There are several adjectives that I happily use to describe myself and my beliefs. The first is obviously, “Christian,” but there are a lot of people and groups that call themselves “Christian” with whom I have significant disagreement, so I need other adjectives to modify “Christian.” I happily call myself a Baptist Christian, which says certain things about my beliefs concerning church government and baptism among other things. I also describe myself as a separatist Christian, or a fundamentalist Christian, which helps to describe my perspective concerning ecclesiastic cooperation with unbelievers or those who grant Christian fellowship to unbelievers.
There are other adjectives I use as the occasion warrants, but from my perspective, the most important adjective that I use to modify “Christian” is conservative. In fact, I would suggest that my convictions as a Baptist and as a separatist actually flow from my conservatism, which I explain more later.
However, the adjective “conservative” to describe Christianity has fallen on hard times.. For many Christians today, the term “conservative” is considered a bad word—at least if the term is used to describe anything beyond allegiance to the inerrancy of Scripture and orthodox, evangelical doctrine. When the word is used to describe a particular philosophy of culture, beauty, or worship, “conservative” is often considered something extra biblical, unbiblical, or even anti-biblical. For example, a pastor from Arizona wrote the following several years ago on a popular fundamentalist blog:
Let’s shoot in the head the desire to be conservative. Let’s be Biblical and where that leads to doing things in a traditional way….well “rejoice.” Where that leads to a more contemporary approach….Selah!
I thought his comment well-reflects the sentiment today of many Christians. He sets conservatism over and against being biblical. I had lunch with the president of a fundamentalist institution a couple years ago (he’s no longer the president, by the way, and the institution doesn’t even exist any longer), and he was expressing his concerns to me about what he perceived was my philosophy of ministry. So I explained to him what I believed to be core biblical values that I was trying to articulate, and as soon as I said the word, “conservative,” he said, “See, that’s where I have a concern.”
There is this impression that conservatism adds to Scripture boundaries that are themselves not biblical. We are supposed to be gospel-centered, and so anything that goes beyond the gospel, the argument goes, should not be a measure of fellowship. From the Gospel Coalition to Together for the Gospel and other “gospel-centered” ministries, many biblically minded church leaders insist that we should never allow a particular philosophy of culture or of worship to limit our unity around the gospel and our cooperation as Christians. Some even might call themselves “conservative evangelicals,” meaning they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and even complementarian views concerning gender roles. However, when it comes to culture and worship, to be conservative is to go beyond Scripture. For example, Mark Driscoll has proudly claimed to be “theologically conservative and culturally liberal,”1 and while others might not put it quite so bluntly, they would affirm the underlying sentiment. This is not just limited to the conservative evangelicals either. More and more Christians from within what might be called movement fundamentalists are trying to distance themselves from so-called “cultural fundamentalism,” which is just another way of saying a conservative philosophy of culture and worship.
One of the reasons most often cited for rejecting a conservative philosophy of culture is evangelism. We must “contextualize” God’s truth into the culture of our target demographic in order to reach them with the gospel. We are faithful to Scripture doctrinally, but the cultural forms we use to communicate truth are neutral and entirely flexible. This is often taken a step further with the claim that Christians must be free to worship using the artistic expressions of their surrounding culture in order to be authentic. One fundamentalist institution very publicly and controversially changed its philosophy of culture on the basis of the fact that we should not expect people to worship using cultural forms that are not their authentic heart language. To be culturally conservative, they argued, would be a failure to be “missional.” And by the way, I wrote a whole book addressing this perspective; if you’re interested, check out By the Waters of Babylon published last year by Kregel.
So the question I want to address in this series is this: Should philosophical differences over culture or worship hinder cooperation among Christians? To answer that question, I would like to first explain exactly what I mean by a conservative philosophy of worship and culture—I need to do this, because for many people conservative means being against anything contemporary and desperately holding onto “good old hymns” that are neither good nor old; that’s not what I mean, so I need to clarify before we go any further. Then I will explore what constitutes the center of Christian unity, and finally examine how a biblical understanding of Christian unity and necessary disunity applies to differences over philosophy of culture and worship.
- Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 138. I would suggest that this is a key distinction between historic fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. While fundamentalists have never been perfectly conservative culturally, they have always been more cautious in adopting the most novel cultural forms. [↩]