Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Is Conservatism in a Church? Is This Good?

Men associated with Religious Affections Ministries (RAM), led by Scott Aniol, have written and published a book, A Conservative Christian Declaration (at Amazon), which idea was then critiqued by others on SharperIron, an online forum.  On top of writing the declaration and book, RAM has afforded church leaders to include their church in a list of likeminded conservative churches.   Along with others, I asked myself whether this was a good thing, being a conservative church -- shouldn't it suffice to be a biblical church or an obedient one?

To come to the correct conclusion as to whether one should call his church a conservative church, he needs to understand what it means to be a conservative church, which also means that he should grasp what conservatism itself is and what it means to be a conservative.  Does being conservative add anything important to identifying one's self?  Would people outside of the church understand what it means to be a conservative church, so that the designation could be helpful to others?

We have all sorts of designations that we apply to churches in order to help identify who they are:  independent, Southern, fundamental, evangelical, Charismatic, etc.  There is some history and rich meaning behind the word "conservative," that is helpful in distinguishing the characteristics of a person or church.  Even in evangelicalism today, many are using the term "conservative evangelical" to set apart a particular subset of them that are different than the other evangelicals who are not conservative evangelicals.

When we talk about theology, we do divide between conservative and liberal.  If I said a church was conservative theologically, I believe I am saying a good thing about that church, but also hopefully helping someone understand what that church is.  If you have a big set or circle of "church," and you are narrowing it down to what type of church it is, applying the word "conservative" is going to leave out the liberal churches.  If I said the church had conservative theology with conservative music and conservative lifestyles, all of that would focus our understanding even more about that church.

Would I want my church called a conservative church?  I would.  I like the term "conservative" even as applied to a church.  Our church is an independent Baptist church.  That sets our church apart.  I often called us historic Baptists.  I would use the word conservative too.

What does "conservative" do as a label?  It has a connotative meaning to people for sure, usually to say that we take the Bible literally or strictly.  We are preserving the practices of the past.  We are not loose in our approach to God.  It also says something about the culture of our church.  I remember Mark Driscoll saying that his church was conservative theologically and liberal culturally.  People get what that means.  They should reject the designation, because of its self-contradiction, but they do get what it is.

Conservative also has a specific, definitive meaning.  Some who claim the name conservative are not really conservative.  They might possess some of the tenets of conservatism, perhaps the parts that they think will bring them benefit, but that alone makes them, in my view, not conservative.  You shouldn't be able to pick and choose what is conservative with you and what isn't, because conservatism is a consistent position that applies everywhere.  It has a denotative meaning that starts with a transcendent order, which must be God and, therefore, Christian.

Since the transcendent order proceeds from God, it also must be permanent.  The conservative concerns himself with permanent things, because God is eternal and unchanging.  The map of the world in His mind reflects upon God. The categories of permanent things have been labeled the transcendentals, because they transcend space and time unto the being and nature of God.  They represent the perfections of God for which men strive, made in the image of God, which are truth, goodness, and beauty.   The conservative strives to preserve these and shape his society, whether government, church, and family, upon their grand design.

Since God is one, no transcendental can be separated from another.  You can't give up one without the giving up the others.  You don't get to be conservative about truth and not about goodness and beauty, or about truth and goodness, but not about beauty.

Some ask, "Who cares?  What difference do they make?"   First, each of the transendentals are Bible.  God ordains them.  If we would obey God, submit to Him, like Jesus submitted to the Father, we will live them.

However, all three -- truth, goodness, and beauty -- are up for grabs not only in the culture and in the country, but also in the churches.  We live in a relativistic society where none of these three are absolute, like neither is God absolute.  To adapt to the world for utilitarian purposes, men abandon the absolutes.

Biblical Christianity is truth concerning total reality.  It is the story.   It is in this sense that all truth is God's truth, because everything is God's story.  He originated the world, the world fell because of rebellion against Him, and it will be redeemed only through Him.  It starts, continues, and ends with God.  Your Christianity affects every area of your life, because your life is a component of the whole.


The most noticeable opposition to the above conservative declaration comes from those who reject absolute beauty.  Their primary basis for their resistance is that no one can be sure about objective beauty, that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder.  This is well represented by a few comments in the SharperIron forum:

Does beauty objectively exist? and How do we know what beauty is?  are two separate questions. Not that this group would deny that, but while most of us would agree on the first, agreement on the second would not be so easily reached. And we have to respect that.

This is typical.  He argues from uncertainty.  There is objective beauty, but we don't know (can't know) what it is.  Beauty is inaccessible, lost to this generation.

Again, in typical fashion, someone else agrees with subjective beauty, and again because of unattainability:

 I think that I could be persuaded to agree with goodness - as in the works of the Spirit - but beauty, as discussed, is going to need to defined and Scripturally defended, not just made as an assertion to be proclaimed.  When I hear an instrumental piece with no lyrics, it's can be considered "christian" because it's "beautiful"?  By what standard?

I do sympathize to a certain extent with the plight of these two comments.  I read a lot at Religious Affections and they stay too ambiguous.  The explanations often are enigmatic and vague.  I can't say that I know why.  I have my opinion.  They want to keep a seat at the table, and if they talk with more clarity, they will be excluded.  It is a communications strategy, is what I think.  If I'm right, they are not fully depending on God for the persuasion to their position.

If God has a standard of beauty, if He wants us to judge it, then we can.  I don't think it is that difficult.  I don't believe it is an intellectual problem.  Men can understand.  The problem is either lust or pride.  They have a lust they cannot abandon or they don't want to be rejected, which is the pride. Success is numbers and numbers require pleasing men.  Men want what they want.  They want their music, even for worship.

Judging music for beauty is as easy as judging foul or profane speech.  Ugliness has become acceptable.  A lot of immorality and false doctrine has too.  However, we can judge beauty.  It is objective, but we have to apply principles like is the case in so much application of scripture.


I understand the attraction to a "conservative church."  Even if that church were separatist, perhaps even historically fundamental, it might not be and probably won't be truly conservative.   I see this as the appeal of a conservative church.  It distinguishes from vacuousness of fundamentalism, especially related to beauty.  They see much of fundamentalism as not getting it, and being part of the problem.  They see this, I believe, as helping churches and Christians who are looking for the total truth.

The conservative declaration focuses on aesthetics.  They are important.  One cannot love God rightly without objective beauty,  The ugliness also distorts the imagination necessary for true worship of God.  However, I see these same men as having capitulated on a biblical or transcendent view of truth and goodness.  I love their work on beauty, but they are wanting on truth and goodness.  I'm not going to explain in this post, but they are more dogmatic about beauty than the other two.  It amazes me.  As I said, you can't have one with the others.

On top of my concern for their shortfall on truth and goodness is their lack of conviction. Conservation requires separation.  They won't take the stand against ugliness necessary to preserve loveliness.

I cannot sign off on the declaration or join the list of churches.  I don't even believe that these men are conservative.  They are more conservative than most others, but they are not consistent in their conservatism.  However, I like the idea of being known as a conservative church.  If you are a conservative and your church conservative, then you are biblical.  You have to be.  His Word is Truth.


Lance Ketchum said...

I am confused. Is this an objective discussion on subjectivity, or a subjective discussion on objectivity?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hey Bro,

I think it's true that we're talking objective truth, goodness, and beauty, when we're talking about conservatism in a principled way about a church.