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prov·o·ca·tion - something that provokes, arouses, or stimulates. pant - to long eagerly; yearn. a collection of thoughts intended to provoke and inspire. these posts are hoping to encourage people to think, especially Christians, and pant even harder for the waterbrooks of the Lord. If you are not a believer in Christ Jesus, I welcome your perspective and encourage your investigation on these matters.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Conservatism ≠ Legalism? Seeking for Defintion and a Defense for Conservatism

Reflecting upon this week and the emphasis on who and what is conservatism, I think it is important to rehash the whole idea. I say this because I believe that too often we confuse legalism with conservatism, that if we are fundamentalists then that makes us right. There are two instances that happened that brought the idea of conservatism to my mind:

First is Dr. Ronnie Floyd’s recent blogpost in which he says the following:

“In a three-candidate race, I came in second; with the third candidate deciding to get in eight days before the race, which split the strong conservative vote.”

Before the election, there was the attempt to make Dr. Frank Page look liberal in light of Drs. Floyd and Sutton. It is obvious that in the mind of Floyd that he considers Page a liberal while Sutton is the conservative alternative. But hoes does Floyd or any other SBCer make the determination of what constitutes a conservative? Does he have to be an “insider?” Endorsed by popular mega-church pastors? Supernaturally drafted by God? It is plain as day that Page is not a liberal as he believes in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. But this alone is not the litmus test of conservatism, at least not for many Southern Baptists.

Second is of course the resolution on alcohol. When the debate over the resolution was taking place, every person who opposed it did so with Scripture as their basis and integrity as their goal. Not a single person who was for it could appeal to God’s Word (which we are supposed to believe in its sufficiency, perspicuity, inerrancy, authority, etc.) but rather made the argument from consequence and moralism. The assumption is that if you are opposed to the alcohol resolution you are a liberal; however, the fact is those who are opposing the resolution are not “liberal” but biblical—and that is conservatism. Adding to the Scripture mandates and resolutions is not conservatism—it’s legalism. Furthermore, let me provide you a few quotes from some leading conservatives who went on record against the alcohol resolution:

Tom Ascol:

“I do not think that we can be more holy than Jesus Christ.” Ascol added that “Christ turned water into wine.” Later on his blog, Ascol writes " . . . the resolution struck me as ill-conceived and unbiblical. We have enough problems dealing with real sins. We certainly don't need to manufacture more sins out of cultural preferences. When an amendment was offered urging that no Southern Baptist be allowed to serve on any SBC board if he consumes acohol as a beverage, I simply could not sit idly by."

Justin Taylor:

I want to hate what God hates and love what God loves. And this I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: God hates legalism as much as he hates alcoholism. If any of you still wonders why I go on supporting this amendment, after hearing all the tragic stories about lives ruined through alcohol, the reason is that when I go home at night and close my eyes and let eternity rise in my mind I see ten million more people in hell because of legalism than because of alcoholism. And I think that is a literal understatement. . . . Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn't look like one.

  • Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world.
  • Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one.
  • Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength.
  • Alcoholics don't feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.

Therefore, what we need in this church is not front end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new creation (a new heart)" (Gal. 6:15; 5:6). The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations we will be defeated even in our apparent success. (emphasis mine)

Joe Thorn:

At the big show, the resolution on refusing the gift of God (calling for abstinence from alcohol) overwhelmingly passed, but a number of courageous men spoke against it, encouraging biblical thought that should naturally flow from a belief in both the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. . . . You can’t raise a generation of men and women on the infallible/inerrant word of God and expect them to remain comfortable while introducing extra-biblical law and denying our Christian liberty.

Mark Lauterbach:

What makes a rule like that evil is simply this -- we have no right to bind the conscience of others by adding to the Word of God. Matt 15 makes that perfectly clear. If we do not trust the sufficiency of the Word of God as given, then we are questioning the character of God. It also shows we do not believe that Scripture is sufficient to guide and protect us -- we must add additional "fences". After 25 years of ministry I think legalism is one of the greatest evils I have ever fought. It looks so moral -- and is so full of self-righteousness and unbelief. It is the greater battle of my own heart.

Jeff Young (Corinth Baptist Church, Ravenna, TX):

“ . . . the older members of the SBC has won the battle to proclaim the Bible is “authoritative and sufficient, but when we pass extra-biblical resolutions such as this, we pull the rug out from underneath that teaching.”

