Sunday, October 31, 2010

Liberal Christian Worldview

There are a multitude of ways to understand Christianity. Each denomination has a distinctive sense of their focus, and every congregation has a different way of presenting their understanding of the basic truths of Christianity. In the United States, there are two foundational ways to understand the truth of Christianity, which, for convenience’s sake we will call “Conservative” and “Liberal”. The liberal understanding of Christianity has recently been called “the new Christian paradigm”, but it is at least one hundred years old, has its roots in the enlightenment of the eighteenth century and has it’s own set of traditions and theologies. Some of the basic features of the “new paradigm” are described below.

Denying supernaturalism
The liberal point of view is not that miracles don’t happen, but that miracles occur in the context of everyday, “historic” reality. This means that God is working, but he is working within the confines of material existence. For all practical purposes, the spirit world does not intersect with material reality, except in subtle, mostly unseen ways. They deny the reality of overt supernatural acts such as a six-day creation, fire from heaven and the physical resurrection of bodies.

Jesus as moral example
Jesus is seen in the liberal worldview primarily as a teacher and example of the exemplary way of life. God desires us to live a life of unconditional love and care for others, and Jesus displayed that love in the midst of a culture of rules and separation. Jesus died in a conflict with that culture, and his resurrection—which was spiritual, not physical—was God’s way of showing the superiority of that moral way of life.

Relationships as core responsibility
The central moral concept of liberal philosophy is the nurturance of relationships. To build and establish relationships, we need to display unconditional love, which is seen as full and joyful acceptance of all—no matter how one subverts the traditional moral paradigm— and assistance to those who are weak or marginal in society. Salvation is seen as receiving God’s grace to live according to this way of love, as Jesus himself displayed. To be saved is to live out the principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sin as systemic
The liberal worldview acknowledges the Bible’s point of view of sin as personal acts in rebellion to God. However, the sins that need to be taken most seriously are those acts that support a system of oppression, in opposition to an ethic of unconditional love. They see the system of the world to be supporting a minority—whites, males, wealthy—while the rest are automatically placed in a secondary role, forced to submit to the oppressive paradigm. Sin, then, is supporting that system of oppression and acting in apathy to those in need. The serious sins are not those of adultery, homosexuality and rebellion, but oppression and its extreme form, violence. Submission to the dominant authority system is a sin, though less serious, for it supports the systemic sin.

Response to sin
Given this point of view of sin, personal sin is usually responded to with acceptance. If a sin is seen as just being in opposition to the primary paradigm, then there is joyful, full acceptance without a call to change. If one sins in a way in opposition to unconditional love, they are encouraged to repent and change, while still being accepted. However, every worldview has lines of acceptance and non-acceptance. Those who are not accepted are those who refuse to refrain from tearing the nurturing community down. Thus, prison is reserved for rapists and child molesters. And the liberal church has no place for those who reject the needy because they are “sinners” or “irresponsible.”

Love as Basis of Truth
The truth of the liberal paradigm is not strictly seen in the Bible as a whole. They recognize that the Old Testament does not teach this paradigm, and neither does Paul. However, they understand Jesus as teaching the basis of this paradigm, and the church is growing over time to accept this paradigm. The Bible is not the basis of morality, but unconditional love, which they see is the love of God. The Bible is not full of historic truth, but of deep metaphors that helps one understand God’s love. The Bible is simply a bridge leading from an older moral paradigm toward a new, perfect paradigm of God’s love. The locus of truth is God’s community of love, led by God’s spirit of love. This community may at times be in denial of the old paradigms, such as it was in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, but the main focus is the display of God’s spirit, not any traditional standards of morality.

Continuity and Discontinuity with Society
They see themselves as being a part of society through tolerance. They hold as a central moral statement the acceptance and care for all people, no matter what religion they believe in or what their personal habits are. However, they also see themselves as subversive and as challenging the dominant authority system. Thus, in practical actions, the liberal church accepts homosexuals who act with unconditional love, for while they might act in opposition to standard morality, they have received God’s grace of love. They often accept abortion as a possible moral decision because a relationship has not been developed with a fetus, thus there is no moral obligation. And they typically support progressive politics which assists those who are marginalized by society.

An Anabaptist Critique of Liberal Christianity
Liberal Christianity focuses much on what has been missing from traditional Christianity. Like Jesus and Paul, they focus on the needs of the marginalized of society, and they accept those who are traditionally seen as “sinners” (Luke 15; Matthew 8:11-12) They also recognize that Jesus spoke of himself as a moral example, which is something much of the church has ignored in their focus on Jesus as the savior from sins and the Son of God (John 13:13-17).

However, there is much that the liberal approach to Christianity has missed in their understanding of Jesus. Liberal Christians deny the very worldview that Jesus held. Jesus did not just practice God’s love, but he practiced God’s love with God’s supernatural power, seeing the spirit world as a real force in everyday life (Mark 1:16-2:10). The NT as a whole recognizes Jesus’ resurrection as physical and historic—and, in fact, were it not, then it could not be called “resurrection” at all, but simply “death” for a spiritual life after death is what all ancient cultures understood as what death was. Resurrection meant the renewal of the body—anything else would have been called something else.

Liberal Christians also neglect that Jesus held to God’s standard of righteousness, which was not restricted to sins against unconditional love. Jesus spoke against sexual immorality, idolatry and those who did not believe in him—sins of which could be participated in while still being nurturing (Mark 7:20-23; John 58). Jesus said that the context of righteousness is love of others, but that was not the whole of God’s standard—we first and foremost must love God for who he is and obey him even though it may not seem like the kind of “love” we understand. Jesus welcomed sinners of his time, but he called them to repent, not just to be welcomed (Luke 5:32)
God’s love is unconditional, but the unconditional form of his love is limited, as well. God loves everyone by providing even those who hate him with their basic needs. However, his true blessings—his kingdom, his Spirit, his salvation from suffering—is not given to everyone, but only those who prove to be faithful to him, not only in love, but in the purity of heart and action that can only come through Jesus (Matthew 7:6, 17-27; John 15:5). Thus, followers of Jesus sympathize for those who do not believe in Jesus, but we cannot fully accept them as part of the community of God, even as others who sin against God without repentance (Romans 10:9; Matthew 18:15-17). Jesus affirms love, but also recognizes that his gospel causes deep relational ties to be severed dramatically (Luke 14:26-27)

Ultimately, liberal Christians, while drawing their ideals from the gospel, only accept half of it. They do not believe what Jesus believed or hold to what Jesus stood for. In the end, liberal Christianity is not a representation of Jesus, but just another form of the Enlightenment, denying both the Scriptures and the power of God. They want the morality of Jesus, but neglect the righteousness Jesus actually espoused.

Men will be... holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. Avoid such men as these. II Timothy 3:5

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

Good to see someone differentiating between liberal Christianity and anabaptist Christianity.