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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 183

Liberal Christians

Liberal Christians.

I hate labels - they are always so misleading! But labels are a fact of life, so we have to deal with them. I suppose I must admit to one label (which is only one among many others!): that of ‘liberal.’ Perhaps I should attempt to give some justification of why I think of myself as a liberal Christian.

It is of course very difficult to speak for ‘liberals’ generally, because the group is so broad - I guess that there are about as many varieties of liberal as there are liberals! One of the basic objections to ‘liberals’ is said to be that their gospel, such as it is, is wishy washy. It is missing the cross, critics say. It has no teeth because it shies away from any idea of judgement and retribution. I am sure that there are some liberals - maybe many - who are rightly caught by this criticism. But there are also many liberals who have a valid response to such criticisms. Are these criticisms justified? Lets see what they are.

The first criticism is perhaps that liberalism is wishy washy because it has an inadequate grasp of sin  and punishment. But is this so?  I certainly believe that in the Genesis story, Adam stands for everyman - that we are all marred by a basic bias towards evil and egotism. As I see it, human beings are exactly as described in Romans seven - they have a basic malaise and it is rightly called sin. A liberal does not deny the fact of sin. The state of the world today surely provides ample evidence! That malaise cannot be cured or removed by humans by themselves. It needed a loving God to step in as he did when Jesus was born a helpless human baby. The work of Jesus was to teach, heal and to go to the uttermost of love when he died on the cross. His resurrection is the basic fact of Christianity.

So I believe that liberals can withstand criticism about their having an inadequate attitude towards sin and how it is to be dealt with. But does this extend to the concept of judgement also?

I believe that there will be an accounting for each person . Whether you call that a judgement or an accounting or something else does not, I think, matter.  Sooner or later we shall all come face to face with our Maker and we shall realise the depth of our sin and the incredible love and grace of our loving Father in forgiving us.

“Ah!  But what about the person who doesn’t believe in Christ?  Will he be let off and included in this liberal heaven you believe in?”

I have no idea what will happen to the sinner who has turned away from Christ as his saviour. All I know is that our God is a loving accepting God who wants the whole world saved and is reluctant to see even one sheep left outside the fold. That leads me to think that this wonderful God, revealed to us by Christ, will somehow in his justice and mercy find a way forward by which even the worst reprobate may eventually be fit to enter into the rest promised by God.

What then is the liberal gospel?  It has the same message as in the gospels and the rest of the  New Testament - but it sometimes attempts to distinguish between what the New Testament says and what may be identified as comment or bias in the text. In other words it uses the best scholarship and understanding - with the help of the Holy Spirit - to assess some of the phrases, views and concepts found in the New Testament. I am not, of course, advocating removal of such passages - only an informed and candid re-evaluation of the record. Obviously a later generation to us may re-evaluate our evaluation in the light of new knowledge. Who knows whether there will in the future be another cave found with more clay pots containing manuscripts?  Or another Nag Hammadi ?

The act of tampering with the understanding of the New Testament (other than the plain unvarnished meaning of the words on the page) is, of course sheer heresy to some Christians who lean towards more orthodox, evangelical and fundamentalist attitudes. I accept that believing that such ‘interpretation’ of the biblical text is not only valid but necessary places me beyond redemption in the eyes of such fundamentalist Christians. In their eyes I have tampered with the ‘authority’ of the bible. They appear to believe that only slavish adherence to the strictly literal meaning of the text is permissible for ‘true’ Christians.  Yet isn’t it obvious that the essential thing we all have to do, when we read the bible, is to make sense of what we read?

If being liberal means being prepared to emphasise what we believe most deeply in when it comes to the bible, then I am a dyed in the wool liberal! But I also believe that every other bible reader (of whatever variety) actually does exactly the same thing - distinguishes between what he or she thinks is important in the text and what is less important, or is even of no importance. Let me explain.

The process of reading the bible can be for many different purposes. It can be for information about what the bible says. It can be for reading in some fellowship meeting or worship. It can be devotional - where we listen with that inward ear to hear what God is saying to us about what we are reading. It can be to teach, learn, recite or memorise. These are just some uses of the bible. Above all, perhaps, it is used by us all to learn more of the character, nature and purpose of our God who is revealed in his book - the bible.

