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On Becoming Conservative Liberals


I love being a pastor for many reasons and one of those is because of tolerance in our community.

In more ways than I am able to count, our community at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville is a wonderful representation of God’s kingdom—a sweet manifestation of the aroma of Jesus. In a world of outrage, judgment, fear, posturing, and caricature, I especially appreciate how our community embodies love across lines of difference.

This excerpt from our Vision Statement tells the story best:

We will celebrate our diversity—opening our lives and hearts and homes to sinners and saints, doubters and believers, seekers and skeptics, prodigals and Pharisees, Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians, young and old, married and unmarried, leaders and followers, famous and infamous, our own races and other races, happy and depressed, helpers and those who need help, creative and corporate, conservative and liberal, American and international, affluent and bankrupt, public and private and home schooled—and all others who enter our doors. We will aspire to expand our “us” by carefully listening to, learning from, and being shaped by one another’s unique experiences and perspectives.

I guess you could say that we are advocates, as much as we are able, for the properly-defined gospel virtues of diversity and tolerance.

My former colleague and mentor, Tim Keller, says that tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. True tolerance, he says, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us.

Tolerance that “tolerates” only people who think, believe, vote, earn income, and live like us is not tolerance at all. It is covert prejudice at best, and thinly veiled contempt at worst. It is scorn covered with a mask of insincere niceness.

For our Christian witness to be taken seriously in the West’s increasingly pluralistic and secular environment, Christians must learn the art of:

  • Remaining true to our beliefs and convictions;
  • Genuinely loving, listening to, and serving those who do not share our beliefs and convictions; and
  • Consistently doing both at the same time.

If we do not value this combination, then instead of being a light to the culture, we risk becoming products of it.

If we cling doggedly to our convictions but fail to love, listen to, and serve those who do not share them, we become products of a moralistic Pharisee culture, which is not gospel culture.

If we do the opposite, we become products of a capitulating Sadducee culture, which is also not gospel culture.

Truth without grace is unwelcoming and shaming. Grace without truth is cowardly and enabling. Only when we combine grace and truth do we rightly embody the gospel.

Effective Christian witness—especially when the prevailing tone in virtually all public discourse is outrage, not civility—requires Christians to adopt an irenic tone that is counterculture.

For example, there are plenty of places in Scripture where God’s people move toward and even cooperate and partner with people who do note share their beliefs:

  • The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to advance the work of God’s kingdom.
  • Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar.
  • Jesus, a Jewish male, received a drink from a promiscuous Samaritan woman.
  • Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals.
  • All these were devoted, noncompromising people of faith living in deeply secular, pluralistic environments, who prioritized both grace and truth.