Friday, December 17, 2010

The Lynchpin of Liberal Theology

The word “liberal” to most conservative Christians is what some would call “fighting words.” To be accused of being a liberal when you are a conservative would make the list of “insults among insults.” In other words, for some people, to be characterized as a liberal comes close to being the most defamatory thing you could ever say about them. I would be firmly in that camp. So, what is a liberal and why do conservative Christians recoil at the very thought of being one? For purposes of this blog, the liberal will be constrained to liberal theology. To be a liberal means that one’s theological views can be defined as liberal. There are a number of components that go into liberal theology but for purposes of this article, only one will be considered. In short, liberal theology, in one way or another, rejects the authority of the word of God. I say in one way or another because there are a number of ways that liberal theology attempts to free itself from the bondage of the sacred text. Another question that some people wonder about is if they themselves are a liberal Christian. If a person rejects the authority of Scripture, is that enough to ipso facto make them a liberal Christian?

The fall of man headlong into sin was about autonomy. Man’s overwhelming temptation in the Garden during that baleful conversation with Satan was the temptation to break free. From what exactly did man desire freedom? Man had everything he could want or need, didn’t he? Oftentimes we speak of the Garden of Eden as paradise. Hence, it follows that we refer to it as paradise lost. But there was something more that man began to desire in the Garden that he did not have. And that something was absolute freedom. Only one being actually has absolute freedom and that being is God. God is truly free to do whatsoever He pleases. And the Lord actually does whatsoever He pleases. (Ps. 115:3) In his desire for freedom, what man actually received was bondage. Man exchanged bondage to God and freedom from self for freedom from God and bondage to self. This fallen condition explains why we all struggle with selfish desires day in and day out. The seat of the sinful nature is located in self. This is easy enough to see in our secular culture. However, while it can be somewhat veiled in the Christian community, nevertheless, it is present. The battle for selflessness is more about authority than it is anything else. Hence it follows then that for the Christian, what is the authority that has absolute right to rule every aspect of their life? To some, the answer to this question is easy; to others, not so much. And yet, to many more, the answer is very murky. The authoritative source by which God controls the behavior of believers is the word of God. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we struggle with our desire to do something with the word of God as opposed to permitting the word of God to do something with us. Liberal theology has answered the word of God by retiring its authority and replacing the authority of Scripture with human reason. Liberal theologians do not dispense with the content of Scripture entirely. They simply pick and choose where they believe the authors of the text got it right and dismiss where they believe they got it wrong. For example, a liberal female pastor once informed me that Paul’s view on women pastors was based on his cultural bias and therefore it did not reflect God’s view. Simply put, Paul was wrong. However, when I pressed this same female pastor on the question of homosexuality, she readily condemned the act as sinful and ungodly. I then asked her what she would say to a homosexual who asserted that Paul’s writings against homosexuality were simply a reflection of Paul’s cultural bias against the lifestyle. She became incensed. I did not intend to upset her. That was not my aim. My goal was to rip the mask of her inconsistent reasoning off so that she could see that her argument was both incoherent and self-serving. Her problem was that human reasoning had displaced Scripture as her final authority for how she would live her life. It is not surprising that the selfish, sinful nature of humans would attempt to remove any claim of authority over our lives at every turn. We are sinners. And we have a selfish bend that runs through our entire being. The last thing we really want to do is that which we really do not want to do. But God’s grace is sufficient.

