This article appeared in the April-June, 2002 issue of the Gospel Gleaner, a very conservative publication within the fellowship of Churches of Christ, published not too far away from me in Mabelvale, Arkansas. I could see no copyright on the issue, and that issue was not the article’s original publication, so I hope I am not in violation by republishing it here.
When ‘Conservative’ Isn’t Sound
by Mike Vestal
Being religiously “conservative” is not necessarily the same as being sound in the faith (Titus 1:13; 2:2). The two are not synonymous terms. Without any doubt, there are many areas in which Christians are to be, and must be, conservative. But this is not always so. Rather, we must always endeavor to be sound. Of the twenty-three passages where the Greek word for “sound” does occur, twelve are in the gospel accounts and nine are in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. The Greek word always has reference to health, wholeness and well being, whether in a physical or spiritual sense.
The idea of spiritual soundness is especially to be seen in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. We are to be sound “in the faith” (Titus 1:13; 2:2). We must cling to sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). And we must speak, hold and yield to the sound words of Christ (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 2:8). The emphasis in these passages is on God’s word as a received body of fixed teaching that is to be used to give us the spiritual health we all should desperately desire, as well as to counteract any teaching, concept or practice that would threaten our soul’s health and well-being.
The fact is, there are real dangers in thinking that conservative always equals sound and vice versa. And this is not just an exercise in semantics or straining at some technical, but unimportant, subtlety. This becomes particularly true at a time in which an increasing number of brethren seem to be showing less respect for the authority and all sufficiency of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is possible to become so carried away with the disregard for God’s word that we are seeing on the part of some brethren that we fall from our own steadfastness (2 Peter 3:16-18). And just as some in their quest for something more have been guilty of compromising Scripture and of damaging their relationship with God, so some in their efforts to be conservative may unwittingly have exhibited something considerably less than what the Lord desires. Christianity involves all the love a man has — his heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30).
Sometimes “conservative” is merely a buzz word for being sound asleep, or for excusing oneself from at least some aspect of the will of God. And that’s when “conservative” isn’t sound! To be more specific, consider the following occasions when being “conservative” isn’t sound.
Soundness always has reference to good health, wholeness and well being, whether in the spiritual sense (cf., 2 Timothy 1:13) or physical (cf., Luke 15:27). But this is not always true of conservatism. There is a “carnal conservatism” that is every bit as real and wrong as the increasingly blatant disregard a number of brethren are displaying toward the authority and all-sufficiency of Scripture. To be more specific, consider the following occasions when being “conservative” isn’t sound.
When One is Not Motivated by Love. Revelation 2:1-7 speaks of the church at Ephesus. This church was an active congregation as well as one interested in doctrinal purity. In many ways it would have seemed to be a wonderful congregation. But the Lord said they had “left” their “first love.” And that’s serious! 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 speaks of the possibility of eloquence in communication, depth in knowledge and sacrificial giving (all good things) being worthless unless one is motivated by love.
When One Fails to Act Wisely and Expediently. This has to do with the need to humbly respect God’s will and to do what He has authorized in a manner that reflects sound judgment and action (1 Corinthians 6:12). It is possible to believe what is right, but to lack a sense of discernment and diligence in properly carrying things out (Philippians 1:9-11; Hebrews 5:11-14).
When One Talks but Doesn’t Do. What is so sound about any individual or church that talks but does not practice it? (See James 4:17). And while none of us is perfect, those who truly love the Lord will ever strive to do His will more completely (Ephesians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 3:8-10). As John penned, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
Are both our actions and attitudes sound?
When Sinful Pride Replaces Humility. Is it not possible to become so proud of our stand on various biblical matters, as well as the acclaim, associations, and opportunities that may come along with that stand, that pride rears its ugly head in us? (cf., 1 Corinthians 10:12; Proverbs 16:18). One may take a stand for truth without knowing God deeply and richly, but God desires both! (Colossians 1:9-10; Philippians 3:10). Humility drives away sinful ego when we truly seek to know Him. As John the Baptizer said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
When the “Whole Counsel of God” Gets Lost in the Issues and Controversies of the Day. Truth is often controversial, and error must be dealt with, but the “whole counsel of God” must be proclaimed too (Acts 20:27). It is not enough to just rebuke and reprove error; one must exhort, comfort and strengthen (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2; Acts 20:20). God’s people must not be known only for what we are against. We must also be known for what we are for! (Acts 20:32; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is seemingly no end to the number of errors which may be seen about us, but that is no reason to give congregations a steady and constant diet of every issue and controversy among us. Evangelism and vital forms of edification can easily get lost in the shuffle when this is done. May God give us all greater wisdom in exercising biblical balance in this regard.
One of the greatest dangers of “carnal conservatism” is that it is so insidious. It is easier seen in others than in ourselves. And while I trust, “carnal conservatism” isn’t so in any of us, it is still wise and proper to ask, “Master, is it I?” (Matthew 26:22; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10). For to be guilty of such is to be unhealthy and unsound. — Granbury Street Church of Christ bulletin (May 11, 18, 25, 1997).
I don’t know if this is the same Mike Vestal who is now on staff at the Westside Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, but I strongly suspect that it is, for in a recent church bulletin, there is an article commending love above other law to the members.
And, while I would probably use different words to express similar ideas here and there in communicating the text of the article above, I cannot at all disagree with it. Nor can I insist that what it says can be said only of “conservative” members of churches of Christ. It is just as applicable to those of us who are called “progressive.” (Though, within our fellowship, I would have to say that disregard for the authority and sufficiency of scripture is extremely rare among those of us called “progressive,” much more scarce than those who are called “conservative” might believe.)
It is often a struggle for me to remember to love, to express love, to live out love – especially when engaged in impassioned debate with some of the folks whose views do not agree with mine.
But Mike Vestal has nailed it, in my opinion: If our actions and attitudes aren’t as “sound” (and I would use the word “Christ-like”) as our doctrines, we are only “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13) – whether we are “conservative,” “progressive” or in that vast in-between.