Of all the various divisions present in the world of “Christendom,” few seem as pervasive as that between so-called “liberals” and “conservatives.” In general, those who are “liberal” are more comfortable with doctrines and practices not explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures either as part of the traditions of the faith or in deference to cultural or social values. Those who are “conservative” generally are less comfortable with doctrines and practices not explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures and seek explicit Scriptural authority for all things. Such “conservatives” are often maligned as “primitive” or “backward” and are often seen as troublemakers and “sticks in the mud” for insisting on the old paths.
And yet the Scriptures provide plenty of justification for maintaining a spiritually conservative mindset and to be skeptical of any human innovation or tradition.
As humans, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Jeremiah testified regarding the human condition:
O YHWH, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).
The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Jeremiah spoke in the same terms as the proverb that the way that seems right to a man is death, and man does well to not trust in himself but to lean on YHWH’s understanding (Proverbs 3:5-7, 14:12). Things have not gone well any and every time people have departed from the revealed ways of God toward their own understanding and ways; such was mankind’s original error (Genesis 3:1-8), and it has generally persisted throughout time (Romans 1:18-32). The people of God have not proven immune to this tendency; Israel was condemned for its departure from God’s ways (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23, Romans 10:21), and Paul warned about the tendency for Christians to do the same (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6).
After all, as the Hebrew author made clear, faith is essential if we would please God (Hebrews 11:6); such a faith is based on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). Faith, therefore, is grounded in what God has made known to us and our confidence and conviction regarding those matters. In Romans 14:23 Paul made evident the Christian’s need to have substantive reason for confidence in a practice in order to perform it, for “whatever is not of faith is sin.” Note well that Paul did not say “whatever is not of sin is faith”; our confidence is not based on whether a given idea or practice is not condemned but on its consistency with what God has made known in Christ and in the Scriptures.
For this reason those who maintain a spiritually conservative mindset take 2 Timothy 3:16-17 fully seriously: God has equipped the man of God for every good work through what has been revealed in Scripture. God has made sufficient and complete revelation of His will for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:1-11); we have no basis upon which to expect to gain any further information about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the faith in Him, than what has already been revealed (John 20:30-31, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We must serve God in Christ, but the standard of authority by which we do so is found only and uniquely in the Scriptures. There is no work that is truly good for which Biblical authority cannot be ascertained; we need never rely on human innovations or traditions so as to complete our service to the Lord Jesus.
Those who maintain a spiritually conservative mindset ought not fall into the trap of assuming that whatever has been believed in the past must be right. They must follow 2 Corinthians 13:5 and perform the test to see whether they are truly in the faith. They must constantly examine their own doctrines and beliefs, and also those of their churches to make sure that they conform to the truths presented in the Word of God. They must be humble enough to see their errors and to correct them for their own betterment, and then do well to attempt to show where others have departed from the Word of God gently, so that they may lead them to the truth, and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:20).
The Scriptures abundantly testify, therefore, regarding the value of always being skeptical toward the innovations and traditions of mankind. Humans often think they go in the right way which actually is not; the mind has been corrupted by sin, and we cannot trust in ourselves, but must trust in God and the revelation He made known to us in Christ. That revelation is comprehensible and understandable; our understanding may never be perfect, but we can continue to strive to serve the Lord Jesus in spirit and in truth (John 4:20-24).
Many hurl all sorts of invective and insult toward those who would maintain a spiritually conservative mindset. They are called “Pharisees,” although the Pharisees were condemned not for how well they practiced the Law but for how often they failed to do so (Matthew 5:17-21, 23:23). Is it not possible to seek to follow the ways of God in Christ in all things while yet maintaining a humble and loving spirit? They are called “legalists,” as if insisting on Biblical authority and doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus means one is obsessed with lawkeeping. Did not the Apostle Paul himself consider Christians as not “under law” but “under grace” when they “became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered” (Romans 6:15-17)? Should not the Christian be loyal to Christ serve Him to the best of his ability (1 Peter 1:2)? They are called “antis,” but should the Christian not be against that which is inconsistent with what God has made known and to avoid such things (2 Corinthians 10:5-6)?
No inherent need exists for the types of polarities we see in the religious discourse in Christendom. We can recognize we are under grace and still seek to do all things by the will of God. We can insist on Biblical authority without becoming so obsessed with Scripture so as to miss the God revealed in its pages. And we can reject the innovations and traditions of men as unauthorized by Scripture while humbly recognizing that God is the judge of all, not us, and all will stand before His judgment seat (Romans 14:12-14, James 4:12).
Those who maintain a spiritually conservative mindset have good reasons for so doing. May we maintain the spirit of the Bereans, trust in God in Christ, and do all things according to what He has revealed in the Scriptures!
Ethan R. Longhenry