John Armstrong:

The SBC has approved 57 resolutions against alcohol since 1886. One could almost say these Southern Baptists have alcohol on their minds a lot of the time. One leader referred to Baptists taking “the high road in our walk with the Lord Jesus.” This means, by obvious deduction, that anyone who does drink takes “the low road.” I grew up in a congregation that took this stand but many of the deacons and leaders did, in reality, drink. There was never any serious attempt to enforce any of this strong rhetoric in most cases.

John Piper:

Alcohol abuse is a great evil in our land. And no one can reasonably construe the proposed amendment to countenance such abuse. Not only that, I regard total abstinence generally as a wise and preferable way to live in our land today. It's the way I live, and the way I will teach my sons to live. The proposed amendment is not designed to encourage anyone to drink alcoholic beverages. It is designed to drive us to Biblical, spiritual self-examination in view of the stupendous fact that we are God's dwelling and are called to love one another and to build up faith wherever we can. The requirement of total abstinence, on the other hand, is heeded by millions of unbelievers and unspiritual church attenders. . . . The church should take a strong stand against such an evil and such an enormous destructive force, but should not include this or any such evil in its by-laws. My reason for this is first, that you cannot legislate righteousness or make people more holy by having laws, one any more than another.

Martin Luther:

We must not...reject [or] condemn anything because it is abused. This would result in utter confusion. God has commanded us in Deut. 4 not to lift up our eyes to the sun (and the moon and the stars), etc., that we may not worship them, for they are created to serve all nations. But there are many people who worship the sun and the stars. Therefore we propose to rush in and pull the sun and stars from the skies. No, we had better let it be. Again, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him (Ecclus. 19:2; 31:30); so we kill all the women and pour out all the wine. Again, gold and silver cause much evil, so we condemn them. Indeed, if we want to drive away our worst enemy, the one who does us the most harm, we shall have to kill ourselves, for we have no greater enemy than our own heart, as the prophet, Jer. 17, says, "The heart of man is crooked," or, as I take the meaning, "always twisting to one side." And so on - what would we not do?

-From his fourth Invocavit sermon from 1522, found in Works [American edition] 51:85.

Now I know that the blogosphere is not a fair playing field for Southern Baptists as many are still ignorant of blogging altogether, but I have yet to find a single blogger or comment that supports this resolution. I have yet to hear a clear and convincing argument on why Southern Baptists should have a resolution on alcohol. What I have heard are thoughtful, biblical, and historically contextual responses that reveal the danger, hypocrisy, and unbiblical nature of this resolution.

This further shows why we really need to define conservatism these days. Furthermore, is there a point when being a conservative is a bad thing? We are all too quick to run from rank liberalism, but are we willing to shun dogged fundamentalism when it contradicts or violates Scripture? With all this talk about the “Conservative Resurgence”, conservative candidates, and conservative ideals, I think we must first go back and establish a foundational meaning and basis of understanding with conservatism is altogether, lest we automatically and uncritically assume it to be right all the time and equivocal to the likes of legalism and extreme fundamentalism.

************************************************************ A couple of resources that might interest you on this matter include:

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F.H. Henry Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George Marsden Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr ************* Correction: The above quote attributed to Justin Taylor was not a quote from Taylor himself, rather it was from John Piper and his sermon already referenced. Piper's sermon can also be found in his book Brothers We Are Not Professionals (chapter 21).


Blogger Wade Burleson said...

A logical. biblical, historical. practical. theolgogical, and very readable post

Are you sure you are a Southern Baptist?


6/17/2006 11:36:00 AM

Blogger Timmy said...

Thanks, Wade, for stopping by!

Yeah, interestingly enough, I believe there are more tee totaler's (like me) who are upset about the alcohol resolution than those who actually drink.

Furthermore, while I disagree with Page on his soteriology as you do, a non-Calvinist does not equal a liberal either. As I rode to work last night, I just kept thinking to myself, "I wonder if in the next few years Southern Baptists are going to have to revisit why the Conservative Resurgence happened 27 years ago and rediscover what conservatism is all about." I may be wrong, but behind the issues that seem to dominate the floor of the convention and the front page of the press is a growing tension not between conservatives and liberals but between conservatives and conservatives. What defines us? Why do we believe what we believe? Are we willing to be critical of ourselves when we are wrong or unbiblical? How will we face the issues (and controversies) in the future?

These are questions I think we really need to answer.

By the way, thank you for your courage, conviction, and leadership. I suppose that some in the SBC think that you are a liberal too. Oh, yes I am sure I am a Southern Baptist . . . as much as you are. :)

6/17/2006 12:12:00 PM

Blogger james said...

