Those two words don’t seem to fit together, do they? Doesn’t “conservative” imply a reluctance to change?
While it is true that conservative people are often portrayed as resistant to any change, and perhaps many conservatives warrant such a portrayal, I’d like to explore here a biblically conservative philosophy of change and demonstrate that often being conservative is what necessitates change.
By definition, “conservative” means a desire to “conserve” something. Yet, contrary to what many believe, what conservatives want to preserve is not simply what is old, established, or traditional.
Rather, conservatives desire to preserve what is transcendent, absolute, true, good, and beautiful. In particular, as “A Conservative Christian Declaration” states, conservative Christians
have committed themselves to cultivating biblical Christianity by pursuing absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. These transcendent realities are grounded in the character of God and are expressed through his works and his Word. In other words, Christians determined to believe God’s truth, live out God’s goodness, and love God’s beauty, preserving and nurturing these ideas by upholding forms and institutions capable of carrying their weight.
This commitment by conservative Christians, rather than precluding change, will often necessitate change. How? There are at least two situations in which conservative Christianity will accept (or even require) change:
The first is in situations where what is old and established is in itself no better than what is new. Or to put it another way, when what is new is just as good (or, in some cases, better) at perpetuating absolute truth, goodness, and beauty than an older practice, a conservative Christian will happily adopt the change.
Some newer cultural customs do as good a job of reflecting biblical values as older cultural behaviors. In those cases, the cultural change was just change of external behavior rather than a change in values. On the other hand, there may be cases in which the newer practice actually does a superior job of perpetuating Christian sentiments. In these cases, conservative Christians will enthusiastically promote change.
However, the conservative Christian will also recognize that sometimes culture changes as a reflection of a change in values, to the degree that the newer practice actually carries values that are contrary to Scripture. In these cases, conservative Christians will resist the change. Thus, conservative Christians must always make efforts to determine whether changes in customs, culture, and expectations are simply lateral movements or movements to a higher or lower degree of value.
The second situation in which conservative Christians will desire change is when what is established tradition is actually not itself conservative. In other words, there are often practices that have become “traditional” in certain Christian circles that actually contradict and hinder the perpetuation of biblical Christianity.
This is perhaps no more true than with some Christian songs that have been promoted as “traditional,” yet they are neither really good nor old. They have been preserved as the standard of good hymnody, but they are seriously deficient lyrically and musically in what they express and affirm. In this case, conservative Christians will actually advocate for change from the tradition in favor of songs (ancient and modern) that express Christian values and beliefs far better.
For these reasons, it is actually the conservative Christians that will sometimes look like revolutionaries, as they seek to change established practice.
Likely the best example of this is the Reformers. Here were men that promoted change of established tradition, some of which had been believed and practiced for hundreds of years. These Reformers looked like revolutionaries (some even called “radical”), and they are sometimes portrayed as such. Yet the changes they were advocating were not simply change for its own sake or change for the purpose of fitting in with contemporary values; rather, they desired change so that they could return to biblical practices rather than practices that had become traditional, yet contradicted biblical mandate and example.
One further comment: although conservative Christians will often desire and promote change, they will do so conservatively. They will recognize that even with practices that require change because of their deficiencies in carrying biblical values, leaders must be patient, carefully explaining the change as they slowly move in that direction.
Change is sometimes just change. Sometimes change is a necessity. In both cases, conservative Christians will desire to preserve the absolute values of Scripture and welcome conservative change.