What is a ‘liberal Christian’?

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To answer the question I ask in the title of this blog, I hereby present you with the following rhetorical scenario.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a vegetarian, and you go to a club where vegetarians hang out together. Upon entering the club, you see an individual who looks like someone you’d be interested in meeting, so you walk over and introduce yourself. As you’re chatting over drinks, you notice that this person is munching on martini sausages and you ask in some confusion why they’re eating meat. In reply, this individual tells you that for breakfast that morning, they ate bacon, sausages and eggs. Then for lunch they had a bacon cheeseburger and for supper they had an entrecôte steak, and now they’re enjoying some sausages with their martini.

A bit taken aback, you ask them why they call themselves a vegetarian if they eat meat all the time.

They reply by rolling their eyes and asking sarcastically if you’re one of those “fundamentalist vegetarians” who insist on a “dogmatic definition of vegetarian” and who never stops judging and condemning people like them who live out their vegetarianism by eating meat every chance they get?

When you reply that you don’t want to be judgmental but you honestly don’t understand why anyone who doesn’t agree with your “dogmatic definition” of the word “vegetarian” as someone who avoids eating meat would even bother to call themselves a vegetarian, your new friend starts accusing you of using an outmoded and obsolete definition of the word “vegetarian” to condemn and/or “be mean” to people like them who live out their vegetarianism in a different way than you do. 

They might even say they feel sorry for you because by refusing to embrace their more enlightened way of thinking, you’re not only closing yourself off from opportunities for self-enrichment, you’re essentially telling millions of potential vegetarians that they’re not welcome in your (ever shrinking) little fundamentalist club. How, your new friend demands to know, will the vegetarian community ever attract new members if people like you insist on telling them that if they eat meat, then they’re not really vegetarians.

They then proceed to inform you that, as a “carnivorous vegetarian” they are too enlightened and “free thinking” to waste their time engaging with a close minded, old-fashioned, ignorant and bigoted hater like you, and they stalk off with their nose in the air, leaving you standing there sputtering and astounded.

The surreal experience I’ve just described is, as you’ve probably already guessed, a metaphor for encounters I’ve had over the years with those who identify as “liberal Christians” including members of mainline Protestant denominations and Unitarians, but also a small but growing number of self-described Evangelicals.

How, they will ask (usually in a highly affected attitude of faux bewilderment) could someone living in 2021 (or fill in the current calendar year if you’re reading this in later years) actually believe that there is such a thing as an objective standard of right and wrong, much less that there will be consequences for a person who violates that standard? How could anyone actually believe that God would ever allow anyone to go to this place called “Hell” (which anyway is just a fairy tale which was cooked up in the Middle Ages to scare people into giving money to the Church and otherwise obeying its rapacious leaders) and how could anyone actually believe that a person who refuses to accept the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross for their sin will suffer any negative consequences for that? For that matter, how could anyone actually believe that there is such a thing as “sin” when everyone knows that the only thing Jesus does or EVER did was love everyone no matter what they do, did, refused to do, failed to do, etc?

In other words, one of the chief cornerstones of “liberal Christianity” is being offended by Orthodox and/or Evangelical Christianity, and making a regular habit of letting everyone know how offensive it is.

However, the sad truth is that many individuals and even entire Evangelical denominations have drifted into functional Unitarianism while retaining the word “Evangelical” in their official name and also keeping their membership in Evangelical associations. This phenomenon has, in fact, become so widespread that I am beginning to wonder if the word “Evangelical” is even still useful anymore. Seeing the word in the name of a given denomination, parachurch organization, or even an individual congregation, certainly shouldn’t lead one to take anything about that place for granted.

Which brings us back to the illustration of the “carnivorous vegetarian.”

Words mean things and the more narrow their definition, the more useful they are. The opposite is also true.

The words “carnivorous” and “vegetarian” have meanings that are so different, they are actually mutually exclusive. It is therefore difficult to imagine that anyone would ever try to call themselves a “carnivorous vegetarian” and expect to be taken seriously.

The words “liberal” and “Christian” also have meanings that are so different, they are actually mutually exclusive. The word “liberal” refers to a set of ideological beliefs that are, almost by definition, a repudiation of the set of ideological beliefs that anyone who calls themself a “Christian” will hold. However, the meaning of the word “Christian” has been stretched so far that it has become acceptable for it to be adopted by many who don’t even pretend to follow the Bible, including even the very words of Jesus Christ Himself, so the surreal term “Liberal Christian” has in fact come to be taken very seriously by many people.

How did this happen, and what can be done about it?

The answer to the first question is, I believe, that this is a perhaps inevitable result of the Protestant Reformation’s wholesale throwing out of many babies with the bathwater. Bad ideas and practices of the Catholic Church like indulgences and fairy tales like “purgatory” were thrown out along with absolutely necessary (and Scripturally supported) practices like the excommunication of heretics and a hierarchy of Church leadership authorized to speak on issues like what constitutes “sound doctrine” and what doesn’t.

The attraction to Rabbinic Judaism by so many disillusioned Evangelical Christians is another example of the bad fruit from the Protestant Reformation’s over-correction of the excesses of the Catholic Church, but that’s a subject for a different blog.

As for what can be done about all this, I will frankly admit that I don’t think anything short of the return of Jesus Christ to this Earth can solve these problems at this point. The mistakes of the Protestant Reformation have been left unaddressed for so long that there’s no longer any hope of fixing them. Human efforts to sort it out are, from my deeply regretful perspective, doomed to failure (they are, in fact, already failing.) 

So, brothers and sisters, this is another reason, if anyone needed another reason, to pray earnestly for Jesus’ speedy return to this Earth. It’s what I’m praying for every single day, and it’s a prayer I hope you’ll join me in.