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The 11 Elements of Liberal Christianity: A Conservative’s Friendly Critique

Summary: With liberal Christianity in sharp decline, a new book seeks to define its tenets and rehabilitate its negative image. But the 11 principles of liberal orthodoxy are easily affirmed by many religious conservatives, including myself. What gives? It’s a theological motte-and-bailey argument.

imageInfluential Christian author Scot McKnight writes about the Eleven Elements of Liberal Orthodoxy, citing a new book by Michael Langford, The Tradition of Liberal Theology, which defines tenets of liberal Christianity.

Langford enumerates 11 core principles of liberal orthodoxy:

  1. A use of the Bible that is not always literal.
  2. Reason and revelation are in harmony.
  3. A non-legalist account of redemption.
  4. The possibility of salvation outside a narrow path.
  5. Toleration.
  6. Original sin, but not original guilt.
  7. Belief in free will.
  8. A view of providence that respects the integrity of the natural order.
  9. The joint need of faith and works.
  10. A minimal number of basic teachings.
  11. A range of acceptable lifestyles.

As a conservative religious person, I was surprised to discover that I affirm nearly all of these. Some examples:

Literal Bible: The Bible is not always literal. Books of poetry, for example, are especially non-literal. Psalm 19 speaks of God pitching a tent for the sun, and like a championship runner, the sun runs its race through the sky, speaking its words to all living things. This is clearly not literal; it’s poetic. And I know of no conservative religious person who believes every word of the Bible is literal.

Undoubtedly conservatives and liberals disagree how much of the Bible is literal, but the difference is not binary.

Reason: We conservatives don’t believe human reason is fundamentally in opposition to divine revelation. We only caution complete reliance on human reason; “lean not on your own understanding.” Human reason is mutable and ever-changing, and the human propensity for evil can produce a kind of reason leading away from God.

Salvation outside a narrow path: OK, admittedly most conservative religious are narrow in their view of who God saves. (“Everyone is going to hell, except me [and my denomination]”). I’ve argued the opposite for years: God saves whom He will save. Evangelicals are not the arbiters of eternal life (God is), and final judgment hasn’t yet been pronounced (it won’t be until the end of the age.)

So, will God save the boy in the remote island who never heard of God? Will he save the unborn child killed in the womb? Will he save the secular Holocaust survivor? My answer is that the Judge of the Earth will do what’s right. God’s path is narrow, but His mercy is exceedingly broad.

While many conservatives differ with liberal theologians on this issue, I find some common ground.

Faith and works: I have been an avid influencer towards this in conservative religious circles: the all-grace, do-nothing gospel produces ineffective disciples of Jesus and runs counter to the gospels. It’s not limited to me; the Messianic congregations and Churches near me are likewise doing tangible works in Messiah’s name: volunteering at Loaves & Fishes, raising money for charity, taking shifts at women’s shelters, running soup kitchens, volunteering at Feed My Starving Children. I see it. My congregation has done it. Conservatives are practicing faith and works.

I think it is a dying minority of conservatives who are grace-only. It is dying because its disciples are not effective.

A minimal number of basic teachings: We conservatives are not overly loaded with basic doctrines, are we? I find Evangelicals to often have utterly barebones core teachings; usually a variation of, “Believe in Jesus so that you will be saved and live forever with God.” Conservatives have more teachings we consider important – but fundamentals? It’s minimal.

As I read these 11 principles, I found myself agreeing with almost all of them.

Why are religious liberals and conservatives so far apart, then, if we basically agree on a bunch of important things?

A real divide

A few years ago, a liberal Presbyterian minister visited my congregation. I happened to be teaching that day. The minister came up to me after the service and she said, “You know, I often have to remind my congregation, ‘God loves all people – even Republicans.’” I laughed, and replied that I have tell my conservative congregation the same thing – only with regards to Democrats!

And I think that little story sums up liberal/conservative differences: we so oppose the other side, imagining the other side so heretical they must be on the outs with God.

Longford’s own definitions of liberalism asserts that the liberal orthodox are “born again” – a defense stated almost certainly because of conservative assertions to the contrary. (In Evangelical circles, if you are not born again, you are headed for hell.)

