On “Liberal”

Liberal LogicGreat, brief article by Ron Highfield on the history and nature of liberal Christianity. No one should ever refer to someone as a “liberal” Christian without first reading this.

In the Churches of Christ (and we are hardly alone in this), it’s become standard practice to refer to someone as liberal if he approves something you don’t. If I’m okay with supporting orphans homes out of the church treasury, and you disagree, to you, I’m a liberal. If I accept some people as fellow Christians and you disagree, then I’m a liberal.

As a result, in Church of Christ discourse, “liberal” means nothing more than “Raca” or “You fool!” It’s just an all-purpose insult, used by Christians who are commanded not to insult each other (e.g., Matt 5:22, 15:19; Eph 4:29; Col 4:6).

But among serious students of the Bible, “liberal” has a very particular meaning, and Highfield explains it very well.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to On “Liberal”

  1. John says:

    Highfield, in his last paragraph, said that liberals have nothing to say, is neither Christian or liberal and not even interesting.

    Lets see, liberals marched with the Civil Rights leaders in the sixties when conservative churches, even moderate ones, ignored it, sometimes even fighting to keep segregation alive. Liberals stood up against the Vietnam War when conservatives, and moderates, held to nationalism over peace. I find that pretty interesting, myself.

  2. Nathan says:

    I appreciate the link, and I agree that the word “liberal” is often used as an “all-purpose insult” for the people with whom we disagree. I know many who use the terms “conservative,” “traditional,” and “fundamentalist” in the same way.

    Of course, all of those terms can be used as simple descriptors without intending any insult. After all, many people happily describe themselves as “traditional” or “progressive” Christians. Moreover, the terms are relative. Someone can be far more liberal than I am, but they may not accept all the positions outlined by Highfield.

    As you say, “liberal” has a very particular meaning, both to serious students of the Bible and to students of political theory. For casual political observers, “liberal” is associated with the modern Democratic Party. For serious students, however, America itself has a very liberal tradition and is steeped in Enlightenment rationalism.. It affects both political parties. Unfortunately, it also affects the church. Many in the church, across the spectrum, owe a tremendous intellectual debt to Locke. What is scary is that most aren’t even aware of it.

  3. Chris says:

    Jay, I was wondering, if Paul were alive today to witness the acceptance of homosexual unions by some segments of the church, the prosperity gospel, etc., what word would he use to define this spiritual phenomenon?

  4. Dwight says:

    The Christian’s gave “liberally” which showed thier disposition for giving to others without regard for themselves. They were thus “liberals” in this way and admired by Paul. On the other hand many conservatives, are conservative in giving and wish to keep thier money thier money until commanded into giving such as on Sunday. But some people that liberally give might not be good in other ways and those that don’t give readily might be good in other ways. Those terms should not be used to describe a person, but rather to describe an action or actrions of a person. A Christian should be both liberal in some things and conservative in some things, but not the wrong things.

  5. Dwight says:

    Chris, I would think Paul would say, “sinful” or maybe use the word “abomination” as used in the O.T.

  6. ifaqtheology says:

    Jay: Thanks for citing my blog post on Liberal Christianity. I see that you are from Alabama. So am I! From Fort Payne, though now I live in California. My next post will follow up on the one you cited. I will post it Friday evening. I think you will find it interesting. Indeed, as some of the comments above indicate, the word “liberal” can have a very positive meaning. And it can refer to a political style. But I hope those who read the piece will realize that I am using the word in a technical and precise sense. I am criticizing a particular theological program developed first in the 19th century in Germany, not a word. Thanks for your good work!

  7. John F says:

    (Sarcasm font): But if we cannot label, it will be so more more difficult to demean easily those who do not accept our viewpoint and opinions. We might actually have to discuss and discern what is essential and meaningful. That would take so much more time and effort! (End of sarcasm font).

    One of Satan’s great tools is “katagoria”: placing one into a “category” of some kind, a kind of which God disapproves: too old, too young, too sinful, too . . . . and the list goes on. So too often we fall into categorizing each other in ways God does not; and like Satan, we attempt to use categorization to condemn one another.

    (Sarcasm font) Using terms precisely is so restrictive and hurtful to judging one another. End Sarcasm font)

  8. David W says:

    A couple of points come to mind.

    John’s critique that the conservative/moderate churches did not march with the civil rights movement acts not so much as an an endorsement of “liberal” theology, but as a condemnation of the the conservative/moderate churches which opposed the movement. Atheists and agnostics also marched with the civil rights movement, that doesn’t validate their analysis of theism. Additionally, it is also not true that only liberal churches supported the civil rights movement, there were many moderate and conservative Christians who also did – a large chunk of the historic black churches were and remain conservative.

    But I think the much bigger point Highfield is making is that “Liberal Christianity” fails to be either because it has deliberately detached itself from the historic moorings of the catholicity (note the small “c”) of the faith. (The “universality” or “comprehensive range” across time, space and persons of the faith.) That is the modern “true” church stands not as something new or special, but as the current incarnation of something ancient. It stands only because it stands on the faith of the past. It accepts the same truths as the past. I think that in the sense he means the term, “Christians” are actually Christians in part, because they share common beliefs with Christians of every era. (And for the CoC that means they are going to have to pay greater respect to the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Middle Ages, for example.)

  9. Monty says:

    It doesn’t appear that Paul or Timothy were married. Neither would be accepted as evangelist in the traditional CofC. Kinda odd don’t ya think? There are exceptions to every rule. I wonder if even Paul would qualify as being “sound” as some consider it. He spoke in tongues, had women actually assist him in the ministry, taught salvation by faith as opposed to rule keeping and met with brethren mostly in their homes. Put that on your resume young preacher(any preacher) and see how far you get.

