Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot. Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I’ve found myself whispering under my breath, “I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping.” It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.
Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church – and we can fight over “liberal,” “progressive,” etc. definitions HERE – is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.
As I broach this subject I know that there are other questions that are then raised, all good questions that would bring breadth and depth to this conversation.
- Is there a common set of goals towards which we can agree that we are working? Is there an “agenda” or “platform” of liberal beliefs that we can rally around?
- What are the differences, if any, between “liberal,” “progressive,” “radical,” “prophetic”, etc. and how do those differences impact the larger liberal Christian community?
- Whose creditability are we focused on, God’s or the larger culture? Does it even matter as long as one speaks the truth that God has place upon one’s heart?
I am sure there are more questions to think about, but to give a little context for my list, here are three assumptions upon which I am operating as I make my suggestions:
WHO ARE LIBERALS? I think most folks have a sense of the general beliefs of a “liberal” Christian. As with “conservative” Christians who are seeking the will of God and the mind of Christ, most liberals have a common perspective with which faith is lived: Homosexuality is not a sin, but a gift; approach Scripture with a lens of Spirit of the law v. letter of the law; affirm reproductive options, etc. There is no “platform” per se, but there is a general openness and freedom with which faith is lived.
FROM WHOM DO WE SEEK CREDIBILITY? When I think about my own faith, I am always seeking to be and do as God intends. With that said, I also believe that if those beliefs do not impact the world, then we are not fully doing what God intends. So the “who” in this case is the larger society in which we serve and who may be seeking a thoughtful and passionate word from the church about the world’s pain.
WHY DOES IT MATTER? This matters because if we believe that God is calling us and the world to live into particular intentions, for instance, the belief that when it comes to reproductive options, “We affirm the ability and responsibility of women, guided by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, in the context of their communities of faith, to make good moral choices in regard to problem pregnancies” [My church’s stance] then we must do all that we can to see that happen. We do not pretend to be God, but we do boldly claim that we are God’s instruments and are doing what we believe God hopes.
So, here are you go, my 10 Ways “Liberal” Christians Lose Credibility
BEING MEAN . . . One of the worst offenses that we make is to be that which we so often speak against. When it comes to vitriolic and abusive rhetoric, liberals can dish it out with the best of the conservative talk show hosts. I fully believe that informed by our faith, we can be angry and must often speak with righteous indignation, but we must not add fuel to the fire of hatred that only tears down the community as a whole AND denies the inherent dignity of even our worst enemies.
OVERSTATING OPENNESS . . . Let’s be honest, by the very nature of our humanity, none of our communities is as welcoming and open as we would like to say and believe we are. The words, “Everyone is welcome” other than in a metaphorical sense should never pass our lips. “We strive to be . . . ” sure, but the reality of any gathered community is that there will ALWAYS be someone who is not welcomed. I think this is okay when acknowledged, and the liberal church may have broader arms when it comes to who is accepted, but absolutes ruin any claim to the openness that we may be striving to achieve.
FORGETTING JESUS . . . We must be able to articulate a Christology that informs our liberalness. Too often I have been in conversations where it seems that our positions inform our understanding of Jesus. Yes, this is hard to separate for humans, but if we call ourselves Christian and in order to be taken seriously, we must be able articulate how Christ informs and grounds our beliefs. If we do not, then we run the risk of turning Christ into the vehicle through which we live our beliefs rather than our own selves being the vehicles through which we live out our faith in Christ.
WORSHIPPING VICTORIES . . . With all due respect to the progressive “lions” of past generations, we can no longer live in the shadows of decade-old social and cultural victories. When we demand authority because of what we have done, when our actions are meant to preserve institutions and/or when we hold onto power that is solely wrapped up in dues paid, we become calcified and we turn these transformative legacy moments into idols. And to others it looks as if we no longer want others become the transformative agents that so many have been before.
GATE-KEEPING SOCIAL JUSTICE . . . Just because someone disagrees with us theologically, that does not mean that any actions of social justice that they take on is invalid. God never said, “Liberal Christians get to decided what is valid justice work and what is not.” Sure, we may disagree with WHY or HOW folks engage in the work of justice and we may question how folks can believe one thing about one issue, but still act with justice towards another. Whatever the case may be, solid social justice ministry can be manifested across the theological spectrum. When liberals claim some kind of final word about what is or is not valid, it is disingenuous, arrogant and dismissive of much good work being done across the aisle.
FIGHTING POORLY . . . One of the most irritating things about the polarization of the church is that we are not allowed to critique our own “team” in public for fear of somehow airing our dirty laundry and hurting the cause. Time and time again, I have seen good liberal folks critique or challenge one another and it quickly degenerates into junior high playground brawling. Not responding well to critique does two things to hurt the credibility of the liberal church. First, if we avoid challenging one another we trap ourselves in a like-minded bubble seldom pushing one another to grow and mature; and two, we look like we can critique and push others, but when we are confronted, we can’t handle it.
ADMITTING WHEN WE ARE OR COULD BE WRONG . . . The most egregiously off-putting people I interact with are often not conservative fundamentalists, but strident liberals. Some folks are so certain that he or she is right, that there does not seem to be any room for God’s transformative Spirit to move. It’s like, “God has lead me here and I am not moving.” Yes, we can be darn confident about some of our beliefs and know that it would take an awful lot to change our minds, but to say that we own “THE” one true version of the truth seems to be hypocritical in light of that the fact that this posture is one of the THE major critiques levied against our conservative brothers and sisters.
DISMISSING NUMBERS – As one who helped to start a new church I am not sure how many conversations on evangelism, church growth and redevelopment that I have had where my liberal friends have pulled the, “But we can’t measure success by numbers” card. *sigh* Of course we can’t. BUT . . . we can use numerical measurements as one way in which we evaluate and assess the ministries in which we are engaged. I do know many “evangelicals” who overly value numbers, but at least most of them own it. Liberals loose cred when we deny the usefulness of numbers, but then lift up ministries, their own or others, as doing well because people are drawn to it. So basically, we poopoo numerical measurement unless those very same numbers support what we do or believe.
DEMANDING LOYALTY – Somewhat in connection to my “Fighting Poorly” critique, we too often demand loyalty despite our constant call for people to be faithful. Loyalty to a group, a person or a movement is idolatrous and only limits our ability to see the complex realities of God’s world. I have been accused of being a “traitor” for simply talking or sitting down with people with whom I disagree on deep ecclesiastical and theological beliefs. We can have solidarity with one another, but demanding loyalty to the point of no longer seeing the fullness of the church is unacceptable and smacks of not really wanting to be faithful, but only wanting to be right.
HAVING TUNNEL VISION . . . I think it is appropriate to end with a point on the strategic life of the liberal church. It seems that there may be some common agreement about what we believe as liberals, but good golly the “How do we get there?” drama in the church is tv mini-series material. From the “work withing the system” folks to the “destroy the system” people, it seems that many a metaphorical stink-eye has been given depending upon which group one aligns. The problem is that, as with most movements of change, it takes all strategies to achieve monumental change. Sure, we can disagree on the best strategy, but we lose all credibility when we too strongly believe that we have THE one and only strategy for success. The “fringe” and “institutional” folks needs one another in order to effect change and a mere acknowledgement of this shows a sign of humility that can go a long way.
Alright, so there you have it, my 35 cents worth of opinion and words for the liberal church. I am sure that there will be folks who will take offense, totally agree or have even more to add, so I would love to hear what you think. And if you are up for conversations in a different context, I have cross-posted on SFGate.