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Am I a Liberal?

Am I a liberal?

 

 I’ve been called a liberal by many people – family, colleagues, critics, and detractors. 

 

Am I a liberal?

 

For this posting, I want to avoid addressing this topic from a “political” perspective – i.e. am I a democrat, who did I voted for in the last election, what is my opinion on health care reform, etc. 

 

Instead, I want to talk in terms of my theology.  After all, I am a pastor – so the classification of my theological viewpoints seems to be of interest to many people, including myself.   

 

Am I a liberal?

 

I’ve been called a liberal by many people – family, colleagues, critics, and detractors. The most recent accusation came from a fellow pastor. 

 

The discussion started with a disagreement about the “Rapture” – the belief of many Christians that at some point in the future, God is going to mysteriously snatch all believers off the planet.  Following that, all *heck* is literally going to break out for about seven years until the second coming of Jesus.

 

Now understand that this particular theological framework is not clearly defined or described in the scripture and was not even a part of Christian theology until the concept was invented by a fellow named by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in 1827. Darby came up with the notion that there will not be one, but two “second comings” of Jesus. 

 

(For a brief article outlining Darbey’s notions of this subject, visit http://www.sullivan-county.com/news/cathouse/darby.htm

 

Personally, I am unconvinced that the scripture teaches anything close to Darby’s doctrine of the “rapture.”  I grew up hearing it preached allmost every Sunday.  Then there would be the series of sermons on “end times.”  Then there were the books by guys like Hal Lindsey.  There were and remain those who imply or outright predict when this event is going to happen. 

 

  • In 1981 the Planets aligned and many suggested that might be the time.
  • The Y2K scare also got folks all caught up in this hysteria.
  • Now Nostradamus and the Myan calendar are mixed in a pot and 2012 was the next date on the calendar when the “Rapture” iwa suppose to occur.

Could I be wrong?  Sure!  But I don’t think I am!  The more I have studied the scripture, however, the l more I have become convinced that is it the creation of people, superimposed on the scripture. 

 

Okay, so we might have to agree to disagree on this subject, right?  Not for this fellow.  The accusations came fast and furious.  My belief in the authority of scripture was challenged.  What I found particularly interesting is that the seminary this fellow thought I attended became a focal point.

 

It seems that this fellow had recently contacted the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond to request a doctrinal statement.  I found this odd, since this seminary has a reputation with “fundamentalists” like this man as a extremely liberal seminary.  So I wondered why he had contacted them requesting such a statement.  Was he thinking about taking classes?  Was he considering hiring a student to become and Associate Pastor on the staff of his church?  I’ve asked, but have no answer.  I know that the seminary gets these requests from people all the time who are simply looking for fodder for the next week’s sermon describing what they are opposed to this week.  I hope I am wrong!

 

Now, I have never taken a class at BTSR, but I know many of the faculty as well as President Ron Crawford, who has preached in my church.  I also attended a lectionary Bible study each week with several other pastors, led by Dr. Mark Biddle (Old Testament Professor) and Dr. Scott Spencer (New Testament Professor).  So, while  I have no direct knowledge of what is taught in the class, I have seen these two professors interact with the scripture.  I have also heard many of the faculty preach in my church and the community.  Additionally, I supervise three Student Interns on staff at Patterson Avenue Baptist.  So that allows me to see and hear firsthand the impact of what is being taught to these students.

 

These interns have brought a great deal of passion and excitement for the Kingdom of God into my church – and the result has been growth (both numeric and spiritual) in the church.

 

Does the seminary have a doctrinal statement?  No!  As an institution it has a declared purpose statement: 

 

 “Baptist freedom is a hallmark of BTSR: freedom to question, freedom to discover, freedom to learn, and freedom to serve in Jesus’ name.” 

 

Now I will admit, freedom is dangerous. That said I like that kind of talk about freedom because I trust the Holy Spirit.  This freedom is a gift of the Gospel (see Galatians 5) and I am pleased that this school allows for the freedom in inquiry.  This is obviously a sore spot for my preacher friend.  He’s from Liberty Baptist in Lynchburg, Virginia.  That school and BTSR have a difference in educational philosophy.  Liberty attempts to indoctrinate students to affirm a certain set of propositional statements they have predetermined to be true.  BTSR attempts to educate students to develop their own personalize understanding of the Christian faith.  You might not like that difference in philosophy, but I think it goes way too far to label it as liberal. 

 

Typically, fundamentalist SAY that there are certain basic doctrines (propositional statements) that must be affirmed as truth, otherwise you are a liberal or worse (non-believer, heretic, page, whatever).  Among these truths are things like the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth, the authority of scripture.

 

Here’s the kicker:  I believe all of these things.

