empowered by the spirit for mission

What can we learn from Liberal Christianity?

This week I am started a series of posts on what we can learn from several different Christian traditions. My own tradition is evangelical charismatic but as well as looking at those two roots I want to look at a few others. I shall start with liberal Christianity.

Isn’t Liberal Christianity dangerous?

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922If like me you are from an evangelical background you might well be wary of liberal theology – after all liberals don’t really believe the Bible do they?

Yes, liberal Christians has been known for their doubts – doubts about the historical nature of the Bible particularly the supernatural elements of the Bible such as miracles, probably most importantly the miracle of Jesus resurrection. As such many evangelical Christians would consider them the enemy of true Christianity.

Question too many things and you can get accused of being a liberal backslider” as portrayed in Martyn Joseph’s song. The idea is that if we start ask too many questions or doubt the literal interpretation of the Bible then we are on a slippery slope as the cartoon Descent of the Modernists illustrates. Of course I would tend to agree that they do go too far and depart from my understanding of Christianity.

In the end liberal Christianity can end up being nothing more than morality and miss the emphasis on the gospel entirely. It can end up preaching a watered down version of the law and miss the gospel of grace. However, doubts and questions are very important. Our faith needs to be open to scrutiny and surely testing what is right can only strengthen our faith.

What does Liberal Christianity say about interpreting scripture?

Liberals have traditionally recognised that the Bible is a set of documents written within a particular historical setting. They are not just a set of propositions to be followed. Anyone who has done any serious Bible study knows, we need to take care in interpreting the Bible. We need to understand the type of writing and the historical context in which it is written.

If Paul told a church to do something it doesn’t necessarily follow that God is telling us to do that today. The words need to be interpreted before they can be applied in our contemporary setting. Just taking the Bible as rules to follow can lead problems with many issues such as gender roles and head covering as well as understanding prophetic books like Revelation

Liberals are associated taking passages more figuratively understanding that poetry, hyperbole and imagery were never intended to be taken literally. Of cause, the conclusions of liberal scholars sometimes need to be rejected especially when they doubt something fundamental such as the claims of Jesus or deny the resurrection.

I think that it is good that liberals honestly evaluate the scriptures but when their conclusions undermine our faith then we need to be wary. But taken with discernment I believe there are some things we can learned from them. Personally I prefer to read evangelical scholars but I think there are some liberal influences in evangelical writing that can valuable.

For example, evangelical evolutionist Peter Enns has argued recently Genesis (at least the early parts) is probably best seen in mythological terms as many liberal scholars have argued for a long time. But it is not that he is denying the truth of the Bible. Myth is often misunderstood as being untrue rather than as being a story with a spiritual meaning written as history.

I have also enjoyed reading Greg Boyd’s positive portrayal of doubt in Benefit of the Doubt. Boyd challenges the idea of faith being certainty and sees it as being willing to commit even if we are not sure. He clearly and brilliantly places these ideas, which might once have only been associated with liberal Christianity, firmly in a sound evangelical context.

What does Liberal Christianity say about righteousness and justice?

In The Normal Christian Birth David Pawson advocates “a synthesis of the ‘liberal’ emphasis on repentance, the ‘evangelical’ on faith, the ‘sacramental’ on baptism and the ‘pentecostal’ on the Spirit.”

Liberals have not just emphasised rationality and interpretation but also practical application.“Liberal thought has concentrated on repentance,” David Pawson writes, “especially in terms of radically changed attitudes and lifestyles, though in recent years the emphasis has been on social injustice rather than personal immorality.”

Liberals have emphasised the Bible’s teachings about our behaviour – the moral teachings of Jesus such as in the Sermon on the Mount and the call of the Old Testament prophets to care for the marginalised such as widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. We should applaud their integrity when we see their efforts to put this into practice and follow their example.

It is important to distinguish liberal theology from liberal politics here. The left/right distinction in politics hasn’t always been helpful. However it is worthy of note that the liberal branch of Christianity has been associated with important and stands for social justice that have sometimes brought them into conflict with right wing politics.

Of course if social action is your only focus that you have missed an important element of the gospel and ceased to lead people to Christ. But there is no reason why both cannot be emphasised are part of our mission as for instance we see with William Booth and the Salvation Army who took preaching the gospel and serving the poor equally seriously.

So what can we learn from Liberal Christianity?

From our liberal friends we can learn not to just take the plain literal meaning of a text without thoughtful interpretation. We can learn to take into account the nature of the writing and the context in which it was written and how the original readers would have understood it. Of cause we also need to take the Bible seriously and use ‘interpretation’ to avoid what we know it says.

And we can learn the importance of social justice. Though liberal Christianity should not be confused with liberal politics there may be a lot of overlap. Speaking out for and serving the marginalised and poor can be seen as important way to express Jesus love to the world. But again we should not do this at the expense of telling people the good news about Jesus.

