In referring to conservatism, I am NOT involving politics or personality.
In my role as senior pastor of Bayside Church, I have stated on many occasions that I remain publicly non-partisan regarding Australian politics. I do not want to compromise the gospel by mixing it with political commentary.
Neither am I referring to a person’s personality. Some people are conservative by nature. In some ways, I find myself somewhat conservative. I am not criticising people in this blog who are naturally moderate and careful.
Conservatism is a “commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation.” Conservatism can plague every part of society, is rife in the church, and frequently hinders the gospel. Conservatism, an opposition to change or innovation, is well defined by its synonyms – reaction, dogmatism, traditionalism, and resistance.
Notice that the word is traditionalism, not tradition. Paul wrote, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught.” Christians should tightly grip the unchangeable aspects of the faith that give us deep roots. On the other hand, traditionalism is “an attitude that resists change, adaptation, or alteration. It is being suspicious of the new, the up-to-date, and the different. It is substituting a legalistic system for the freedom and freshness of the Spirit.”
American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan asserted, “tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
According to Jesus, traditionalism (conservatism) is like old garments and wineskins. Old wineskins are brittle and unbending and cannot contain the fermentation process of new wine. They burst, and both the wine and the wineskin are ruined. Have you ever met a brittle, unbending Christian? They are reactionary, resistant, dogmatic, and almost impossible to have a decent conversation with unless you completely agree with them.
The rallying call of conservatism is “but we’ve always done it this way!” Conservatism attempts to conserve the status quo, to resist change even when change is essential. There is a temptation to believe that because this is the way it’s been during our lifetime, then that’s the way it should remain.
Matthew identifies a religious conservative, a scribe, in his gospel. Scribes were religious experts who appealed to precedent – this is how we’ve always done it. The scribes are mentioned frequently in the gospels as opposed to Jesus and His teaching. They are also associated with the chief priests and elders in causing Jesus’ death. Matthew includes the scribes in Jesus’ denunciations of the Jewish leaders’ hypocrisy.
When the scribe told Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go,” Jesus challenged him with a statement, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus essentially asked this conservative man, “are you ready for an unpredictable life? Are you prepared for change?” We are not told what the Scribe decided. How would you answer those questions?
We’re Against It!
Conservatism is universally defined by that to which it is opposed. If you come across a church or a Christian organisation whose predominant message is what they stand against, run away as fast as possible. Wherever conservatism is present, you will also find legalism, manipulation, bullying, discrimination, abuse, lies, and coverups. Preserve the status quo and protect the organisation at all costs. I know this from firsthand experience in a couple of churches I have been involved with in the past. I observe this sad reality regularly when abuse in churches and Christian organisations is exposed.
Over the centuries, Christian conservatism has rallied against women’s rights, especially their right to vote. It’s been against mixed-race marriage, desegregation of schools, divorce and remarriage, and these days anything to do with LGBTIQ+ people.
The Southern Baptist Convention
Christian conservatism was opposed to abolishing slavery. Consider America’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which began in 1845 because the southerners were anti-abolition. And they used scripture to defend their claims.
The SBC is presently under investigation for the pervasive sexual abuse of children committed by hundreds of SBC leaders and volunteers. The SBC is a patriarchal church that is dominated by white members, who are usually profoundly socially conservative. The report details the decades of coverup of abuse to protect the church. But the lid has been lifted, and hopefully, the victims of this abuse will finally be able to begin the healing journey.
A Major Turn-off
Conservatism was the number one thing that turned me off from Christianity as a young man. What I observed in conservative Christians struck me as dull and irrelevant. What changed my mind was meeting some people in my travels around Australia who exuded genuine spiritual warmth and a vibrant church that was very different to the stuffy, old-fashioned religion I had experienced previously.
How many people in the world today are like I was? Many Aussies look in all the wrong places for spiritual fulfilment because they don’t see Christianity as an option. It is dull, joyless, outdated, powerless, lifeless and irrelevant to them. How totally unChristlike!
Why, Oh Why?
Why has conservatism become the domain of the Christian narrative when our founder, Jesus, was incredibly progressive in his time, associating with people with whom the religious would not mingle? He regularly smashed the status quo and was eventually crucified because of it.
He taught about a “good” Samaritan (shock horror), ate food with tax collectors and sinners, and was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus taught with authority and regularly changed and challenged long-held beliefs and practices.
If we are to be like our saviour, maybe we should have the courage to embrace change and create change rather than conserve the status quo because that’s all we’ve known. As Jesus’ followers, let’s do all we can to avoid the Curse of Christian Conservatism.