide help for these victims through donations to organizations such as Polaris and through the dissemination of information that raises awareness about their conditions. Should you ever become aware of a victim (it is more common in foreign countries, but does occur in the US), there is a hotline available with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center:


          • Sean Garrigan

            Thank you. I was hoping to get a somewhat clearer picture of your personal involvement with slavery as it helps distinguish how your situation is different from Paul’s in a crucial way. Your direct person-to-person involvement has apparently been limited to interacting with people who were victims if *illegal* human trafficking. This is very different from Paul’s situation, in which he found himself facing the challenge dealing with slaves responsibly where the institution is firmly intrenched and legal.

            I’ll therefore simply reiterate that Paul’s actions do not seem in appropriate, in context. Interestingly, while Paul lacked the authority to end the institution of slavery in his day, John Pipler helps us to appreciate how Paul did use his influence in reference to one slave, which seems at odds with the notion that he “embraced” slavery:


          • Sean Garrigan

            That’s “John Piper”, not “John Pipler” (sorry John).

          • Oh I would certainly agree that Paul’s perspective on slavery is incredibly far removed from the way we view the horrors of slavery today. Yes, slavery was legal and entrenched in his time. Perhaps he did not have the power to change it; but fortunately, abolitionists in our own American history did not balk from working against the legal and entrenched slavery that once existed in our country. Paul’s encouragement for Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother is commendable, though of extremely limited (and vague) value, given the vast growth and institutionalization of slavery in centuries to come, not just in political communities, but in specifically Christian communities.

            I am not the first to point out that when Paul uses slavery as a metaphor for the Christian’s relationship to God, this is an analogy that could only have been made by someone who was culturally desensitized to the physical, sexual, and psychological abuses inherent in the institution of slavery. Christians inherited this slave analogy from Paul. I don’t fault Paul particularly for this; he was like most Roman citizens of his time. I only see it as another aspect of the cultural blindness that makes Paul’s writings on slavery archaic, facile, and philosophically irrelevant today.

          • Sean Garrigan

            If you believed that Paul’s teachings were inspired by God – as I and many (most?) other Christians do – then I suspect that you’d nuance your understanding of the significance of his use of the metaphor a bit. But that’s another discussion entirely.

          • Andrew Dowling

            You are going further though, and claiming them to be inerrant. One can be “inspired by God” and still not be correct in their opinions on everything.

          • Sean Garrigan

            I would think that that could be the case only if “inspired by God” was used in a way similar to how “inspired by a sunset” might be offered by some artist to explain how he was motivated to paint a work of art. That’s not how most Christians understand Scriptural inspiration, though Beau is certainly correct that views differ widely.

          • I’ve read enough Christian writings to know that they vary widely on the meaning of inspiration.

            At any rate, you are correct that I see no reason to bias my reading of the New Testament in ways that wouldn’t apply to any other ancient text.

          • Incidentally, I find the legacy of Yoder’s writings particularly ironic, considering his own history as a sexual abuser. His Mennonite publishing company now feels the need to include the following caveat with every Yoder book they print:

            “John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

            “At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

            “This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.”

          • Sean Garrigan

            I’m inclined to look the other way when I see The Enquirer in the checkout line, and I didn’t expect to see its spirit appear in this thread:-(

          • It’s interesting to me that you see no difference between a gossip rag like the National Enquirer and the Herald Press, the publishing arm of Yoder’s own Mennonite Church:


            What possible reason would the Herald Press have to lie about Yoder’s behavior?

            Your choice of words is unfortunate: one of the primary contributing factors for sexual abuse in this country is that people are “inclined to look the other way”. I’m glad that the Herald Press has chosen not to do so.

          • Sean Garrigan

            The Herald Press no doubt feels that it has a duty to make this information known, as they benefit financially from the sales of Yoder’s books. My complaint wasn’t with the Herald Press, but with your bringing that information into a conversation where it really has no place, IMO.

            So from now until the end of time, anytime Yoder’s name is mentioned, someone with an “Inquirer” mentality will doubtless feel the need to bring in the sensational.

            Incidentally, I also tend to avoid those “news” programs where they discuss all that is fabulous, foible-ous, and downright degenerate about the “Stars”.

          • As I’ve already made perfectly clear, the information that I mentioned about Yoder is painfully relevant. It is always relevant when one cites an abuser on the subject of abuse. That’s not my opinion; that is the truth.

            And the suggestion that the Herald Press publishes this information only as a duty based on financial benefit, is crass even for you.

          • Sean Garrigan

            There’s noting at all crass in pointing out that different persons and entities have different responsibilities when it comes to publishing such sensational matters.

            If a scholar writes a paper addressing why Romans 13 wasn’t meant to suggest that Christians should take up arms and engage in national military conflicts, and cites Yoder’s excellent work on this Pauline account to support his thesis, there is probably no obligation to extend the footnote to include mention of his crimes as an abuser. On the other hand, it is wholly understandable that Herald Press should feel that they do have such an obligation.

