We hear so much about the dangers of liberalism in the church, and the tendency of everyone and everything to slide in that direction. The remedy, we are often told, is to hold on to gospel truth tenaciously.
Now this is good advice, in general. But it can go bad. We have recently expressed our doubts about the liberal threat. But now it’s time to consider the threat on the other side: our evangelical tendency to slide into extreme positions.
It works like this. If you’re convinced that you and everyone else are likely to slide into liberalism, you tend to interpret any suggestion of change, any new idea, any different reading of a Scripture text, any alternative way of formulating a doctrine, as a threat. If there’s any movement, then it must mean that someone is on the slippery slope. Of course, The Grit, being dedicated to re-examining the faith and giving fresh readings, is highly suspect!
There are two things you can do if you’re worried about this slide. The milder approach is simply to reject any sort of change in these areas. This is very common in our evangelical scene, where we tend to judge new ideas by comparing them to a position of ‘orthodoxy’ – generally represented by some favourite leader or historical era. “Is he teaching what they taught? No? Then he’s not holding to the truth.” This of course tends towards a cognitive fossilisation in which it’s not safe to even ask questions, let alone have new ideas. Eventually no new thought is possible.
But for some that measure is not adequate to counter the drift. The more pro-active approach is to take an increasingly extreme position yourself, as a pre-emptive measure. It makes sense: the further you retreat into narrowness, the further you are from liberal looseness. It’s like in the surf: if the rip is pulling left, why not head right and be extra safe? When you feel scared about going soft, the hard-line guys start to look like a safe haven.
Is the doctrine of Scripture under threat? Christians have always believed Scripture is inspired and has authority. But you could tighten that up by going from ‘inspired’ to ‘infallible’, and if that’s not enough, then take the high ground of ‘inerrancy’. In the past that position was not considered necessary for orthodoxy, but in the end ‘inerrancy’ can become a litmus test for ‘who’s still with us.’
Liberals ‘humanise’ Scripture, saying it is the product of its culture, etc. They talk about myth and tend to deny historicity. But sometimes evangelicals talk about cultural background too, and employ ideas like ‘genre’. They allow for a human dimension in the way they read Scripture. But given the liberal onslaught, this can start to seem like an unwise dalliance with the enemy. Where will it all stop? Aren’t they playing into the arms of the liberals? In fact, aren’t these guys already on the slippery slope?
You might have viewed Scripture as a divine communication through a human medium. But if you’re feeling scared about liberalism, perhaps it would be safer to play down the human part. Emphasise divinity. If Scripture is simply the God-book, it will be safe from critical attacks. And the whole genre thing – it’s nice, but wouldn’t it be safer to read all Scripture as historical accounts? That would avoid so much confusion, and leave no room for talk about myth or fable.
Is the church going soft on women’s ordination? We can not only bar that, but to be extra sure, we’d better keep women out of leadership altogether. Better still, stop them speaking upfront in our gatherings. It’s the only way to be sure.
Is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty under threat? You might have been a three pointer Calvinist, but wouldn’t it strengthen your position to go to four or five? Or even five with double predestination? Surely the really strong leaders are the five point guys – they’re a long way from denying God’s sovereignty. They’re the ones to follow.
The doctrine of creation is under threat from the scientists. You’ve always held to creation ex-nihilo. The church has always held to that, while accepting a range of diverse readings of Genesis 1-3. But under attack, wouldn’t our position be strengthened by a more literal reading of Genesis 1, that reads it more like scientific history? To be safer still, you can assert that the ‘days’ are literal 24 hour time periods. No danger of compromising with evolution then.
This more aggressive approach to conservatism sets up buffer zones around our thought and practise, to ensure that we never get anywhere near the slippery slope of liberalism.
But of course, there’s no logical end to it. You can always get safer by getting narrower.
In effect, what we’re describing is a slippery slope of its own, the fear-driven tendency to slide into extreme views and narrow positions. You’re hoping to hold the line, but you end up going hard-line. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it.
The point is, that although we hear so much warning about not sliding into liberal compromise, there are actually just as many dangers on the other side. Only we don’t talk about them. So we’re more likely to fall into them.
How can we avoid that slippery slope into extremism? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and here’s the best I can suggest:
Try to be less afraid. Trust Jesus. He will build his church.