 

I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead on the third day.

 

I believe that Jesus was conceived in Mary (a virgin) by the Holy Spirit.  (I once heard a feminist theologian affirm the virgin birth, saying, “It’s great to know that God can do something in this world that does not involve a man.”) 

 

I accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice.  I try not to use hard to define concepts like “inerrancy” to describe the Bible.  In my opinion, this has only served to muddy the waters and divide people who might otherwise share common beliefs and convictions on 98% of Christian doctrine.

 

Fundamentalist say that we can have differences on other matters, but things like the resurrection, virgin birth, and the authority of scripture are “essentials.”  Yet despite the fact that I affirm these essentials, I am still viewed as a “liberal.”

 

I have been accused of liberalism for the following issues:

 

Not using the King James Version of the Bible

 

Affirming the Role of women as leaders in all aspect of church ministry

 

Being married to a woman who has filled the pulpit as a preacher

 

Following the Revised Common Lectionary when preaching.

 

Going dancing with my friends when I was younger and my body could still move

 

Allows a “Senior Adult” dance to take place in my church

 

Allowing my kids to watch “Barney” when they were younger

 

Using birth control early in our marriage when we were not ready for children

 

Having some progressive political views (which I think are biblical)

 

Being associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

 

Serving on the Virginia Baptist Mission Board

 

Reading some books – that’s right – reading has caused me to be labeled a liberal

 

Being ecumenically minded and willing to partner with other Christian faith traditions

 

Not taking a “hard line” against drinking alcohol

 

Not supporting a “community tent revival/crusade” in my last place of ministry

 

Attending “The Sothern Baptist Theological Seminary” before the fundamentalist takeover of that school and the rise of the current president.

 

Attending a “Methodist” seminary to do my doctoral work

 

Having friends who “really are” theological liberals who don’t believe in things like the virgin birth” or the “bodily resurrection of Jesus.”

 

Really, I could go on and on!

 

One of the funniest (but sad) attacks was that liberal churches (like mine is accused of being for having women deacons) are NOT growing BECAUSE WE HAVE NOTHING TO OFFER. 

 

 

What made the accusation funny/sad was that I had just read “On Mission Magazine” (a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention).  The article points out that the SBC is in a several year steep decline in membership, new converts, and new church starts.   This does not bode well for the “fundamentalistic SBC.”  If the claim is that liberal churches are not growing because of their theology, I would propose that the same is true for the fundamentalist theology which dominates the SBC.  The SBC is declining because of “fundamentalism.” 

 

Here’s the real core for me.  Any attempt to retain the essence of Christianity must be Christological in nature. In other words, what ties us together and is essential is a belief that in some way, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue for us.

 

The difference between Fundamentalism and mainline Christianity (with all respect, I do believe that Fundamentalism is WAY out of step with Christian orthodoxy) is that Fundamentalism believes there to be additional core issues.

 

I agree that the finished work of Christ is a core matter and foundational issue to our faith. However, once we move beyond that shared truth, there are differences over many issues but none of them are central to the meaning of salvation through Jesus Christ.

 

Recently I communicated with another friend who has also been accused of being a liberal on many occasions.  Never mind the fact that he is an inerrantist.  Never mind the fact that he holds to a Reformed (almost Calvinistic) theology.  The bottom line is that his attitude of grace and generousity towards those who believe differently than he has still earned him the label “liberal” but many fundamentalists.  My friend wrote,

 

“Bill, I believe that an authentic expression of grace in our lives will cause us to recognize that none of us have a perfectly clear understanding of those peripheral issues and therefore will cause us to treat each other with loving respect and not vilify each other for having differing opinions. One of the greatest troubling aspects of Fundamentalists are their absolute certainty over their position on matters that well respected, scholarly, Christ-honoring believers have differed for over two millennia. Humility will cause a person to hold some viewpoints with recognition that our understanding isn’t infallible.  For most fundamentalist that I have encountered, however, a liberal is anyone perceived left on them on any subject.”

 

So am I a liberal?  Evidently yes, because I am to the left of most (probably all) fundamentalists on some issue – which I illustrated earlier with the list of things that have put me “outside” the faith and labeled me as a “liberal” in the eyes of some. 

 

In a prior community were I served, a new pastor moved to town.  I stopped by to welcome him to the area.  I knew that we had some theological differences.  His father, in fact, was a member of my chuch and a dear friend.  Despite our differences, however, I still held out hope that our common faith in Jesus to be a unifying factor that could overcome a few differences of conviction.  In the discussion, you volunteered this statement:  “If you don’t believe in the virgin birth that would be a cause to break fellowship.”

 

That struck me as odd on several accounts. 

