Liberal and fundamentalist Christians fear one another. But it is different with conservatives. Conservatives fear that liberal ideas will capture other conservatives – or perhaps persuade themselves. They say so all the time. Liberals hold no commensurate fear. We just want flowers and cake for all the weddings.
It’s also common for conservative Christians to believe those outside their group are “unsaved.” Each group may consider the other misguided, but the stakes are different. For this reason conversations can turn into failed attempts at evangelism.
So what really happens when we talk to one another? And why can it be so hard?
The other day I had a long conversation with a pastor who described himself as conservative. He’d graduated from a conservative seminary, he knew I taught New Testament in a mainline seminary, and he wanted to talk. Although we disagreed, and some of my opinions did take him by surprise, the pastor exhibited grace and humility throughout the conversation. The last thing I’d want to do would be to misrepresent him or the conversation. The quotations below reflect my recollection of the conversation. I’m sure they’re not word-for-word accurate, and I’m sure he would interpret the conversation differently.
I teach in a theological seminary, so my new friend asked about my seminary’s denominational affiliation. “United Church of Christ,” I said. I explained that the UCC has only a few congregations in his part of the country.
“Where would you put your denomination on a liberal-conservative spectrum?” I assured him that the UCC likes to think of itself as the most liberal Protestant denomination in the United States.
“I might be the most liberal Christian you’ve ever met,” I added.
He didn’t disagree.
He wanted to know about our students. I pointed out that for a small seminary Lancaster Seminary has a stunning array of denominational diversity. A class of 15 students might include six or more denominations, ranging from Pentecostals to Unitarians. “When I walk into the classroom, I make no assumptions about what our students know or believe.”
Because he’d attended a very conservative denominational seminary, he asked how I handled all that diversity. My primary goal is to provide students with the resources and skills to come to their own understandings. I’m not trying to convert them to my own point of view or to indoctrinate them, but to help them take the resources of biblical studies and make them their own.
My new friend wondered how that would go for a conservative student, say, a Baptist who had already been pastoring for several years. A terrific, perceptive question. My answer had several layers, and I hope it was accurate.
First, even students from conservative churches know what they’re getting into when they come to Lancaster. We celebrate our diversity. The message comes through on the web site and throughout the admissions and orientation process. So most of our students are already open to what we have to offer. Otherwise, they’d go somewhere else.
Second, I hope all my students get a little bit uncomfortable. There’s no way to encounter the Bible and its complexity and remain in a small box. In fact, I like to think I can be toughest on students who basically agree with me – but without having considered alternative points of view in a serious way. I gave an example from my teaching.
(I’m pretty sure I was flattering myself here. Some conservative students get a pretty firm pushback from me if they try to avoid examination of their assumptions. I imagine they could tell you all about it.)
One moment in the conversation disappointed me. The pastor mused what it might look like, should someone translate the Bible into “Southern.” Did he not know that task had pretty much been done – and by a member of his own denomination, no less?
My new friend and I are both graduates of Southern Baptist seminaries. Clarence Jordan, a hero among evangelicals, founded a racially integrated farming community in Georgia – in 1942, when it was dangerous. Jordan was also a Southern Baptist and a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary. His witness for racial justice sparked national attention and won him and his colleagues sharp opposition. We’re talking shots fired into his house at night and bombings of the community’s produce stand. Let’s put it this way: Martin Luther King, Jr., asked Jordan’s advice about life insurance. Not only did Jordan’s project eventually lead to Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing, Jordan translated most of the New Testament into Southern. The Cotton Patch Gospel musical is an adaptation of that translation.
I was just a small child when Jordan died, but my pastor friend is quite a bit older. But his seminary education, gained after Southern Baptists turned to fundamentalism, never exposed him to Baptists like Clarence Jordan. That makes me sad.
The pastor asked about LGBT issues. He took the standard “compassionate conservative” line, that we’re all sinners, but we have to speak out against sin. When I shared that I don’t regard same-sex love as sinful, that raised the question of Scripture. He acknowledged that the Bible doesn’t say much on the topic, but what it does say is negative. How could someone believe the Bible and defend “homosexuality” (his word, not mine)?
This opened the conversation in new directions. I pointed out several standard items, things I’m sure he’s heard, but I also tried to guide our talk in fresh ways. So I pointed out that the Bible is far less obvious than people assume, that we may even have passages that celebrate same-sex love or at least acknowledge it. That’s the familiar territory.
But I also pressed my colleague to ask whether he’s using the Bible consistently. We don’t have biblical rules for government, finance, economics, or labor – all because our world is vastly different from the biblical world. So why, I asked, do we not acknowledge how the world has changed with respect to gender, family, sexuality, and marriage?
Then I turned to my major concern. When we use the Bible to fight out our disagreements, do we not forfeit the ability to hear it speak in other ways? For example, the Bible has lots to say about values like grace – but I have never heard a sermon apply grace to the topic of marriage or sexuality. God shows grace toward us by loving us regardless of how messed up we are, and we are called to treat one another in the same way.
In that light, does not grace provide a higher moral standard than any rules we might make up about who may sleep with whom, and when? Using the Bible as a weapon in our disputes, we become small-minded. He found this line of thinking interesting. Then we were interrupted by other things.
I share this story because I believe it’s valuable for liberal or progressive Christians to engage our more conservative neighbors in dialogue. But it’s also necessary to know how vast is the separation between our communities. That’s no accident. By design, fundamentalist Christians avoid engagement with ideas that trouble them. And sometimes we progressives do the same. I will never ask my students to read material that demeans women or sexual minorities because our women and LGBT students get enough of that outside the classroom. But it’s not because I’m scared of the ideas. And that’s a big difference.
I will emphasize again: I am grateful for this pastor, who brought Christ's presence into our midst and wants to give love above all else. He had the courage to open such a challenging conversation.