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Change and Conservatism

Dennis Bratcher

In many areas of the American religious scene, there are increasing conflicts between younger idealistic post-moderns who advocate changes in the Church and traditionalists (of any age) who want little or nothing in the Church to change. While the roots of this conflict are complex, related to shifts in culture, fresh ways of thinking, and changing technology, it is not especially a new problem. Even Jesus ran into opposition from traditionalists who tried desperately to hold onto traditions while he advocated reforms to both ways of thinking and practice.

One difference today is that new communication technologies accelerate the agitation for immediate changes to institutional structures and established ways of doing things, inconsistencies between theological ideals and practice, or even traditional ways of thinking. And that creates an impatience with the rate of change. The danger this produces within the Church when combined with postmodern ways of thinking is a risk of destructive fragmentation as younger church people give up on the traditionalists as outdated and irrelevant, and the traditionalists give up on the younger people as abandoning the Faith.

In many cases, both traditionalists who want the status quo and advocates of change have the best of motives. Many traditionalists see changes as threatening the truth of God, and understand that the stability of that truth within the Church is threatened by change. Yet, I have talked to many twenty-something and thirty-something Church people and pastors who sincerely desire changes in order to better express the Faith in a culture that has significantly shifted how it views the world and life in the past twenty years. So the problem is not just a "right" and a "wrong" side. The issue is how do we live together as people of God without continually fragmenting into groups dominated by self-interest rather than united as the Body of Christ.

Some say that we just need to trust the grace of God, that he will work it all out. And yet others rightly note that historically change has not come to the People of God without intentional effort. Certainly, God's grace can change anyone. But there is a truth in Andy Warhol's comment, "They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

I am totally convinced that a large part of the task, even the calling, of ministers and church leaders today, especially in more conservative/traditionalist contexts, is to facilitate change in a constructive, positive way. It is not change for the sake of change but more a matter of relating Faith to a changing world. Otherwise, the way we express our Faith will be rooted in the traditionalist structures associated with an earlier time and place, and be more a testimony to our own past than a witness to other people in the present and future.

In some sense, that was a major part of the teachings and ministry of Jesus, as he called people to move out of the security created and protected by their traditionalism, and embrace a newness that was really the heart of who they had always been beyond their self-imposed insulation (for example, John 13:34, 1 John 2:7-8, 2 John 1:4; the story of Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof is a good example of such tensions). It is risky, as Jesus well illustrates. And it takes time and patience. But that is the reality of the Church in which we live and minister today.

G. K. Chesterton wrote:

But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. [Orthodoxy, chapter 7]

In other words, if we do not openly and lovingly address the problems inherent in unbridled and unexamined religious conservatism/traditionalism in a rapidly changing world, we leave people to the mercy of cultural and historical changes without adequate intellectual and spiritual resources to deal with them. Rather than preserving the Faith, such conservatism will inherently deteriorate the Faith.

For example, I think a lack of courage among many leaders to address these issues in the past is one of the factors in the consequences we are reaping today in the militant conservatism seen in some organized groups (see Neo-fundamentalism). Some of these groups try to purge educational institutions and churches of any who suggest or advocate any kind of changes to ethical standards (such as suggesting that total abstinence from alcohol is an ethical choice not a law of God), who offer any alternatives to traditionalist interpretation of Scripture (such as supporting women in ministry), or who suggest that science and religion can be compatible (the old creation versus evolution debates).

That does not mean that we must be militant in return. But it does mean that we must have the courage, and the patience, to speak the truth, to teach faithfully and lovingly, to nurture people both intellectually and spiritually, to be openly honest about who we are and who we are not, and allow God to work. We must trust God that "means of grace" includes our ministry, that God can use our commitment to people and the Church as the Body of Christ (not just an institution) to transform not only individual lives but also the corporate community.

In other words, we need both the grace of God and the commitment of people who work hard at constructive positive change while they trust that grace. Zechariah was right when he gave this word to the people concerning re-building the Jerusalem temple after it was destroyed by the Babylonians:

Zech 4:6 He said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. "

But then Haggai was also right when he admonished the people that there were practical things to be done to accomplish the same project.

Hag 1:8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house . . .

Sometimes, we must work hard to facilitate the building of the Church and the Kingdom of God.  Yet it is not all dependant on our efforts.  Our primary responsibility is to live faithfully as the people of God. Part of that may be to point out the follies of the Church, as well as to recognize our own limitations and need for spiritual growth. Part of that may even to be a prophetic voice calling for change and reform, and working as best we can to accomplish those changes without destroying or damaging what we are trying to change.

But finally, we are not responsible for the change. We can cut down the trees. But it is God who builds his temple and brings about his Kingdom (see Divine-Human Synergism in Ministry). If we do not recognize that, as either traditionalists or reformers, whatever we manage to preserve or change will not be about God but about us.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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