The Dangers of "Conservatism"

David Holder

LIKE MOST OF YOU WHO ARE reading this, I am considered to be a "conservative" or "fundamentalist" by many in the religious world because of my convictions that Jesus, as the Son of God, was an actual historical figure and that the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God. I am also considered to be a "conservative" or even an "anti" by some of my own brethren because of my views concerning the social gospel, institutionalism, and the sponsoring church arrangement.

I accept the "conservative" designation without shame or hesitation in the sense that the word implies moderation, prudence, and caution. I prefer to be considered just a Christian and biblical in my views, but this appears to be only a remote possibility. We are given to categorizing and labeling, and I see little chance for that to change. This article, however, is not to defend "conservatism" or to condemn "liberalism." It is to point out the dangers of the conservative viewpoint. Those of us who approach the Bible from this standpoint need to be aware of the dangers involved.

1. Legalism: A "conservative" would, of course, emphasize strict adherence to God's law. I believe this is right simply because God's way is too important to be trifled with. The danger, however, is in right doctrine becoming an end in itself. Knowing and believing all the right doctrines are exercises in futility unless the adherents also live by those right doctrines. "Biblical authority" is no substitute for biblical activity. When maintaining right doctrine becomes an end in itself, "conservatism" has taken a wrong and dangerous turn.

2. Nonproductivity: The conservative's "moderation", prudence and caution" have a tendency to develop into nonproductivity. "Conservatives" place heavy emphasis on what is not to be done and on the way things are to be done. I am not depreciating this emphasis. I am simply stating what we should be aware of about ourselves. The problem we face is that we are too heavy on what is not to be done, and far too light on the actual doing of what needs to be done. We satisfy ourselves with maintaining the "biblical pattern" but never get around to doing what the pattern calls for. In short, we end up opposing most everything and doing nothing.

3. Selectivity: What I mean by "selectivity" is that we tend to rally around certain selected matters to the neglect of other matters that are equally important and essential. We get the idea that the "conservative" viewpoint on certain issues is the essence of Christianity. We spend our time and efforts maintaining the "conservative cause" and we forget about the "Biblical cause." After all, what difference does it make if the local church does not support human institutions form its treasury if its members are worldly minded? And what difference does it make if we are not involved in the sponsoring church arrangement for doing evangelism if we do not accept the responsibility of personal evangelism? Who are we to select the matters that we will adhere to strictly? Man must live by every word that comes from God (Matt 4:4; 23:23).

4. Negativism: Conservatism breeds negativism if we are not extremely careful. The "conservative" gets the idea that all changes are "liberal" and thus becomes reluctant to change. This reluctance soon develops into resistance. One begins to see "liberalism" at every turn. Anything new or different is immediately suspect. And all this results in the "Why change? It won't do any good, and it won't work" mentality. Negativism of this sort never results in progress.

5. Traditionalism: Closely associated with negativism is traditionalism. The "conservative" typically places emphasis on what has always been believed and done. Traditional definitions and procedures are viewed as adequate and in no need of review or change. The danger involved is that tradition is often elevated to the level of doctrine. "What we have always done" and "the position we have always taken" becomes more important than what the Bible commands and allows. When we fail to make a distinction between tradition and doctrine, trouble is on the horizon.

6. Self-righteousness: All of us who have deep convictions inevitably identify ourselves with our convictions. When, however, we begin to use ourselves and the way we do things as the standard by which to measure others, we are treading on dangerous and sinful ground. Jesus clashed with the Pharisees on a number of occasions over this very point. When we label others "liberal" because they do not do everything our "conservative" way, we have become self-righteous. Every position and every practice must stand or fall on its own merits or demerits as it is compared to Biblical teaching. God's word must be the standard by which we measure everything -- including ourselves!

7. Division: Historically, conservatism often culminates in division. "Conservatives," by nature, are not very tolerant. The conservative's outlook leaves little or no room for compromise. And, in fact, when it comes to Biblical principles and procedures, there is no room for toleration or compromise. Our problem, however, is that we allow our unwillingness to tolerate and compromise in matters of Biblical doctrine to spill over into the area of human opinion. we tend to demand that everybody else have our viewpoint, attitude, and opinion. If such is not forthcoming, we seem perfectly willing to divide and surround ourselves with those who see things like we do. "Conservatives" find it easier to divide over rather than resolve differences. Some draw their circle so small that there is only room for themselves and maybe a few others. Let's face it, many "conservative" churches are fragmenting themselves to death. The seed from which these churches sprang may have been good seed, but somewhere along the line they have taken a wrong, dangerous, and destructive turn.

If some people call our reverence for and adherence to the Bible "conservative" or even "anti," then so be it. We should maintain such reverence and adherence without shame or hesitation. But we must, at the same time, face up to the dangers involved and avoid them at all cost. We are not, after all, called to follow the "conservative cause." We are rather to follow "Christ's cause." If we lose sight of this, we have lost sight of the only thing that will keep us moving in the right direction and finally save our souls.


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