This liberal behavior is not limited to liberal churches, seminaries, or theologians. It seeps into even the most theologically conservative churches, seminaries, and theologians. This is because we all have a sinful nature. We are all selfish to one degree or another. The question that each of us must face is what to do when the word of God commands us to do that which we really do not want to do. Will the text of Scripture transform our lives and change our behavior? Or, will we, like liberal theology, find a way to appease our conscience, displace Scripture with human reason, and end up walking in obstinacy to the imperatives of our Lord. Our problem with Scripture is not what it says, but rather, what it expects. We have a problem with what Scripture requires of us. We will do everything we can to reason our way out of obeying Christ’s commands. We don’t have a problem with the Bible per se. What we have a problem with is how the Bible threatens our way of living. This is true of every sinner that has ever walked the planet. We are fine with the Bible condemning murder and forbidding such behavior among humans. Why? For we also detest such behavior as murder. However, what if I am a female pastor and I discover Paul’s imperative that women are not to serve in such roles? Now I have a decision to make. Will I recognize Scripture’s right and authority over me to inform me of my error and respond by changing my life? Or will I find a way to conveniently continue in my desired behavior and transform the meaning of this text into something I can live with? John Frame writes,

“Let’s define the authority of language as its capacity to create an obligation in the hearer. So the speech of an absolute authority creates absolute obligation. Obligation is not the only content of language, as we have seen. But it is the result of the authority of language.” [Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, P&R Publishing, 5]
The word of God places mankind under absolute obligation to do as it says because it is the word of the absolute sovereign God who is Lord over all. He is Creator of all that is and therefore has absolute right to direct our behavior down to the most infinitesimal detail.

Many conservative pastors and Christians shutter at the thought of being accused of being liberal in their theology. However, the practice of displacing Scripture with our own sinful reasoning is indeed the foundation of liberal theology. We have far more in common with liberal theology than we care to admit if this is how we handle the sacred text.


  1. Ed, I live in an area heavily populated with Mennonite Communities who very strongly believe the command in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 for the women to cover their heads. While I would not attend a church where a woman pastors, I certainly wouldn't refuse to fellowship with blood bought believers in Christ who don't wear an outward sign of conversion on their heads. There are so many interpretations and thoughts regarding these verses. Like, why did the Jewish men cover their heads if it was, "from the beginning" shameful to do so. ?? Some say it's not a literal covering. Disregarding the liberal and legalistic man centered interpretations more importantly is the implied contradiction in the Scriptures. With so many pagan women being converted (doing who knows what with their hair) I have to wonder why Paul only addresses this one time to one church and preaches vehemently against such outward law keeping that separated the justified by faith to all the rest. Some believe this is as important as baptism. Your thoughts please. Thank you.

  2. Hi frmdeath2life,
    It is good to hear from you. You pose a very good question on this pericope. I will likely response with several comments due to space limitations of blogger. Exegetical process would require some knowledge of head coverings in Roman culture so that we can understand the significance of the issue in Corinth and the meaning of Paul's instructions. Second, we must keep in mind that Paul's instructions are within a practice particular to that culture which is why we must seek to understand its significance. Romans tied significance to what they wore while Greeks did so to how they spoke, were educated etc. The practice of head covering in Roman religious practice was well established. As is the case even with our own culture, the question of cultural religious practices being adopted by the church comes into view.

  3. You have two issues taking place in this pericope. The first is the Roman religious practice of head covering and the second is with women who seemed to be stepping out of the divine order of things. In making his argument, Paul touches both issues.

    It was not the head covering of men as much as it was the connection between pagan practices and Christian worship. It appears some Corinthian men were baptizing Christian worship into pagan customs.

    The idea of the head covering of the women also seems to deal with pagan influence. Does Kephale refer to loose flowing hair or a flowing head covering? While the issue remains one of much debate, I hold to the latter. A covered-head female was a respectable female, unapproachable in that culture. And yes, with sexual connotations.

    1. Can men introduce pagan worhsip practices into the Christian worship? Absolutely not!

    2. Is there still a distinction to be made between the sexes within the Christian community and does that impact how Christians live and worship? Most definitely!

    Summary: The verse must be understood within its cultural context. This means that we are not to integrate pagan and Christian worship. Secondly, it means that the distinction between male and female established at creation was not erased by the fall nor by Christ's redemption from the fall. God's order stands. Is Paul imposing ubiquitous commands to be taken literally outside of a Greco-Roman cutlure? Yes and no. Literally with headdress and hair length, no! In principle with pagan worship and roles and disctintions of the sexes, yes.


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