Was Jesus liberal or conservative? Moving beyond old-fashioned binaries

 on March 14, 2023

At the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis says, “You have no idea how good an old joke sounds when you take it out again after a rest of five or six hundred years.” Well, it probably hasn’t been quite that long, but I still like the one that says, “the world divides into two kinds of people: those who divide The world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

Right now, the Christian world generally divides itself into two groups. If you doubt me, try explaining the various controversies that have roiled the Church in recent years without using the terms “left” and “right” or “conservative” and “liberal”. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Part of the reason we get stuck is that we insist on using this divisive kind of language. Do we really need it?

The terms “left” and “right” in this sense originated in the French parliament in 1791, after the French Revolution, when those in the National Assembly who supported the King sat on the right side of the king, and those who supported the revolution sat on the left. It was that simple. Two hundred years is not a long time for Christians who celebrate events from more than two millennia ago. For Christians, this is relatively new terminology. It is worth noting that the language comes from a secular source—not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that—but we might well be cautious before adopting language into Christian vocabulary that might distort our spiritual vision.


Both/and, not either/or

So here’s my thesis: in a sense, Christians ought to be both conservative and liberal. Does that sound strange? But think about it. To be conservative is to conserve what is good from the past. Every Sunday, Christians around the world express their profound conservatism by enacting an ancient rite—the Eucharist. This is one of those times when we agree that saying “we’ve always done it this way” is a good thing. Equally, though, all Christians are liberal, since liberal at its heart means free, generous, fully alive. The apostle Paul—who some see as deeply conservative—says, “For freedom Christ has set us free: stand firm then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Them’s fighting words!

Of course, there are distinctively Christian constraints on both our conservatism and our liberalism. They are not blanket approvals for any kind of behaviour or belief. We are not conservative to the extent that we want to reintroduce temple sacrifices. Neither are we liberal to the extent that we think anything is permissible. There are things worth conserving, and limits worth observing.

As Christians, we take our cues on both fronts from Jesus. So, we must ask, was he conservative or liberal? As you may have noticed, Jesus often has an annoying habit of not giving a direct answer to a direct question. If we insist on applying our simplistic categories, we would have to say he was a peculiar mixture of the two.

On the one hand, his life was guided by the Jewish scriptures: “the Son of Man must go as it is written;” “this scripture must be fulfilled in me;” and so on. In other words, he understood himself and his mission to be shaped by his scriptures. And he lambasted the Sadducees, the liberals of his day. (They didn’t believe in the resurrection, remember.) Isn’t that pretty much what we would call fundamentalism? So he’s conservative, right?

On the other, he interpreted Jewish law radically—to the horror of the religious leaders: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” He had little tolerance for the traditions of the Pharisees, the conservatives of his day, who majored on the minors of religion: “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” So he must be liberal, surely?

We might conclude from such references that Jesus was both “liberal” and “conservative”, but that’s too simple. In fact, it just goes to show how unhelpful these terms are. In Jesus, those two things which we like to separate are so closely woven together that we miss the point if we try to pull them apart. You have probably heard the ways we do this: “Of course, in some ways Jesus was a man of his time, which is unfortunate but inevitable—but in the ways that really matter he was our contemporary.” What is confusing is that his radicalism on social issues grew directly out of his conservative view of the scriptures! He really doesn’t fit those tired old left-right categories, and why should he? What God has joined together, let no-one put asunder.


Bigger fish to fry

So can we categorize him? It’s a dangerous thing to try, but I think we can safely say that Jesus marched to a different drummer he called “the kingdom of heaven”. Significantly enough, it’s an idea which harks back to creation and the Creator’s desire for a healthy world, and forward to the end when that same Creator makes all things new. I suppose we could summarize that as looking back (like a conservative) and looking forward (like a liberal). But there I go again, falling into the old trap of separating things that really shouldn’t be separated. Jesus stubbornly demands to be considered on his own terms, not ours.

There are legitimate distinctions to be made within Christian faith, and Jesus clearly made some. But he tends to call them by more challenging names than left and right. He invites us, for example, to faith rather than mistrust, obedience rather than disobedience, fidelity rather than independence. In trying to follow him, our choices may sometimes seem to the outsider to be conservative and at other time liberal. If that’s confusing for people, so be it.

So should I be a conservative liberal, or a liberal conservative? A liberative or a conserberal? But maybe that’s not the point. These days, I come across younger church leaders who describe themselves as “post-liberal” and “post-conservative”. Apparently, young people have figured out that the old language doesn’t help us very much, particularly if we want to be faithful followers of Jesus. The rest of us could learn something from them.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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