The alcohol issue is a systemic problem in my mind and I don't know if it is simple legalism that is driving it or a failure to really be and think conservatively. The present behavior amongst conservative Christians today tends towards a interventionist mentality in which we seek to legislate, dictate or otherwise heap morality upon each other. Gone are the days when conservatism meant moderation and caution in all its spheres.

I ocassionally refer to myself as a paleoconservative, not really identifying with the group that term properly designates historically but more with an old idea of what it means to be conservative. I don't see the value in extending the Bible to the point of legalism because it sacrifices liberty which is what Christ came to give us: liberty from the tyranny of sin and the condemnation of the law with an equal liberty to works that glorify and honor Him.

I long for a return to real conservatism in which we truly believe that the Bible is the sole sufficient rule for all matters of faith and practice in the lives of believers. I also long for a return of real political conservatism that disengages us from unprofitable external entanglements and restores a right understanding of the rule of law and the role of government at all levels. I yearn to see a day, though I doubt it will come in this life, when the confusion that pervades this present age is vanquished and men see clearly the value of liberty and justice as coequal benefits to a truly freed people.

Conservatism is nearly dead in the church and our nation, neo-Conservatism has supplanted it and it is driving us places we should not go. I think the whole issue over alcohol is an issue of legalism but I think it is chiefly a failure of those who claim to be conservatives actually being what they claim.

6/17/2006 12:27:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...


What out with those "neo" terms! Just kidding. :)

Amen and amen bro. Let's keep the consersation going . . .

and tell the iMonk I said hello.

6/17/2006 12:40:00 PM

Blogger Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Timmy,

Thank you for presenting such a good article on this subject.

The principle aspect of conservatism is that it seeks to conserve, to preserve things as they are. That's great as long as the things you are preserving are in fact good, such as complete belief in the accuracy of the Bible.

But if the status quo is NOT good, and people wish to conserve THAT, then it is time to be a liberal or progressive until needed changes have taken place.

For example, in Greensboro this week I observed decisions being made based on political loyalty, ignorance, legalism, shoddy theology, misdefinition of terms, etc. I have no desire to conserve these things in our convention.

Love in Christ,


6/17/2006 01:39:00 PM

Blogger G. F. McDowell said...

The fact is, fundies have mixed Enlightenment philosophies with Christianity just as surely as the liberals have. I contend that the majority of the resolutions were borne more from a belief in the "American Way" than a belief in Christ. I need to reread my Bulletin Part 3, but I don't know just how many of those resolutions really were in accord with scripture.

6/17/2006 04:10:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

@ Jeff,

I have always found it humurous that anyone who criticizes the conservative agenda is automatically dubbed a liberal or at least considered thus. I don't think we need to call ourselves liberal or progressive as much as we need to work to recover what true conservatism is all about. Conservatism does not equal isolationism or total separatism or legalism or fundamentalism. Misrepresentations do not call for a rejection of the real thing but a rediscovery of it.

@ g.f.,

The American Way certainly is strong in our churches and in our thought processes. We must be careful where, how, and to what extent we pledge our allegiances and raise our flags. This syncretistic thought has brought a deeply inbedded cultural captivity in which we have been unable to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture in one hand and redemptively reached out to the culture on the other hand. Rather we fold our arms to our chests and pretend like we know better - all the while not realizing that we really know nothing but what the culture and former traditions have told us.

We need more than knee-jerk cultural reactions today. We need heart-wrenching biblical repentance.

. . . and this must begin with me.

6/17/2006 07:02:00 PM

Blogger james said...

I'd call a liberal anyone who engages in excesses. So in my mind the liberalism that leads people to affirm extra-biblical things is only different in the type of excess from those who would seek to undermine those things that the Bible plainly teaches.

6/17/2006 09:27:00 PM

Blogger Diet Coke Mania said...

Nice post. This resolution seems like so many other resolutions: a waste of time.

What is a conservative? It is a label that lacks any objective meaning within the SBC.


6/17/2006 10:18:00 PM

Blogger R. Mansfield said...

"So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this!"

(Ecclesiastes 9:7, NLT)

6/17/2006 10:31:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

Diet Coke,

You said, "What is a conservative? It is a label that lacks any objective meaning within the SBC."

Could you explain this further? That's sounds a little harsh, and I would like to understand your thinking on this.