Turning the tables, Langford says conservatives are irrational (rejecting rational thought and intellectualism) and tend to be fanatical. (As a religious conservative, I had to both laugh and acknowledge some truth in that!)

Meanwhile, we conservatives wonder how it is that liberal congregations can even exist.

What good is a religion if you don’t follow its rules? Why call yourself a follower of God if you don’t adhere to what God says (about sin, lifestyles, sexuality, abortion, ...). We conservatives see in liberal churches such an extreme focus on tolerance, God’s people there are no longer ruled by God, but by the whims of godless culture. Are there theological “lines in the sand” in liberal Christianity? From our view over here, it seems everything is negotiable.

To conservatives, liberal churches are nearly indistinguishable from secular culture.

Fueling our speculation, liberal Christianity appears to be shrinking and dying:

Mainline Protestants (those in the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA], Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ [UCC], and The Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) have fared poorly in recent decades. While Christianity overall is not dying in America, Mainline Protestantism is getting closer. According to the GSS, 28% of Americans identified with a mainline church in 1972. By 2014, that number had dropped to 12.2%.

A recent report from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corroborates this trend. The report looked at church statistics from 2002 to 2013. The denomination reported net membership losses each year. In 2002, the denomination shrank by 41,812 members. This number peaked in 2012 when they reported a net loss of 102,791.

Meanwhile, conservative religious groups are growing:

Evangelicals have remained steady for the most part, according to the polls. The GSS found that evangelical affiliation and reported church attendance peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, then declined, then rebounded. In 1972, 17.1% of Americans self-identified as evangelical. In 2014, this percentage increased to 22.7. Similarly, the number of Americans regularly attending church increased from 7.9% to 12.5%.

Theologically weak, soft or non-existent rules, shrinking membership – we see religious liberals as a dying breed that at best are highly deceived, and at worst leading people away from God.

The Liberal Motte and Bailey

So why is it that we conservatives can affirm most of these 11 principles of liberal orthodoxy?

It’s because these 11 principles are the motte of a motte-and-bailey argument.

imageNamed after medieval castles which contained a weak outer bailey but an defensible inner motte, motte-and-bailey arguments are ones in which a person makes a controversial statement (“The God of the Bible permits homosexuality” – the bailey), and then when critiqued, he retreats to a stronger position (“God loves all humanity” – the strong motte).

These 11 elements of liberal Christianity sound like the motte. They are general and obviously true. How could a religious person fail to affirm both faith and works as important?

The real problem is the liberal bailey.

Examples are in order:

Literal Bible

While it’s true that the Bible is not always literal, there are times when it is literal. The strong motte is that the Bible is not always literal. But the weak bailey says that much, if not all of the Bible, is ahistorical and fiction. The Exodus didn’t really happen. Jesus didn’t perform miracles. God didn’t literally create human beings. God didn’t actually speak to Abraham. The resurrection isn’t real. Moses probably hallucinated the burning bush. (One liberal theologian actually claims, for example, that the best explanation for the post-crucifixion disciples going from defeated band to bold proclaimers is that they shared a group hallucination of the risen Messiah. Oiy.)

We can abide that some of the Bible isn’t literal.

But if we say that core principles of faith are not real or literal – that the resurrection is airy spiritual idea rather than flesh and bones coming to life – well, that makes our faith out to be no more valuable than a children’s fairy tale.

Reason and revelation are in harmony

They can be. But who can claim an unchanging human reason? Not a few hundred years ago it was reasonable to put criminals to death by ripping their flesh off with red hot pincers.

Human reason is mutable and unreliable.

We conservatives can abide the motte that reason need not be contrary to divine revelation, but we cannot accept the exaltation of human reason to the divine unchanging standards. It can lead to increased human pride that challenges God. (Indeed, much of modern science has been fueled by the atheistic thought that with human ingenuity, all things are possible.)

This liberal principle has been abused too often. It results in people throwing out all religion and become atheists; human reason is exalted against or above divine revelation.

This produces anemic communities of faith.

The possibility of salvation outside a narrow path

Yes, perhaps there will be more people in God’s kingdom than what any person might imagine. That again is the strong liberal motte.

But the weak bailey is that liberal Christianity – and even liberal Judaism for that matter – tends to say all paths are valid. Everyone is welcomed, and any condemnation of sin, most any standard for living is frowned upon as legalistic.

