Authority and Being a Conservative

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I like the feeling of being a “conservative.” I really bristle when someone suggests that I am a liberal or that I am displaying liberal tendencies. I don’t want to be a liberal. Being a liberal suggests a disregard for the “old paths” and for the strict adherence to the original intent of the scriptures. Being a liberal has the connotation that the scriptures are to be understood and applied “culturally” and that every generation will need to reinterpret the revealed Word based on the norms of their society.

But my desire to be a conservative may not always serve me well. There is a serious danger in this kind of thinking. No, the danger is not in wanting to apply the word of God according to its original intent. The danger is in my fondness of being a conservative and being associated with conservative brethren. If you think like I do, is the danger apparent to you?

When we look at the religious sects of the first century we can see a number of groups who thought of themselves as conservatives. The Zealots would have thought of themselves in this way as they sought to drive the Roman government out of Israel. The Pharisees certainly saw themselves as conservatives when compared to their Sadducean counterparts.

This brings up the first danger of loving to be a conservative, or for that matter, loving to be associated with any “group” or “movement.” The desire to be a conservative or the desire to be associated with and accepted by conservatives must not be my standard. Such a desire can subtly but quickly cause me to place my association with a movement over my respect for God’s word. As Paul said, “For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ” (Gal. 1:10 CSB). Now, when I define myself by a term or a movement, am I a conservative? Am I what I intended to be: one who strictly adheres to God and His word? No, though I may think I am a conservative I have actually become the very thing I have always taught against. I have become a person willing to follow a movement or an association of people who will invariably change as time goes on and who may or may not be always following the scriptures honestly and correctly.

Preachers are especially vulnerable in this regard primarily because their livelihood can depend on maintaining beliefs that fit within the norms of their “movement” or “association.” They must be deemed “sound” by enough Christians or even key preachers and publications in order to be considered worthy to be hired as a local evangelist or be invited to preach gospel meetings. Most may not want to admit it, but the pressure can be significant. This pressure will cause some to speak in platitudes and generalities that cannot be contradicted when asked about their position on key issues such as divorce and remarriage or when lines of fellowship must be drawn. Others will simply treat some Bible subjects as “off-limits” and will rarely if ever preach on those subjects. I have heard some preachers boast that their people knew little or nothing of the issues of institutionalism because they didn’t want to fill their church with “brotherhood wranglings.” Other preachers are unwilling to confront their own elders when the truth of the gospel is at stake and instead give some lame excuse about needing to let the elders “take the lead.”

There is another problem we face when we have a love of taking the “conservative” point of view. It is easy to take an elitist attitude and start making laws that God did not make in order to keep the “ignorant masses” from crossing the real line. For example, are we willing to teach that New Testament Christians drank wine and not simply grape juice? In other words, did Jesus just turn the water into grape juice, or did Paul tell Timothy to “take a little grape juice for his stomach sake and his many infirmities?” No, instead we would rather take the easy way out and just say drinking an alcoholic beverage is sinful, period. Frankly, that’s certainly the way I would like to teach it. I don’t drink and I don’t want any other Christian to drink. But I can’t cheat in how I use the scriptures and teach something God did not say. God did not say all wine drinking was wrong at all times, under all circumstances, and in all amounts. So I cannot pretend He did say that. I teach the danger, I teach the principle of Christian example and influence, and I teach that wine drinking in the first century was different than today and that New Testament wines were light in alcoholic content and mixed with water when used by Christians. That’s why there was a “governor” at the wedding feast in Cana. But to make a blanket rule that all drinking is wrong simply because I am afraid there will be some Christian who will “take that teaching and run,” is to impugn how God taught the issue.

The subject of dancing is similar. God did not say, “You shall not dance.” We make a huge mistake when we just tell our kids, “Dancing is sinful.” What happens when they grow up and read the Bible for themselves and discover the many times in the Bible where righteous people “danced?” Then their conclusion will be that mom and dad claimed to “speak where the Bible speaks,” but they actually taught many things that were not in the scriptures. The danger of teaching this way is more serious than the dancing. The child will now have the tendency of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and doubting everything else taught them. On the other hand, if I show my children the definition of lasciviousness (“indecent bodily movements” and “unchaste handling of males and females”), they will have a biblically based understanding of why most dancing is sinful, especially the dancing that they are encouraged to participate in at schools and nightclubs. (Obviously, other principles are involved that would also be important in regard to the issue of dancing.) The key is being true to God’s word and teaching godly principles in the same way God taught those principles regardless of whether or not it is the “conservative” way of saying it or teaching it. We cannot improve on how God gave His instructions.

Consider, would the “conservative position” have been to go through the grainfields on the Sabbath and eat (Mt. 12:1)? Would the conservative position have been to “eat with unwashed hands” (Mt. 15:1)? Would the conservative position have been to tell an infirm man to take up his bed and walk on the Sabbath (Jn. 5:8-9)? Who took the more conservative position in Romans 14, the meat-eater or the non-meat-eater? You see, being conservative is a relative term and does not always mean being right. I want to be right, not “conservative.”