When questions relating to the common good arise, especially in relation to issues such as poverty, health care, immigration, and equity in general, discussion sooner or later casts the issue in terms of “liberal vs. conservative,” “Republican vs. Democrat”, or simply “Red vs. Blue.”
Even in Christian circles (sometimes, sadly, especially in Christian circles) the labels fly thick and fast. Social media debates between Christians on the topic du jour are rife with accusations that one side is too “progressive,” or the other is too “conservative.” The lexicon goes on from there with debates over Total Depravity, Liberalism, Evangelicalism, Marxism, Liberation Theology, Reformed Theology, and Fundamentalism (not necessarily in that order…). Those competing on opposite sides of a debate are quick to point out how those on the other side have somehow “accommodated” too much to this, that, or the other aspect of “culture.”
The glaring and fundamental inconsistency here is that debates about ideologies, theologies, and cultures are all about the meaning of human, social, or philosophical constructs. There is nothing inherently wrong with using such constructs. From a psychological point of view these are “heuristics,” or mental models that we use to simplify the complex world into something we can understand and with which we can interact. And that is exactly the limitation of a heuristic as well — it is a simplification.
If we truly believe in the God of the universe, incarnate in Jesus Christ, known through the Holy Spirit, and revealed in scripture, then we are dealing with One who is far beyond our imagining. Our heuristics may be helpful in giving us ways to talk about and witness to that One, but if we are to be faithful to that One, we need to be concerned with what is revealed in scripture and not what fits (or does not fit) our favorite heuristic mental models for understanding the world.
For instance, much debate was generated by the recent statement on “Social Justice and the Gospel” (SJG), with questions raised as to what is or is not a Christian agenda, what is the true meaning of “justice” and how we are or are not to interpret issues of race and equity from a Christian perspective. Though there are many affirmations and denials that sounds like “Christianese” in the statement, there is a lack of real interaction with scripture with the ideas propounded. The SJG statement (arguably from a more “conservative” wing of Evangelicalism) simply uses scripture as footnotes, while the Reclaiming Jesus statement released earlier this year (arguably from a more “liberal” wing of Evangelicalism) incorporates scriptural material and clear interaction with that material into the statement itself. Scripture is not simply linked as a list of footnotes; it is a part of the argument and discussion.
This reminds me of what one of my old seminary professors said about a pastor who thought up a sermon, then “jacked it up and ran some scripture under it.” As such, a statement, a sermon, or an essay is only scriptural if it is based on sound exegesis and exposition, which means actual interaction with and discussion of what scripture says.
Overall, I am becoming less and less concerned with whether particular ideas represent Evangelical, Conservative, Reformed, or Liberation theology. The fundamental question for Christianity is what it means to follow biblical Christianity — and here we have some pretty clear answers:
- “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)
- “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
- “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
If our faith is based on our theologies, then we are worshiping human-made idols. If our faith is in God revealed through the Bible and leads us to obedience, then we can actually talk about being biblical Christians.