• Keith Mathison

Progressive or Conservative?


When I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in the first years of the 1990s, I had a friend who was studying to become a pastor and at the same time trying to build a business back in his home state of Florida. At least once every couple of weeks he would take a long road trip and drive from Dallas to Central Florida to deal with business issues. He would then drive back to Dallas in time for his next class. This was a 16 hour drive each way, and I'm not sure how either he or his car held up as long as they did.

On one of these return trips, he stopped at a gas station along westbound Interstate 10 in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere. After filling his tank, he got on the entrance ramp to get back on the highway. Because he was tired and it was dark, he mistakenly got on the highway headed back east in the direction of Florida. He did not realize this for some time, and when he did, he had to keep driving several miles to the next exit in order to make a U-turn.

My friend’s goal was to reach Dallas. When he inadvertently began driving toward Florida after filling his tank with gas, was he moving forward? Yes. Was he making progress toward his goal? No. My point is this. Progress is defined by your goal or destination, not merely by forward motion. If you are heading in the wrong direction you are not making progress.

The labels “progressive” and “conservative” are used quite frequently in my particular political and cultural context in the United States, and a lot of individuals take pride in calling themselves one or the other. To those on the left wing of the political spectrum in the United States, “progressive” is almost synonymous with good while “conservative” is the equivalent of evil. For those on the right wing of the political spectrum, the opposite is true.

But, as my friend’s cross-country driving adventure illustrates, one is not making “progress” if he is heading in the wrong direction. If you have taken a wrong turn somewhere, the “progressive” thing to do is to turn around and head back to where the wrong turn was made. Similarly, to be “conservative” is a good thing only if what you are conserving is good. If you are driving in the wrong direction, “conserving” your current compass heading is not a good thing.

The labels “progressive” and “conservative” are merely two of many labels that exist in our culture, and people in our culture have become enamored of such labels as a means of self-identification and enemy identification. Few, however, stop to consider what those labels actually mean. As a result of this thoughtlessness, these labels usually accomplish little more than knee-jerk emotional responses on various social media sites. The labels become similar to wearing the colors of one’s favorite sports team, and as with support of one’s favorite team, it’s all or nothing. The self-identified “progressive” feels bad if he concedes that anything in the existing order is worth preserving, and the self-identified "conservative" feels bad if he concedes that anything in the existing order ought to change.

Christians ought to be more thoughtful and biblically grounded. We are in this world but not of it. Our identity is found in Christ our King. We are first and foremost citizens of His kingdom (Phil. 3:20). As Christians, we know (or ought to know) that because of the fall and sin, no earthly order is perfect, and none will be until Christ returns. All past and current earthly orders are a mixture of good and bad. In every culture and political order, there are good things worth conserving and bad things that should be discarded.

The key issue then is correctly identifying what is good and what is bad. For that we need an objective standard, and therein lies the world’s biggest problem – either no ethical standard at all or a completely subjective and relativized standard, and thus no meaningful definition of good or bad. Without a meaningful and objective definition of good and bad, the many labels the world loves to use become ethically vacuous. “Go team!”

Without an objective standard, which is found only in God, the world’s labels begin to be filled with all manner of meanings that are often contrary to God. Therein lies a potential danger for Christians. When Christians pull up to the world’s giant label display and start to apply the world’s nametags to our lapels, we get all of the world's baggage that comes with them. How can this be a problem?

Our task as citizens of Christ’s kingdom is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all citizens of the world’s kingdoms regardless of whatever label they have pinned on their lapel. The question I think we need to carefully consider, as Christians, is whether wearing the world’s labels on our lapels can hinder our task of proclaiming the Gospel. Can it hinder us from wanting to proclaim the Gospel to those among the lost who are wearing a different label? Can it hinder the lost from listening to Christians who are wearing a different label?

Perhaps another sports illustration will help explain what I mean. Let’s say you are a Christian and also a die-hard New York Yankees fan. Who is your “enemy”? The Boston Red Sox, of course. You “hate” the Red Sox and their fans. You can’t stand the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline.” [For those readers from other parts of the world, pick a different intense sports rivalry. I imagine U.K. readers can think of a few football/soccer rivalries]. Now, here’s the question. Could the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry have a subtle effect on whether you as a Christian would want to share the Gospel with those awful Red Sox fans in Boston? Possibly. However, let’s say it doesn’t affect your desire and you go to Boston to share the Gospel. Would it be a good idea to walk through the working-class neighborhoods of Boston attempting to share the Gospel while wearing a Yankees jersey and cap? Probably not. At best, it will be a huge distraction. At worst, you could get beat up, and if you did get beat up, it would not be a case of suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

I know the sports analogy is not great, but my point is that we ought to think carefully about whether and how our use as Christians of the world’s labels could impact our task of proclaiming the Gospel. If we choose to wear one of the world’s labels, we have to ask ourselves how it causes us to see those among the lost who wear a different label (or even the same label). If they wear the same label, do we assume they are not lost and neglect the Gospel? If they wear a different label, is our deepest desire when we see them that they go to hell rather than be saved? If we choose to wear one of the world’s labels, we also have to ask ourselves how it causes those in the world who are wearing different labels to see us? Do they immediately close their ears to the Gospel because of the label they see on our lapel?


Because Christ is our King, because we are first and foremost citizens of His kingdom, because His Gospel takes priority, these are important questions for us to consider.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

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