Let me say that I am a conservative through and through though my credentials may not measure up according to some measuring sticks. However, my point is to get to the biblical measuring stick in the first place. :)

6/17/2006 10:35:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

@ James,

Do you think there is a false correlation to think that anyone who is theologically conservative must be socially legalistic? What I am seeing among the younger evangelical leaders is that this is false. Take for instance Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller.

Along with any terminology is a whole lot of baggage and perceptual implications because people think of these terms differently in different contexts. We cannot simply subscribe to a term superficially adhered to and poorly defined. Such is the case also with Calvinism. When they ask me if I am a Calvinist, I always ask them to define it - and when they do, I usually tell them, "I'm sorry, I am not a Calvinist according to your definition." Such is the issue with conservatism in the SBC I think.

6/17/2006 10:40:00 PM

Blogger james said...

I definitely think there is a false correlation, I look at myself as one who is theologically conservative but would be called at least a moderate and by some a flat out liberal for some of my social positions. However, I believe my expression of conservatism is much more consistent than others, particularly politically. Of course that may be due to the fact that I clearly adhere to Federalist principles on the whole to fill in some of the gaps my Christianity leaves when it comes to politics.

I see conservatism in all its spheres primarily ocuppying the middle ground between various expressions of liberalism. I don't like the stereotype of conservatives as 'resisting change' since I think the issue at play is more a matter of caution and not wanting to run headlong into what appears to be new. I think it is the same mindset that leads some to be legalistic that also leads others to be willing to reject the Bible's precepts: a failure to truly believe the Bible is sufficient.

I wrote a post yesterday called Defining my conservatism where I explored my thoughts on some of this.

6/18/2006 07:21:00 AM

Blogger J. Gray said...


I overheard a man in the hallway at the SBC who told the man next to me that he couldn't believe all the people that voted against the alcohol resolution. He said it's all those Calvinists who are antinomians. I was stunned.

But that is what the SBC has become...a people who are ready to fight against lots of stuff, as long as its not their stuff. No one is speaking against greed, even though at least 2 of our agency heads make over 300K a year on salary. Something tells me mentioning that would not go over well.

It still irks me that we gladly pass resolutions like the alcohol one, yet reject resolutions that encourage responsible church membership and reporting of numbers. Very sad.

Is it possible to be simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about the SBC?

6/18/2006 09:12:00 AM

Blogger Timmy said...

@ Gray,

I guess with a $300,000 salary that means you have a lot to give to the Cooperative Program. :) No, seriously, it's ridiculous and we all know it. But then if I was the one with all that money, I tremble to give an account to God with all that money, especially since it was given in the offering plates of his churches. After all, wasn't his strongest words of warning (as well as Paul's) against greed and wealth?!

The charge that Calvinists are antinomians is not a new hat. I just think they those making such a charge is only saying because we don't make and keep as many laws as they do. Phylacteries don't exist today in the SBC, by Pharisaism does nonetheless.

I, too, am optimistic and concerned. There is much to be excited about, yet we cannot allow what happened in Greensboro to think that the reformation we desperately need in the SBC will automatically ensue. There is much work to do.

@ James,

Concerning the sufficiency of Scripture, this may be the grounds for the resurgence in the 21st century as the inerrancy of Scripture was for the 20th century.

Concerning stereotypes, is it not usually considered that liberals are "progressive" or "forward thinking" while conservatives are "traditional," or "antiquated" or backwards (while being unwilling to embrace change)? I think this stereotype holds strong today (especially in the political sphere), but I think it can and should be debunked.

What saith thou? Or any other thou's for that matter. :)

6/18/2006 12:53:00 PM

Blogger marc said...

I think your Justin Taylor quote is actually John Piper and Justin was quoting him. Great collection of thoughts here, thanks.

6/18/2006 01:56:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...

Thank you Marc for the correction.

6/18/2006 04:44:00 PM

Blogger Alex F said...

Timmy -

Really nice work here. You may want to set up the Piper quote a bit as the use of the term "amendment" and stuff is unclear. he was speaking at the time about the bylaws in their church.

It reads a little unclear. Otherwise this is really solid stuff man.

6/19/2006 01:03:00 PM

Blogger Timmy said...


Yeah, I see where you are saying the amendment stuff is unclear. The sermon which Piper preached is linked to his name, so the context can be gathered there. For the sake of space and the argument I am trying to make, I chose to provide only an excerpt from his message.

By the way, I hope the move went well. Greenville SC, Greensboro NC - is everything green over there?

6/19/2006 01:32:00 PM


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