Orthodox… evangelical… liberal?

July 10th, 2015

David Brooks has been sounding like a revival preacher lately. The New York Times columnist said he wrote “The Road to Character” out of a need “to save my own soul…I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like.”

Methodists have another word for “character.” We call it “holiness.” John Wesley called it “Christian perfection,” i.e. being made perfect (complete) in love. The road we follow is “sanctification.” We wrote A Disciple’s Heart to provide practical steps for people who are traveling that road. (How’s that for a shameless bit of book promotion?)

In his final chapter, Brooks wrote, “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” He gives some of the best definitions I know of sin, humility and spiritual discipline, coming to the conclusion that “we are all ultimately saved by grace.” Can I get an “Amen!”?

Last week, Brooks was at it again. In a column titled, The Next Culture War, he challenged conservative Christians to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex.” He recommended that Christians offer the world “more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority.” Amen to that!

But Brooks also fell into the trap laid by the popular media when he used the adjectives “orthodox” and “evangelical” to refer to “conservative” Christians for whom orthodoxy is largely defined by opposition to same-sex marriage and evangelical has become a segment of the Republican party base.

Redeeming abused words

I’m weary of the widespread abuse of those words.

In the Christian tradition,”orthodox” has referred to those who affirm the core elements of the faith expressed in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds. “Evangelical” described people who are personally committed as disciples of Jesus Christ and share a burning passion to invite others to follow him. The terms were more theological than political although the convictions growing out of those commitments always result in political action.

I know faithful Christians who are orthodox in their faith and evangelical in their witness whose social convictions are “conservative.” I also know faithful Christians who are equally orthodox in their faith and passionately evangelical in their witness and whose social convictions would be labeled as “liberal.”

While I respect people on both ends of the conservative-liberal continuum, I resent the way the social conservatives have dominated the public discussion as if theirs is the only way of interpreting Scripture. Brooks is correct that it has alienated large segments of the population from serious consideration of the Christian faith.

The road to holiness

Brooks puts us on the right road. It’s time for more Schweitzer and Day (names that the vast majority of American churchgoers probably don’t recognize) and less of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham.

It’s time to let the world know that Clemente Pinckney and the people of Mother Emanuel Church are more representative of the gospel than the speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

It’s time to say that conservative politicians do not have sole ownership of the bible. In fact, some of their supposedly “biblical” positions are light years removed from the Old Testament prophets or the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps it’s time to put aside the terms “conservative” and “liberal” — neither of which are biblical categories — and learn to walk the road to holiness which Jesus defined when he said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

From Brooks to the bishop

In response to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Bishop Ken Carter offered a practical word to faithful disciples on both ends of the conservative-liberal continuum:

What if…

1. Those on the left side of the aisle allowed space for conscience (as Kennedy does) for people of faith who cannot interpret marriage in this way.

2. Those on the right side of the aisle began to focus on fidelity in marriage relationships.

3. Preachers began to teach counter-culturally about marriage, acknowledging the profound brokenness in our culture, in relation to grace and holiness.

4. We clarified the distinction between marriage as a right (in the state) and marriage as a gift (in the church).

5. We repented, on both sides of the aisle, from speech that reduced those different from us into one-dimensional people.

6. We repented, as well, from the historical reality that Christians have been an obstacle in each movement toward greater civil rights in our country.

7. We recovered a passion to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What if followers of Christ followed the road to holiness, defined by the love and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ?

Jim Harnish is the author of "A Disciple's Heart" and "Earn. Save. Give." He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

comments powered by Disqus