God’s mercy is indeed great, but God is a God of both mercy and justice. Compassion and standards. It seems that liberal Christianity has forgotten the latter.


The strong motte is that we should be tolerant of those who are not living in the ideal standard God set. On this we conservatives agree.

The bailey is that tolerance means acceptance. Tolerance has been redefined from, “Tolerating a bad behavior” to “Accepting the bad behavior as good.”

The Bible does speak of tolerance, but it’s in the context of God’s tolerance for sinful people so that they repent of the thing He’s tolerating:

But you, O man—judging those practicing such things yet doing the same—do you suppose that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you belittle the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience—not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

-Romans 2

Tolerate and welcome people where they are, yes.

But leave them unchanged and remaining in sin? No.

A view of providence that respects the integrity of the natural order

This means things like the parting of the Red Sea happened because of an earthquake or other natural event.

They might be right; maybe miracles are done within the framework of the natural rules of the universe.

But…why limit God? Imagine there is this software engineer, a computer programmer, who designed a complex system. When he makes changes to that system, when he intervenes, he only does so within the rules of the complex system he designs. He doesn’t write new code – he just changes the values of the the variables to make the desired event occur."

I mean, why?

I think the liberal answer is, “Because our message about miracles are more credible to the unbelieving world.”

We conservatives do not believe that a sufficient reason to limit God’s intervention in human affairs. Will unbelievers flock to our churches, or be swayed more towards faith, if we tell them miracles are actually natural events? I’m very skeptical of that claim, and I think most conservatives are too.

The joint need of faith and works

 We agree on this motte – and I’d be glad to work with liberals to do good works in unison! But the bailey here, I suspect, has less to do with good works and more to do with politics.

How many liberal Christians were cheering on the student walk-outs to protest the 2nd Amendment? How many liberal Jews take the tikkun olam motto to mean opposition to the Republican party?

On my side of the fence, it feels like the liberal “good works” too often means, “Doing what leftist politicians say we should do.” (And, if your values align virtually in perfection with one political party, I suggest you are driven not by your faith but by partisan politics.)

If liberals want to feed the poor, I’m there. If you want to visit the sick, I’m with you. If you want to visit people who are suffering, let’s do it together.

A minimal number of basic teachings

Yes, let’s not overcomplicate matters. The gospel is quite simple, after all. And the Torah itself is concerned primarily with loving God and loving neighbor.

But so often, this devolves from “a minimal number of teachings” to “zero fundamental teachings.”

If we throw out the reality of the resurrection, what faith do Christians and Jews really have? It’s no wonder Paul said it was a fundamental matter – if there is no real resurrection, then Messiah didn’t raise either, and our faith is in vain. Likewise Maimonides encoded in his 13 principles of Jewish faith that the dead will raise; it’s a fundamental.

If we throw out these fundamental principles and say they are not basic, plain teachings, there is little religious ground left to stand on. It becomes purely emotional and feelings-based, and that does not produce strong, vibrant religious communities.

A range of acceptable lifestyles

This is the biggest whopper of all the motte-and-bailey arguments.

The strong motte here is that God accepts people where they are, and so should we. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

But the reality is the bailey: to liberal Christianity, virtually all lifestyles are acceptable. Gay Christians. Transgender Christians. Christians having sex outside of marriage.

Is adultery permitted? It wouldn’t surprise me.

“Acceptable lifestyles” to God? Those are already defined in the Bible. But liberal Christianity and liberal Judaism discards those rules about lifestyles. So ultimately, most anything goes.

If the Law doesn’t matter, the Lawgiver doesn’t matter. This again produces lawless lifestyles that are not governed by personal discipline over one’s desires, but by freedom to be slaves to our own vices. This kind of religion doesn’t change people. This kind of religion has little impact on the daily lives of people – there are virtually no rules to govern them, after all.

Such a religion cannot survive. And if statistics are to be believed, liberal Christianity is not surviving, and liberal Judaism is not thriving in the place it matters most: Israel.

The 11 Elements of Liberal Christianity are nice values. As a religious conservative, I can affirm many of them. But there’s a chasm between what these elementary principles and the state of how people are living in and leaving liberal Christianity.

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