Extremists and Moderates

September 21st, 2011
Image © Rockies | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Brian McLaren writes that most extremists are the last ones to know that they’re extremists. I guess it’s a lot like having bad breath or body odor. By the time you figure it out, everyone else already knows.

Brian goes on to discuss what he sees as an unhealthy dichotomy that has developed between moderates and extremists (both liberal and conservative). He feels there should be a third way.

Ah, that ever-elusive third way. Some would argue that such an animal doesn’t exist. They’d say that any kind of third way is either the best of both worlds, or the worst of both, but nothing new.

You know what I think? I think Brian overthinks these things.

Granted, extremist is almost never used today in a positive way. The first defintion for extremist that pops up on a Google search is: “A person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, esp. one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.”

Great. Now we have to check to see whether extreme is defined in a positive or negative way. (I love how dictionaries make you look up a second word to define the first one you looked up.) Dictionary.com offers five definitions:

  1. of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average: extreme measures.
  2. utmost or exceedingly great in degree: extreme joy.
  3. farthest from the center or middle; outermost; endmost: the extreme limits of a town.
  4. farthest, utmost, or very far in any direction: an object at the extreme point of vision.
  5. exceeding the bounds of moderation: extreme fashions.

Call me crazy, but based on most of these defintions, is being extreme always a bad thing? Come on... who truly wants to be an ordinary Christian? Or an ordinary basketball player? Or an ordinary writer?

I’m not even crazy about Ordinary Time.

Don’t we all want to be extraordinary?

And is exceeding the bounds of moderation a bad thing? Sure, moderate means calm or temperate, but it also means mediocre. Another defintion of moderate is average, or less than average in quality.

I don’t know anyone who wants to be considered average or mediocre.

But moderate can also mean balanced. I don’t mind being called balanced—that’s a compliment.

The 18th century Christian leader John Wesley was accused of being an extremist, but they used a different word back then: enthusiast.


  1. a person filled with or motivated by enthusiasm; fanatic
  2. archaic a religious visionary, esp one whose zeal for religion is extravagant or unbalanced

On one hand, we think of fanaticism as a bad thing. Yet we generally see enthusiasm as positive. It seems to me that there’s not a heck of a lot of distance between between enthusiastic and fanatical—between good extreme and bad.

Some of it is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps Brian McLaren has it wrong. Instead of looking for a third way, maybe we need to just appreciate both extremists and moderates as necessary parts of the Body of Christ. Without visionaries and enthusiasts pushing the envelope, we’d probably miss some prophetic words and moves of God. And without moderates reining them in, who knows how many more solid Christians would wander into heresy?

Opposite “extremists” tend to balance each other out, and moderates keep them in check. As messy as that gets, isn’t it the way God probably designed things to work in the church?


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