  10. John says:

    True, David W, many of the black churches are theologically conservative; yet, at the same time, politically and socially progressive, much to the bewilderment of most white conservative churches. And it is also true that most of the black conservative churches have no problem working hand in hand with theological liberals for humanistic concerns. A lesson that many of us two dimensional, either/or, culturally conservative white folks had to learn, and I pray, keep on learning.

  11. We all have been influenced in different ways by the Church of Christ of our upbringing. My particular experience as I interpreted it emphasized that the traditions of men was a bad thing. Argument from tradition was not valid. One had to be able to rationally determine the truth. It is not dependent on tradition. The fact that people one or twenty generations ago may have followed a different tradition or believed certain things was beside the point and no indicator of truth by itself. Hence I’ve never been affected by the conservative argument, both politically and religiously, that tradition is binding. Christianity has never been a unified or static thing. We are far removed in time from those events described in the Bible of happenings in cultures and languages much different from our own. And, the world in which we live presents experiences and situations that the Bible could not have anticipated. So it is a matter of interpretation. One’s interpretation is strongly dependent on one’s history, upbringing, and social location. I’ve got no problem having my perceptions and beliefs labelled as liberal. But I’ve been learning from thinkers who critique enlightenment rationalism in both its conservative and liberal expressions. I’m not sure of the right way to describe where some of us are going. For a while I thought the terms emergent and postmodern were fitting. Whatever it is, the younger crowd thinks and interprets life in this new mode quite naturally, whether they can articulate it or not.

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I’m an RSS subscriber to your blog. Fascinating stuff.


    Here’s the RSS link: http://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/feed/

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Regarding homosexual unions, “sin.”

    Regarding the prosperity gospel, “Σκύβαλον” (skybalon) from Phil 3:8 — something that must be given up to serve the true gospel.

  14. rich constant says:

    Yep Ron’s quite
    a guy. I know I went over to his house after going to the Chapel for Sunday service Theren Pepperdine absolutely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. very nice to be invited to go to a baptism very nice to be invited to his house for a potluck just happen to be the right time of the month enjoyed the conversation had a wonderful conversation I listen to him I mean I really focused on him across the dinner table when he was talking about atonement although I think I got a little too focused and since the Church of Christ doesn’t really have a position Atonement or the Trinity. I felt like he was dancing a little bit around the issue but then that’s just my perspective very very smart very nice man.
    but of course very smart he’s got a doctorate degree I think organized and ran the lectureships for years didn’t didn’t He Jay or am I mistaken.
    if you read this thank you Ron I’ll always remember it.
    yeah and before you go jumping in the squirrel cage going to know what liberal Christianity is.
    I just didn’t feel right today I think I doubled my medication yesterday that’s not a good thing so that’s about the only excuse I’ve got or reason.
    Its just all compared to what

  15. Dwight says:

    Labels sometimes are helpful when determining a thing, but not good when determining a person. People are complicated with complicated thoughts and history and feelings. That is why sometimes it is hard to determine who to vote for, becaue they leand one way in one thing and another way in another thing. Christians, if we go by that term, should be judged by our fruits, if judged at all, as we shouldn’t judge others. Sometimes we might say we love someone and yet withhold something from them out of that love, but to another it looks like we are rejecting them. This goes to sin, if we reject the sin, we shouldn’t reject the person, unless they reject Christ. People change thier minds, we do it too, but if another one does it, then they are wishy-washy or not sincere. Now when we assign them a label, we judge them by not what they do, but by the label. Even Jesus who was good, when called good, assigned that label to God. Often the label in religion we assign ourselves is in the order of self-righteous.

  16. Mark says:

    Like many on here have said, “liberal” is used to put down anyone with whom you don’t agree much like “that isn’t sound doctrine.” It is pronounced right before the pulpit-issued, leadership-condoned condemnation to hell. It can be issued to particular individuals in a congregation for having different political views, supporting Habitat for Humanity, or listening to music that the elders don’t like or for being young and asking questions. It can also be hurled at the group of believers down the road in another cofC who have one or more of the following: a fellowship hall, a kitchen, a functional sink not in the bathroom, a youth group, stained glass, etc. I have not even gotten to its use to refer to Baptists and Methodists. Sadly, most people have no idea of liberal Christianity and how it regards the Bible a lot like Aesop’s fables.

  17. James Neely says:

    Ref: Liberal.
    Some times my tongue gets ahead of my better judgment. One example was during a conversation I once had with an elder from a nearby congregation. He asked me if a certain preacher that I knew “Was a liberal”. My instant response was, “If you are talking about his giving, I certainly hope so”.
    A true statement, but poor chouce of use.

  18. John says:

    I’m old enough to remember when the Boston Church Movement was the Crossroads Movement out of Gainsville, Florida. People in “small town” Church of Christ were actually calling it Liberal, when in truth it was the most legalistic movement the CoC had ever experienced. It only showed how uninformed our people were then, how anything different caught the liberal label.

  19. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I could tell 100 such stories on myself. Sarcasm is just so very easy and … fun. I’ve trained myself to be less sarcastic on the Internet. It’s taken years and I have a way to go. But the tongue, well, it’s much harder to control. I still cringe when I remember some things I’ve said. Recently. But maybe when I turn 70 I’ll finally grow up.

  20. John F says:

    My wife is still waiting (47 years) for me to overcome sarcasm (especially sarcastic humor) — still working on it, hope I have made some progress. (I was “called down” in a court hearing by a judge who failed to appreciate my sarcasm, The judges words, “I gave little credit to Mr. F. often sarcastic testimnoy” [still decision in my favor]).

    What makes sarcasm so demeaning is that to be truly “good” it must contain some element of truth, often uncomplimentary to the target. That is why it does not “lift up” but tear down.

    Jay, I guess we could ask other posters to pray for us both!

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