I hope you can agree that we would do well to remember these positive elements even if we forget that their liberal origins, be grateful for them and seek to put these into practice in our own lives rather than just criticise this tradition for its short comings.

Further reading

Liberal Christianity – Please check out this Wikipedia entry if you’re unsure about what I’m saying or if you just want to know more about Liberal Christianity.

April 29, 2014 at 8:35 pm Comment (1)

What is the Purpose of Life?

In the late 90s Paul Baloche was leading worship and he sang out “Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see you”. He had been reading Ephesians 1:18 and been praying this prayer. He wasn’t sure how the rest of the song came out but fortunately it was recorded and from that he wrote the worship classic “Open The Eyes of My Heart”.

This week I have been reading Ephesians and it occurred to me that this could be seen as a prayer for God to open our eyes to the ultimate purpose of life. It is about seeing Jesus and might sound like praying to see some sort of vision of Jesus. But really it is about experiencing the resurrected Jesus in your life and realising that your true identity can only be found in him.

I have recently been listening to the rerun of the radio series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on Radio 4 Extra. In this a giant computer is built to calculate the answer to the ultimate question, of life the universe and everything. It eventually arrives at the answer of 42. You see the problem was no one knew what the question was so another computer had to be built to figure that out.

When I was a teenager I dedicated my life to finding out what life was all about. I wanted to really know what our ultimate purpose was. I obsessed over this for months. This quest eventually led me to Jesus and the Bible. Of all the passages in the Bible the first part of Ephesians one is probably one of the clearest about what our purpose really is. What is the meaning of life?

The purpose of life is found in Jesus

The Body of Christ, image from IFBC

The Body of Christ, image from IFBC

God’s purpose is to bring everything under the authority of Christ. It is nothing less than bringing the universe together in his kingdom with Christ as the supreme ruling entity and we are to be part of that purpose. We are the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the temple of Christ and we have the mind of Christ – not as individuals but corporately.

The purpose of life is to be joined to Christ functioning as part of his body on earth ushering in his kingdom rule. Paul’s prayer for the spiritual eyes to be opened is that somehow we will grasp that we are part of something bigger – something that will last for eternity.

Our purpose is so much more than his traditionally preached as the gospel. It is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Coming into God’s Kingdom and so into the body of Christ is not about losing our individuality under an oppressive regime or following rules and regulations. It is about relating together, bonding in love with one another and together being Christ on the earth.

Ephesians 2 shows that God breaks down walls of prejudice that might divide us. Colossians says there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. Christianity should be known for integrating races, genders and social classes – God’s the ultimate equality agenda. We are formed together into ‘a new humanity’ – not just a new race but a new being – a corporate individual.

Being incorporated into Christ is the result of the gospel. The true church is not ‘worthy institution’ or a building you go to on Sundays. It is a network of people bound together in love. This is the church that is destined to grow and fill the earth as more and more people find their true purpose in life.

The purpose of life is found in getting on with one another

Of course, let’s be real it isn’t easy getting on with one another. As an introvert I am very aware of my need for to be alone. Our own personal relationship with Jesus is vitally important but my Christianity cannot just be about this. It must overflow as I function albeit imperfectly as part of a body networking with other believers and even further in reaching out to those outside my faith community.

This week I watched Disney’s Frozen for the first time. I was in tears. I could really identify with the misunderstood villain come heroine Elsa in her self-imposed exile. I suspect that there is something in all of us that others that feels misunderstood and struggles to control the desire to lash out, even if it is now deeply buried in our memories. Learning self control can sometimes be an uphill struggle.

When I am frustrated with others and even lose control I know that there is forgiveness as God gently directs me and I believe helps me to improve in this area. The fruit of the Spirit grows within us to build character strengths to enable us to function together in love. We are baptised into this body and equipped by God’s Spirit to be the hands and feet of Christ to a world in need.

The purpose of life is found in reaching out to others

Jesus sent out the 12 and the 72 and by implication all his followers to tell the world of this message. They showed love to others by joining the communities wherever they found themselves. For instance in Luke 10 we see the disciples moving into new neighbourhoods, accepting hospitality and then reaching out into that community.

In reaching out Jesus followers were to tell people about Jesus. But their mission was not restricted to words. It also included acts of kindness. In the first part of Luke 10 we see that these were supernatural healings bringing health and wholeness to people just as Jesus did.

In the later part of Luke 10 Jesus also show in the parable of the Good Samaritan that these expressions of love involved helping people in ordinary ways too. Sometimes when we see needs we can wait for someone else to act but if we are Christ on earth surely we should be the ones that take that initiative.

Fulfilling our purpose together

This week I have felt my eyes being opened afresh to this wonderful truth. Yes, I struggle with building relationships. But God has joined me to others and in that I find my fulfilment. In that is the answer to life the Universe and Everything – to bring all things together under Christ’. My prayer is that God will open all our eyes to his amazing purpose.
I wonder what further practical steps we can take to practically outwork this together.

April 25, 2014 at 9:12 am Comments (0)