Doctrine Slot 1: LIBERALISM

Hello. The blog isn’t running again – it just seemed a good place to put these doctrine slots, recently aired at Christchurch Balham, for further scrutiny…

Please note – this one doesn’t have the clear structure of the others. That came about as a result of Perks’ very good feedback!

PART 1 – LIBERALISM

Some here will see liberalism as an inherently ‘good’ thing – ie it is good that we live in a ‘liberal democracy’ where people have rights. Some will see it as bad; ie in overly soft ‘liberal parenting’. Well I’m not up here to tell you one or the other is politically right – however, as liberalism is the key ideology of the modern West it’s worth knowing what the term means and how we as Christians might engage with it.

In fact, it’s harder to define than you might imagine, mainly because the original liberals of 200-odd years ago were so different from the liberals of the 20th Century. However, they each share a core desire by which they can be defined – to grant freedom for the individual – freedom from tyranny, freedom to pursue their own path in life.

The original liberals pursued freedom from the tyranny of harsh rulers and old ideas – their achievements include the US Constitution or French Revolution. Modern liberals have more seen freedom as being found in escape from poverty, or prejudice. Therefore, they are proud of the Liberal reforms that granted Old Age Pensions, or the Beveridge Report that led to the Welfare State.

If this all sounds great then that’s because much of it is. Freedom, tolerance, justice – meaning in this context a fair chance for all – well they are all things we would generally approve of.  Indeed, the Bible endorses much of it:

On Justice:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless PSALM 82:3

On Freedom:

For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers GALATIANS 5:13

On Tolerance:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus GALATIANS 3:28

It is perhaps unsurprising then that there have been notable Christians among Liberal thinkers – for example, philosopher John Locke – who wrote a book called ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’.

However, we must be aware that there is another side to this ideology that should make pause before lending our support.

Liberalism is very much the ideology of the Enlightenment – that was the 18th Century movement advancing science and debate across Europe. Its claim to ‘reason’ encouraged those who would challenge and ridicule Christianity in the name of supposed intellectual progress. Indeed, ‘reason’ is defined by many liberals as being the opposite of religious faith. One liberal famously called Locke’s idea of rights being God-given as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Others were as determined to escape the supposed ‘tyranny’ of God and the church just as much as they wanted to escape bad kings in Europe. The most influential critic of Christianity was perhaps John Stuart Mill. He believed that people would be free only once educated to make their own decisions, freeing them from the influence of the church. Like the Dawkins of the day, he effectively called God wicked, unholy and out-of-date.

But in fact, it shouldn’t unduly trouble us that clever people have seen Christianity as wrong, or even foolish. For the Bible says, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’. And, in case we need reminding, our faith is NOT unreasonable – we are not leaving reason behind us when we believe – hence the fact we have philosophers and scientists here at CCB… Even outside of God’s revealed and coherent Word, the Bible, it is NOT unreasonable to suppose that a vast, ordered creation out of nothing points to a purposeful creator, nor that the historical figure of Jesus Christ, his empty tomb and the witness and impact of his followers points us to a Saviour. Our reason rightly prompts us to consider those claims, like so many millions before us.

But ultimately, above our own reason, our evidence for following Christ comes in the assurance of God’s word and the change in us when we accept it. And if we can’t get our head around it all and win every argument… well in Isaiah 55:9 God reminds us that ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’. It’s therefore OK to accept that some things are hidden for now… we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit – something unknown by unbelievers – so can wait for full revelation beyond this life.

Besides this, we do not share the liberal ideal. Christians do NOT believe that people should be free to run their own lives. Nor that we, apart from God, know what is best for us. We don’t believe that is what freedom is. Galatians says that if we try to run our own lives we are in fact slaves. It says we are not meant to indulge ourselves but rather to ‘serve one another humbly in love’ as compatible parts of Christ’s body the church (4:8). Due to sin, the flesh and the Devil, our path, if left to our own devices, is one of destruction… not freedom.

And yes, tyranny is to be opposed, but God is not a tyrant. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love and Psalm 139 repeatedly tells us His rules are good. Therefore trying to run our own lives free of Him is a counter-productive and tragic rebellion – one that deprives us of living under God’s good rule.

The final thing that must be said regards tolerance – possibly the defining value of liberalism nowadays. Again, there is something good in it. We are on the side of tolerance where racism, sexism or homophobia leads to hatred or persecution. We don’t consider anyone beyond redemption, nor as beneath us in value. However, unlike liberals we cannot see tolerance as an absolute good. All views and lifestyles are not equally valid and commendable in the Bible. Some are godly and some are sinful. Returning to Galatians 5, those who serve idols or pursue sexual immorality – that is anything other than sex outside marriage – ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (v 21); not unless they accept that Jesus died for these things and then repent from them.

We say that Christianity is right. That other religions are wrong. That men and women, alike in value and dignity, nonetheless have different roles in a family or church. That marriage is for a man and a woman. These things are offensive to liberals. When all’s said and done, God’s word is not liberal.

Thus, if a church is liberal, it has probably turned from God’s word. And if liberals find no problem with us at all, then it’s probably either because we have also turned from God’s word, or because we’re keeping quiet about our views.

So, in conclusion – acknowledge the good in liberalism, but don’t embrace it wholesale. God’s authority and law stands above the false ideal of individual freedom. And, if you end up discussing this with one who considers themselves a liberal, aim to be equipped to show that freedom, real freedom, actually comes, not from self-sufficiency, but through relationship with God through faith in His son Jesus Christ.

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