Theologically Conservative & Socially Progressive

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Jesus was like this. He outraged the Pharisees of his time, for his progressive attitude towards the sinners, Samaritans, women, poor, and all others the socially conservative had thrown out.

And yet, the Pharisees couldn’t catch Jesus on personal sin or doctrinal fault. Jesus was theologically conservative. He believed in the authority of scripture and in the moral rightness of the law. He believed in God’s promises to Israel, but here was the catch, he claimed these promises would be fulfilled by Israel’s love for their enemies.

Conservatism can serve as an excuse for us to separate ourselves from others. Eating with sinners, a former prostitute washing the feet of Jesus, are among the issues that greatly disturbed the Pharisees’ sense of “otherness,” of protecting their personal interest and carefully managed establishments.

So what is the morality of the scripture? It is a morality of incarnation, of putting on flesh, humbling ourselves, among the people different to us, to bring reconciliation into our wider lives and communities. This kind of morality goes to our inner hearts and completes us through our relationships with each other. Its true conservatism, because it renews us from self-centredness that we don’t often perceive.

But it isn’t a loose morality. It doesn’t say that the moral norms of our society, say in marriage, are trifles, to be ignored due to their lack of personal convenience. Again, it sees this avoidance of personal inconvenience as the sin to shun, as the self-centredness that eats away at our communities, that subjects the weak in our societies to large scale vulnerability.

If God is the God of incarnation, he is also primarily the God of covenant faithfulness, of total loyalty to his relationship with Israel. Here is his primary inner ethic, love that manifests itself in unwavering faithfulness in his relationships. This is his reason for incarnation, to seek out and save the lost, because of his immoveable, self-giving faithfulness to others, rather than to his own convenience.

Morality is putting others ahead of our self and this makes us both theological conservative and socially progressive. These two are the same. All the prophets said it, those who hold to a theology of faithfulness, seek out “the city of God,” a society of mutual justice between all its different members.

I like the way Tom Wright expressed one of his main aims, to bring together people’s passion for the cross of Christ, with other people’s passion for the teachings of Christ on social justice. Tom humorously mentioned the Apostles Creed, which spoke of Christ born of the virgin Mary, and then immediately being crucified under Pontius Pilate. “What happened to all the stuff in between, that the Gospel writers carefully recorded, especially Jesus’ teachings about the reason he came, that his kingdom might come upon this earth?”

It seems sometimes we have two different types of Christians, those who tarry at the cross and resurrection, the central doctrines of our salvation, and those who advocate for the justice that the teachings of Christ make central. We may even have preferences in the scripture, whether the Gospel writers, or Paul, who seem to emphasis different things, maybe towards either a more social or a more personal faith.

But could these authors be pressing at the same matter? Have we wrongly separated these two themes, which are supposed to be held together as one? Do the social teachings of Jesus instead really point to a proper understanding of the cross and of the resurrection to new creation? Are theological conservatism and social progressivism the same thing? Is the separation of these false? Do we need to reappraise Paul, Jesus’ teachings and the gospel of the cross, to see that these are all speaking of the one new kingdom of God?

One of the purposes of the resources on this site is to address this false divide we have set up. The right wing is conservative, but this conservatism should lead us to many of the social concerns of the left wing. That is, we should marry the fidelity of morality to the social love that this fidelity points us to. We should stop the argument and become like God, who was faithful in Christ and visited us in our sin to restore our hearts and lives as a people of inter-community love.