            I don’t really understand why you felt the need to mention it. Yoder’s dead, and there’s no one here who needs to be protected from him. But, what’s done is done.

          • What? No graphic frowny face this time? Or impugning my “unfortunate” motives by comparing my reference to Yoder to the sordid and gratuitous fabrications you find in Enquirer tabloids?

            Though you’re expressing yourself a bit less offensively than in earlier comments aimed at me, you still have this foolish notion that it is inappropriate to bring up Yoder’s sexual misconduct when discussing his theology. Note that I am not insisting that you should have done so; I’m only making it clear that it was entirely appropriate for me to do so.

            You don’t have to take my word for it. There are numerous articles (many by other theologians) dealing specifically with the unavoidable impact of Yoder’s conduct on his theological writings. Note especially what theologian Professor Ted Koontz has to say about referencing Yoder in his classes (from an article in the NY Times):

            “Professor [Ted] Koontz regularly tells his students reading Mr. Yoder that ‘his behavior is one thing we ought to take into account when we read his work.’ Ms. [Linda Geham] Peachey noted that Mr. Yoder wrote a good deal about suffering as a Christian virtue, but ‘if you know this part of the story’ — how he made women suffer — ‘you tend to read it with a different eye.’

            Mr. Yoder seemed very attentive to the notion that theology should align with behavior. It turns out that in unpublished papers, he formulated a bizarre justification of extramarital sexual contact.”

            Here are more writers and scholars weighing the impact of Yoder’s behavior on his theology:






            Even if you “don’t really understand” why I felt the need to mention it, plenty of scholars do.

            By the way, I stand by the word “crass” for the way you characterize the Herald Press’s mention of Yoder’s conduct as “a duty to make this information known, as they benefit financially from the sales of Yoder’s books”. You just have to read the press release to know that their reasons were theological, not financial.

          • Sean Garrigan

            And I stand by the fact that it’s not “crass” to suggest that part of their obligation may have stemmed (in part) from the realization that as publishers of Yoder’s writings, they stood to benefit financially.

            Their decision to address Yoder’s crimes as an abuser probably involved multiple considerations, including religious, historical, and legal/ethical, with the financial consideration stemming from the later. If you don’t wish to agree, that’s fine with me.

          • Who would disagree that the Herald Press had multiple considerations? You are changing your tune. You were the one who felt that the financial reasons were the only ones worth mentioning in your first comment on the subject, not I.

            You seem to have forgotten that you were trying to argue that there was no reason (except, presumably, the financial) to mention Yoder’s abusive behavior in the context of his theology. Maybe you should write to every scholar I’ve cited here and tell them how shocked you are at their “sensationalizing” of Yoder’s abuses.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Yes, well, it was a brief blog post on a point I was surprised to have to address at all.

          • Not so brief that you couldn’t find the time to offensively compare my comment to the National Enquirer.

          • Sean Garrigan

            A regrettable comparison, and I’m sorry for having used it.

          • Quite.

          • Here are more writers weighing Yoder’s theology against the legacy of his sexual conduct:

            Hannah Heinzekehr
            “it wasn’t just the fact that he had perpetrated such abuses against women. It was the fact that his theology seemed to veer dangerously close to setting up frameworks that would not just allow this kind of abuse to happen, but made it seem somehow honorable or noble.”

            Professor Jamie Pitts
            “Yoder claimed repeatedly that living testimony was inseparably tied to the integrity of one’s verbal proclamation of the gospel. If Yoder is right, then failed performance of the gospel should lead, at the very least, to suspicion about the words used in that performance. Some of Yoder’s actions were very bad news; it would be surprising if all his words were good news, were gospel.”

            Professor Stephanie Krehbiel
            “The most celebrated twentieth-century voice for our long, much-maligned tradition of nonviolence was a violent sex offender. No scenario I can imagine could possibly make the limitations of patriarchal pacifism more obvious. And perhaps nowhere are those limitations more obvious than in Yoder’s final work, You Have it Coming: Good Punishment. ”

            Professors David Cramer, Jenny Howell, Paul Martens, and Jonathan Tran
            “Yet another problem must be confronted. It may be that Yoder’s actions were, in his mind, not just convenient exceptions to this theology but consistent with his own theology. There is some evidence that in pursuing Christian women, Yoder might have been applying his own understanding of radical theology.”

            Anabaptists in the United Kingdom
            “Part of what makes this such a difficult issue is precisely the great Anabaptist insight into the fundamental relationship in Christian discipleship between belief and practice, that the Gospel truth we know shows in the way we live.”

          • Andrew Dowling

            This reasoning has been used to justify every tyranny that has plagued humanity for centuries. That “revolting against brutality will only lead to more brutality, so better just to pray and await your reward in heaven.”

          • Sean Garrigan

            What? I was lamenting Beau’s unfortunate decision to focus on the sensational in a context where this seems singularly out of place and unnecessary. What does your comment have to do with that?

