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:
“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."
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. ; 5:6). The enemy is sending against us every day the
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) Sherman
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.
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
SBChas 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.”
SBChas 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.
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.
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).