Conservative?

I’m having trouble understanding the contemporary meanings of words at times. One of the words with which I struggle is “conservative.” Leaving politics aside, where the term is frequently abused to the point of being unrecognizable, it has a similar murky meaning in the life of the church. To understand how the meaning got so blurred, you need to know a little about the history of the church. There are far too many stories for a single journal entry, but one example can be seen in the history of the Methodist Church. After the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church, there was, within the Church of England a reform movement. A group of men began to meet regularly and systematically setting about to live a holy life. They celebrated communion every week, fasted regularly, abstained from most forms of amusement and luxury, visited the sick and prisoners on a regular basis. The name “methodist” came from outside the group - their particular style of personal piety was seen as a “method.”

Prominent among those early methodists was John Wesley and his younger brother Charles. At the invitation of Georgia Colony governor, James Oglethorpe, they both set off for America as ministers to the colonists and missionaries to the Native Americans. Upon return from a mostly unsuccessful first mission trip, they began to look for other sources of faith. This brought them into contact with Moravians and John had an evangelical conversion experience. Together they began to preach salvation to individual sand groups. The movement led to the development of societies within the Anglican church which needed organizational elements. The organization of societies led to an eventual separation from the Church of England over many different items, including the fact that the methodist system allowed women authority in church leadership.

As the budding new church grew in the American colonies, there was a lack of leadership and the recruitment and training of lay leaders led to a different system of selecting and preparing ministers than had been the case in the Anglican church. There was far less emphasis on scholasticism and more emphasis on personal piety and a strong sense of vocation.

Meanwhile, anabaptists also were spreading their theology and religious practice in the colonies. They developed, among other qualities, a strong sense of individual congregational autonomy and responsibility for choosing and preparing leaders for ministry. Both traditions, the methodist and baptist had strong convictions about education of children and were diligent in pursuing education, but placed a lower emphasis on scholasticism and university education as prerequisites for ordination than was the case in some other Protestant denominations that were forming.

As Protestantism grew in America it developed a very strong anti-catholic bias. In rejecting the forms of the high church, including vestments, architectural excess, and the use of Latin, Protestant churches began to see themselves as separate and different from Roman Catholic members. This anti-catholic bias turned into bigotry and labeling of the Roman Catholic Church as enemy.

Eventually the combination of the emphasis on personal piety, the emphasis on congregational autonomy and the anti-catholic bias led to large numbers of Christian ministers who had little exposure to traditional university education, and a deep separation from the history of the church. They were strongly committed and, for the most part diligent in their personal study of the Bible, but many were unexposed to systematic teaching of the history of the church.

Growing out of this history there is in the contemporary church in America a strong and vibrant evangelical group that emphasizes traditionalism, but is strangely uncoupled from a robust understanding of the history of the church. It is not at all uncommon to find among these church leaders individuals who are ignorant of the long history of leadership in the church and who are disconnected from some of the reforms that were instrumental in the founding of their own denominations.

For example, for a Methodist to fail to pass on the rich tradition of female leadership that was present in the founding of their own movement is scarcely “conservative.” It represents not a conservation of the history of the church, but rather a radical departure from that tradition.

The situation in the contemporary church makes it very difficult for the label “conservative” to carry significant meaning. Those claiming to be conservative often are not truly conserving the rich history and tradition of the church because they are unfamiliar with or ignorant of it.

The assumption, within the contemporary evangelical church, that faithful persons cannot or should not glean wisdom form high church history has led to the introduction of ideas and even church doctrines that are strangely disconnected from the history and traditions of the church. It also leads to interpretations of Scripture that are anything but conservative.

Returning to the topic of the leadership of women, for example, there are teachers of the Bible who seem to be skeptical of the many examples of female heroism within the Bible. They don’t teach the stories of Deborah, Esther, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, Martha, Susanna and Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla and Dorcas. And women’s roles didn’t stop with the Acts of the Apostles. Women played a huge role in the early church. According to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, the early church was dominated by women, many of whom studied Hebrew and Greek.

There are those who teach about Augustine without studying or even knowing anything about the life of his mother, Monica of Hippo, a peacemaker and minister to teachers and pastors in the early church to whom Augustine credits his salvation and ministry.

There are church leaders who know nothing of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century saint who was a polymath who wrote treatises on medicine and natural history, composed music and poetry, experienced visions and provided extensive religious leadership. They don’t teach about Teresa of Avila, who wrote theological works on prayer and contemplation and founded multiple monasteries.

There is a much longer list of prominent women in the history and traditions of the church. Those who reject the role of women in the leadership of the church don’t deserve to use the title “conservative.” They are not conserving anything, but rather inserting their own made up ideas of church history in place of the truth.

Actually, I think I am a conservative. But my evangelical brothers might not ever think to use that title for me.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!