Recently while perusing some Internet humor, I stumbled upon a rather amusing exchange that supposedly took place across naval radio waves some years back. To wit:
- Voice 1: Please divert your course 15 degrees north to avoid a collision.
- Voice 2: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees south to avoid a collision.
- Voice 1: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
- Voice 2: No, I say again, you divert your course.
- Voice 1: (Angrily) This is the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. We are a large U.S. Navy warship. Divert your course now!
- Voice 2: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
It’s amazing how a slight change in perspective can alter behavior rather radically. In religion we have a tendency to be bullheaded – until such time that a change in perspective enlightens us to our willful ignorance. For as long as I can remember I have been part of the what would be described as traditionally “conservative” religious bodies. But what does that mean?
Generally this is a label that distinguishes among religious bodies with differing opinions about how the scripture is interpreted and applied. Conservatives tend to believe the original intent of scripture is applicable. More liberal-minded individuals tend to take a more progressive approach, taking into consideration social norms, circumstances, and outcomes before dogmatically applying scripture. In this regard, I am more comfortable being labeled “conservative” but don’t reject the impact of culture and context on understanding scripture. Yet, there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind when describing myself this way.
First, I try to keep in mind that identifying myself with a group is secondary to identifying myself with God, that is, as a disciple of Jesus. The captain of the boat in our illustration thought it was more important to be identified as part of the “U.S. Navy” instead of realizing that first and foremost he captained a ship – a vessel that normally does not do well navigating on land.
Paul wrote these words to the Galatians…
For am I know seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1.10
We need to remind ourselves who it is we’re trying to please. I don’t have to go far to find “conservative” churches who act as if it’s more important to toe the doctrinal line than hold some other view on a doctrinal matter. Preachers are particularly in peril to this way of thinking, because they can easily be put in the untenable position of having to choose between teaching “acceptable” doctrines, or being fired for teaching what they honestly believe the scriptures say. You can pick any number of moral issues to illustrate this point.
Further, I try to focus on who it is I seek fellowship with. Notice John’s writing…
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1.5-10
- Fellowship with God starts with his holiness. God’s holiness explains his plan for man. If “God is love” is all you accept, then the cross is meaningless. God will just save everyone.
- Fellowship with God means we cannot walk in darkness. If we live willfully sinful lives, we cannot have fellowship with a holy being.
- Fellowship with God means walking in the light as he is in the light. In this light, there is no darkness at all. As John later writes in 1 John 2.6, “walk in the same manner as he walked.” This is not perfection; it is faithfulness.
- Fellowship with God means confessing our sins to experience Gods forgiveness and cleansing. Grace being conditional does not insert any meritorious component – it’s still grace because it’s totally undeserved.
None of these things – which define fellowship with God – are accomplished through a group. They are accomplished individually. And in fact, the same writer in Revelation 3 noted that while the church at Sardis was a “dead church” there we individuals within that church who were in fellowship with God (Revelation 3.1-5).
Secondly, those who brand themselves “conservative” tend to be elitist in their thinking. (Before you hit “send” on that email, hear me out.) Religious bodies, by whatever name, who believe they alone have the truth, are deserving of the ridicule they receive – even if much of what is taught is true and Bible-based. Not many people will listen to a know-it-all, particularly not a smug one whose only response to such an accusation is, “Well, I believe the same thing you do about that.” Probably not.
A change in our perspective can refresh our understanding of just where we stand: the same place as everyone else (Romans 3:23). And the answer to our plight is the same, too (Ephesians 2:8-9). Being “conservative” is a label that might help us sleep at night, but it doesn’t buy us much when trying to teach someone the gospel. A new perspective will remind us that there is something more important than being conservative or liberal: being right with God.
May grace reign in your life through righteousness.
– Bo Couchman