          • If you think it “unfortunate” to bring up the abusive behavior of a man you quote on the subject of abusive systems, perhaps you need to address your lament to the American Mennonite Church, the organization that Yoder belonged to, the organization that takes the time to focus on his abuses in every Yoder book published. And you think it’s “singularly out of place” to bring it up in a blog comment?

          • Sean Garrigan

            Yes, I think it was totally unnecessary. No need to get into yet another dispute over it, though. I feel it was unnecessary, you feel otherwise. So there it is.

          • If you don’t want to continue the dispute, that’s fine with me. But don’t expect me to stay passively quiet at such foolishness as a “lament” at my comment.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Isn’t “acknowledging the reality of slavery” simply adhering to cultural norms of the day? I thought God was above that . . at least that’s what the anti SSM folks always say. If God was using Paul as his instrument, couldn’t He have swayed Paul to go against the grain and stop 1800 years of Christian-sanctioned slavery and brutality through simply a couple of sentences in an epistle?

          • Sean Garrigan

            I would put it differently: Since God was using Paul as his instrument, he must have had His reasons for choosing not to make slavery an issue at that time and place in history.

            I can’t speak for God, but it’s possible that Paul didn’t think to make an issue out of slavery because he felt that God’s kingdom was soon to come, and so there was little point in channeling his energies into an effort to radically alter various social and political structures of his time. In Paul’s view, spreading the good news about the Messiah was top priority, and I think he did a pretty good job fulfilling his role in achieving it.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “I would put it differently: Since God was using Paul as his instrument, he must have had His reasons for choosing not to make slavery an issue at that time and place in history.”

            You do understand this is arguing from nothing, right? You’re also using the presupposition that God had a special relationship with Paul that other “normal” people don’t have. I actually view Paul as a great man, but also a man who had his flaws like anyone else. I don’t think these flaws evaporated when he happened to begin writing an epistle.

            “t’s possible that Paul didn’t think to make an issue out of slavery because he felt that God’s kingdom was soon to come”

            You are saying Paul was God’s instrument, but God couldn’t let Paul understand that the end wasn’t to come within his lifetime?

          • Sean Garrigan

            “You are saying Paul was God’s instrument, but God couldn’t let Paul understand that the end wasn’t to come within his lifetime?”

            You do understand that this is arguing from nothing, right? 😉 There’s no reason to assume that your opinion of what God should have revealed to Paul is God’s opinion of what He should have revealed to Paul.


          • Andrew Dowling

            A common conservative apologetic trope is to claim that Roman slavery was akin to “indentured servitude” and completely unlike slavery in the U.S. . . .which is completely false. Yes, if you were the slave to a wealthy citizen who treated you well, it wasn’t the worst existence, but many slavers were mere physical laborers who had short, miserable lives or were used as sex slaves (both young men and girls).

          • Another similar apologetic trope is that Old Testament slavery wasn’t so bad because the Law offered protections to slaves …

            “Exodus 21:20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.”

            … extremely limited protections.

  • ashleyhr

    Slightly off-topic but you received a mention here:

    • Isn’t that one of the blogs of David Tee, who was banned from here for being a troll?

      • ashleyhr

        Whoever he is, he sounds rather bigoted, accusatory and maybe attempting to put words into my mouth (though it’s possible I misconstrued his sentence about ‘meteors’ hitting Earth and he was merely claiming that a meteor impact did not lead to dinosaur extinctions (hundreds of species dying out not merely a handful)).

        Have attempted two further comments:
        “If you are in the US you should know about this formation, with or without the internet (and if you don’t you should not be making uninformed and nonsensical online claims regarding ‘meteors’):
        “Or are you claiming (falsely) that there is no evidence for a massive impact, a very long time ago, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula?”

      • Ian

        Yes, it is.

        • ashleyhr

          A fun person to attempt a scientific discussion with:

          (8 posts currently visible and 2 responses by myself currently awaiting moderation.)

          PS My more substantive latest comment reads: “It’s very simple, David. I believe that the scientific experts know what they are talking about and know that the Barringer crater was not caused by a ‘flood’ and that the remains of a massive ancient crater in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula were not instead caused by ‘volcanism’. Which ‘flood waters’ were you referring to by the way? Can you verify floodwaters in the past at the site of the Barringer crater?”

  • Donnie McLeod

    Christian conservatism is conserverving our fish derived thinking process and protecting us from the other thinking process that has always led to inquiry and reason the essence of liberalism.

  • Tim

    It conserves conservatism, of course!

  • Andrew Dowling

    It conserves justifications for beliefs that affirm whatever power-structure establishment is serving the aims/beliefs of conservative church leaders; slavery, gender relations/norms, economic inequality etc.

  • SilverFox53

    Modern Christianity is conservative in the same way that the Pharisees were. I read a very interesting little book recently called: Jesus: The Quantum Physician. It is written from the perspective of the ruling priests and describes the systems of social control they had set up over the people. I got it free on Amazon as a promotion, not sure if its still free.