Why is every church divided into wings which, for convenience, we will call conservative and liberal? (This is a broad overview, so let’s not quibble about terms.)
Years ago Oprah Winfrey asked her pastoral adviser about same-sex marriage. His answer perfectly illustrates the reason why all denominations are thus divided. The (obviously liberal) reverend said “The church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.” The fact that many of them do unspeakable, injurious things to those they “love” is, of course, unmentionable in polite society, as self-defined. So is the fact that they can live with whoever they want without redefining the foundation of society for everybody else.
On one hand you have conservatives who follow “letters from 2,000 years ago” and on the other you have libeals who please “flesh and blood people.”
Well. Does God really exist? If He does, does He communicate with us, or is He just irrelevant? If He does, does He only do it today and directly by these “flesh-and-blood people” who are in front of us, or has He done so for thousands of years, in definite words that were of course written down so there would be no mistaking them? Does He tell us what He wants of us, which will bring us what is good and make us happier? Or does He toss us out into life without guidance, to live or die by the best guesses of “flesh and blood people”? In short, if God exists, has He told us anything about Himself, and about how we are to conduct our lives? Has He given us guidance and directions, or not?
Apparently not. It is not what God wants, but what these “flesh-and-blood people” want, that matters. Pleasing THEM must be the first and greatest commandment. God’s will, and pleasing and obeying God, must come in a distant second. That is the message of religious liberalism. Incidentally, they get to decide which “flesh and blood people” matter.
But then there’s Jesus. Was Jesus a religious liberal? When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God…. This is the first and GREATEST commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So, the Rev. Rob Bell sees it as a contest between “letters from 2,000 years ago” and “flesh and blood people.” And it is. Do we please God by following the first and GREATEST commandment, or do we please “flesh and blood people” by doing what seems loving to them? Should we, for instance, please God by saving all possible babies, once they are conceived, or please the tearful woman sitting in our office? Should we be like the Lutheran hospital chaplain who sent me a letter decades ago suggesting that Lutheran girls who’d gotten themselves in trouble could get a nice safe Lutheran abortion in a nice safe Lutheran hospital? That, after all, was the “loving” thing to do for those “flesh-and-blood people,” for the girl, for the parents perhaps, for the boyfriend–the unborn baby is outvoted, or at least outweighed.
The only difficulty with liberalism is that these “letters from 2,000 years ago” are the word of God. Obviously Bell doesn’t believe that, and if he had, Oprah would have asked someone else. Liberals think that the Bible came from man, and conservatives think it came from God through men. That’s why liberals dismiss it so easily, so readily, and so often. In fact they pick and choose only whatever quotes they can find to support the moralizing politicized lectures that they call sermons. “I like our pastor,” a co-worker said to me, “but once in a while I wish he would tell me something about my soul.” He was a real people-pleaser, though.
If these “letters from 2,000 years ago” are the word of God, there is a clear contest of wills: Do we love, please, serve and obey God, or “flesh and blood people”? For the liberal there is no question. In fact, by pleasing “flesh and blood people” he thinks he IS serving God. This incidentally shows why liberal churches are usually larger; they’re people-pleasers. Pleasers of people who don’t want to hear that their desires and opinions may be sinful.
The religious conservative, by contrast, believes that the best way to love and help your neighbor is by serving God. God, after all, loves you more than you love yourself. God loves you more than you do, or can do, or know how to do. He loves your neighbor the same way, whether that pleases your neighbor or not. Kind of like a heavenly father would.
Jesus thinks oppositely from liberals. To obey God comes first. To love, serve, please, and help your neighbor comes in as a distinct second. There will be conflicts of will. The conservative Christian obeys the word of God; the liberal pleases men. Especially LGBTQs and, increasingly, those with a sexual attraction to children.
“On these two commandments,” Jesus declared, “hang all the law and the prophets.” “Hang” is the operative word. Things hang from a peg. The two great commandments are like a peg with two ends, and all the rest of Scripture hangs on them. When you pull the peg out so as to make the lesser stick out instead of the greater, then “the law and the prophets”–that is, the whole Christian religion–goes crashing to the ground, and you will then proceed to make something else. It will look like Christianity. It will be a man-pleasing religion, a lot more popular, better funded, and a lot more powerful.
But it will not be the religion Jesus founded. Instead of looking to flesh-and-blood people for guidance, Jesus rooted it deeply in the conviction that the Bible is the word of God. He was even willing to base the most important of all teachings, the entire doctrine of resurrection, on a single word from the Old Testament. That word was in the place where God said this about three dead men: “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Not “I WAS the God,” but “I AM the God.” In other words, they were deceased, but not dead–they were alive in heaven. No teaching is of more importance to you, and yet Jesus hung it on the difference between the present and past tenses of one little word.
On the day that we die and want a blessed resurrection, “flesh and blood people” won’t be able to help us. The word of God will. Don’t mess with it.
Roger Kovaciny is a retired missionary to Ukraine, now living in DeForest, WI.