The bible is therefore a sacred book - and is often referred to by Christians as “His Word.” The bible does indeed contain all we need to know about God for our salvation and I happen to believe that maybe it contains all we actually can know, as human beings, about the essential nature of God.    

What, however, the bible is not is a record that has to be believed slavishly and in a literal manner. We must be free to interpret what we read.

The fact that Christians have disagreed with each other and separated from one another over how they interpret the bible all through the centuries since the life of Jesus on earth is indicative - but of what?  A failure to agree the meaning of the words?  No!  Such disagreements are as inevitable as day following night, being the product of different education, temperament, world view and a host of other factors. Such disagreements are indicative of a failure of Christians to place the importance of being in full fellowship with each other ahead of their desire to see their particular interpretation of the bible accepted by other Christians. In other words such divisions are evidence of a failure to attend to the heart of Christianity.

So basic to human nature is this desire to be true to ‘our’ interpretation of the bible that the Roman Catholic Church took on the role of giving the official explicit explanation of every disputed phrase in the bible to minimize disputes and so that there would not be conflict and consequent separation of Christians.  Roman Catholics must defer to the official understanding of their Church in respect of what the bible says. Although this has undoubtedly prevented many splits and schisms, it has also landed that church with a rigidity that is now plainly manifest in the discussion about women in ministry and about homosexuality, to name but two current topics of discussion. 

But Protestants do not have to defer to a centralised authority - they are free to disagree and, if they so decide, to then split and separate. And, sadly, that is exactly what they have done through the centuries. So that there are now many hundreds of different churches - each with its own doctrine and dogma and its interpretation of the bible. Some require baptism of adults, others allow infant baptism; some churches have a Eucharist - others as Lord’s Supper; some churches embrace homosexuals, others exclude them.  The list goes on and on and on.

I suppose it is all down to human nature. It is the old human ego getting in the way of the new Kingdom of God that Christ came to inaugurate. In that Kingdom, dogma and doctrine do not rank as more important than holding onto love for each other. In that Kingdom the fellowship between Christians is seen as hugely important, and disagreements about such matters as doctrine and dogma as of lesser moment.

Dogma (defined as religious doctrine or system of  doctrines proclaimed by religious authorities as true) and doctrine (defined as a creed or body of teachings of a religious nature) are not the whole of Christian belief. Rather, trust in Christ is what distinguishes a Christian from all others. Of course our doctrinal beliefs are very important - but they should not eclipse the love that should naturally flow between Christians.

If love is not at the very heart of all our life - both in our attitude to the world and between us all as Christians - then we have gone sadly wrong. And that is true, however ‘right’ we are about our doctrines.

So how are Christians meant to deal with other Christians with whom they disagree on what they consider important issues? Some talk of not being yoked to heretics. Are they to ignore the advice in Second Corinthians chapter six where Paul says that Christians should not be unequalled yoked to unbelievers? Of course not!  Paul is not talking about differences between Christians who trust in the same Christ. When two people trust in the salvation of Jesus Christ they are linked in  the deepest possible way. No difference of doctrine or dogma should be allowed to divide them.

I have tried to outline what I consider even more important than doctrine or dogma.  The only attitude that I believe Christ holds out for me to follow is one of unqualified openness and welcome to those Christians (quite apart from the rest of the world) with whom I disagree profoundly.  However much I think they are on the wrong lines I am directed to love them wholeheartedly. I am directed not to let doctrinal differences get in the way of an open accepting love for them. And that must continue whatever their response to me. The sort of love that I must have is the same as the love of Christ for all who came to him. He welcomed the disputant, healed the sick, challenged the slack. He never compromised his beliefs, but he showed untiring love for all. That is the sort of love I want. I have not got it yet. I still get ruffled at times. I still respond quite wrongly to some people sometimes. But I think that I am progressing. Maybe in another few decades I will improve!  Maybe I won’t have that long to wait until I too am welcomed by that same love and take my place alongside the millions of others who are only looking at the King in wonder, love and praise.

Tony Cross
September 2009


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