 

First, breaking fellowship with a fellow Christian does not honor Christ but rather rejects the unity that the scriptures declare IS OURS (we don’t built it – it is our by the work of the Spirit). 

 

Second, if you disagree, why break fellowship?  It would seem better to build friendship and trust the Holy Spirit to use to bring correction.

 

Third, it seemed to proceed from the assumption that since we had some differences in theology (for example, the ordination of women), that somehow I was theologically suspect and somehow mere steps away from being cut off. 

 

Fourth, and finally, it was just plain rude to bring that up when I had just stopped to say hello and welcome the man to the community.

 

That man is one of the people who have implied that I am a liberal in recent weeks.  Despite the fact that on the essentials we agree, my associations with BTSR, my beliefs about what I believe to be the made up doctrine of the *rapture,” and something like the fact that my church ordains women as deacons and pastors, caused a wedge and labeled me “liberal.”

 

Somebody I once heard said that liberalism has lost its authority in our culture and fundamentalism (legalism) has lost its relevance, so that neither really has anything to offer anymore. IN many respects, I think that’s true.

 

Am I a liberal? 

 

Hey, I’ve been called one on many occasions.  Depending on whose dictionary is being used, I suppose I am.  When I look at people like Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and others who have bore that label, okay!  I’ll accept it. 

 

The problem, for me, it one of attitude.  The fundamentalist that I have know have almost always gone beyond the so-called “essentials” and labeled me and people like me as “liberal” because I am to the left of them on some issue.  They reflect a sort of legalism that would made a Pharisee proud.

 

Many modern day liberals can be just as dogmatic.  As such, the difference between modern day liberalism and the heresy called fundamentalism is like the differences between cow manure and horse manure. They both have one thing in common.

 

If I have to pick a crowd to hang out with, it will be the folks in my church.  They seem to be finding a way out of the legalism of either the liberals or fundamentalists.  Instead, they are allowing the Spirit of God to build them into a community of grace, love, peace, and acceptance. 

Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All
by: Scotty McLennan
publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade, published: 2010-12-07
ASIN: 0230103405
EAN: 9780230103405
sales rank: 924559
price: $3.98 (new), $2.99 (used)

For the millions of people who identify as liberal Christians. In McLennan’s bold call to reclaim ownership of Christianity, he advocates a sense of religion based not on doctrinal readings of scripture but on the humanity behind Christ’s teachings. He addresses such topics as intelligent design, abortion, same sex marriage, war. torture and much, much more. As he says in the Preface, “We liberal Christians know in our hearts that there is much more to life than seems to meet the rational eye of atheists; yet we find it hard to support supernatural claims about religion that fly in the face of scientific evidence.”

Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus
by: Robin R. Meyers
publisher: HarperOne, published: 2010-03-09
ASIN: 0061568228
EAN: 9780061568220
sales rank: 42992
price: $4.42 (new), $0.77 (used)

From One of America’s Leading Pastors, a Bold Call to Restore Christianity’s True Mission: Following Jesus

The marriage of bad theology and hypocritical behavior by the church has eroded our spiritual lives. Taking the best of biblical scholarship, Meyers recasts core Christian concepts in an effort to save Christianity from its obsession with personal salvation. Not a plea to try something brand new, but rather the recovery of something very old, Saving Jesus from the Church shows us what it means to follow Jesus’s teachings today.

Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity
by: Roger Wolsey
publisher: Xlibris, Corp., published: 2011-01-10
ASIN: 1456839403
EAN: 9781456839406
sales rank: 151251
price: $15.35 (new), $10.89 (used)

Christianity receives a lot of attention in the media, but the most frequently discussed version represents a type of Christianity that sometimes turns people away from the Church. Kissing Fish presents a postmodern systematic theology of progressive Christianity, a growing movement that reclaims the radical message of the Gospel. This informative, contemplative, and entertaining book will guide you through the beliefs that inspire us to love one another in the transformative way that Jesus proclaimed, including practices that will take your faith to a new level.

Kissing Fish is a scholarly yet thoroughly accessible introduction to progressive Christianity. While the intended target audience for this work would seem to be those who have either left the Christian faith or never adopted it at all; the work is filled with pearls of wisdom for all of us, whether associated with Christianity or not. Kissing Fish is a truly remarkable work, serving both as a reminder of the beauty and grace that form the central tenets of the faith, while offering a graceful yet prophetic rebuttal to its more exclusionary tendencies.

Kissing Fish is part theological text and part tell-all personal spiritual journey. Imagine a down-to-earth combination of the works of Marcus Borg, Anne Lamott, Jim Wallis, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Diana Butler-Bass, Brian McLaren, Walter Wink, Wes Howard-Brook, and Donald Miller. A profound romp that informs and inspires.

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