I have been in some recent conversations with people and have come to find out something very interesting. We cannot use the “L” word any more. LIBERAL. It is “not helpful.”

That really stinks. I thought it was a helpful term. I used it quit often. Why am I always the last person to find out that we cannot use certain terms? Someone needs to start a website with an RSS feed and an email subscription to inform people when terms are no longer helpful.

Who made this decision anyway?

The term “Liberal” has meaning. It has meaning that goes beyond 21st century polemics bent toward the vitalization of the Christian faith. It has meaning that goes beyond the 20th century polemic against modernists who challenged the historicity of the Scripture.

Liberal is both an adjective and a noun that can be used in any context—politics, religion, history, sociology, science, or cooking. It is a rich word. It is a good word. No one can claim its death any more than someone can claim the death of “super,” “great,” “fast,” “brown” or any other random adjective you can think of. The funeral for the “L” word is a bit premature.

In Christianity “liberal” still has meaning. So does “Liberal” (capital L). Neither are going to go away. No matter how much people say that it is a meaningless word, it still has meaning. Bury the word and it will resurface. Sure, maybe its resurrection will not consist of the exact same matter, but it will have the same DNA.

Ironically those who are fighting for its moratorium are normally those that fit the bill of “Liberal.” It is nothing new for people to call a cease fire when they are the ones getting shot at. Wouldn’t you?

Yes, the term has a context (don’t all words), and yes, it can miscommunicate.

Compared to some Christians, I would be called a liberal. This does not mean that I fit the bill, generally speaking, but it simply means that I am more liberal than they are. This is the adjectival use of the word. With this I agree. I am more liberal than some people.

Here are some ways that you might be labeled a liberal by some:

  • You don’t believe in a young earth.
  • You don’t think that Peter Enns should have been fired.
  • You don’t believe that inerrancy is a watershed issue.
  • You don’t read from the KJV only.
  • You do read from the Message.
  • You sympathize with the concerns of the emerging church.
  • You think only God has absolute certainty.
  • You are an Arminian.
  • You drink alcohol.
  • You drink alcohol (did I already mention that?)
  • You read this blog :) .
  • You go to rated R movies.
  • You wear mixed fabrics.
  • You go to a seeker-sensitive church.
  • You drink alcohol.
  • You preach topical sermons.
  • You have contemporary music in your church—and you like it!
  • You don’t home-school.
  • You read C.S. Lewis.
  • You curse.
  • You go to church on Saturday evening.
  • You let your kids watch Harry Potter.
  • You enter a swimming pool with the opposite sex.
  • You don’t go to church on Wed.
  • You watch football on Sunday.
  • You let your kids play with Barbies.
  • You are an “enabler” because you don’t preach passionately against the the above list.

Deep breath . . . If these constitute possibilities of being called a liberal, then I admit it. I am guilty of many. Call me a liberal.

But to limit the use of the word to its adjectival function would be missing its importance.

Let’s back up. We first have to reclaim another word that people don’t like—”legalist.”

“Legalist” is a rich word too. We need it. It is the opposite of liberal (grace is the medium). It is hyper-conservatism. To the legalist, everyone is liberal because everyone is more liberal than they are. Legalists are those who have their lists, like that above, that run a mile long. If you fail on their list in the slightest, then you are a liberal in their eyes. Legalists are those who emphasize the non-essential elements of the faith, elevating them to the litmus test of your profession of faith. Legalists kill Christianity. They compromise the faith by misrepresenting what it means to be Christian. They have neither knowledge of the Scriptures nor a knowledge of the history of the church. All they have is an emotional commitment to the faith that was passed down to them by their community.

Liberal, however, can be defined more historically as a willingness to compromise essential Christian beliefs. This is when the adjective turns into a noun. This is where the small “l” grows up. Whether you go back 100 year or 1000 years, it will be the same. Sure they may not have called it “Liberal” long ago, but articulations of how the word sounds does not matter. There were still Liberals. There were those who did not follow the Scriptures, but followed their own way, doing what is right in their own eyes.

To a Liberal (capital L), I am a legalist (lower case l). And in their context, this may be true. If they define legalism as a commitment to the historic Christian faith, then I fit the bill. If they define legalism as an adjective, compared to them, I am more legalistic. If they define legalism as one who calls the act of homosexuality sin, believes in a real hell that is going to really suck, and votes Republican, then draw the circle around me.

But, like the word Liberal, Legalist has a historical context that will transcend its adjectival usage. It is one who compromises Christianity by mis-defining it as a firm adherence to their vice list of non-essential beliefs and practices. This is when the adjective turns into a noun.

There are still Legalists and there are still Liberals. There are still people who are more legalistic and there are still people who are more liberal. These words are still very useful. But like all words, they have to be understood in their context.

I am a liberal (to Legalists), but I am not a Liberal.

I don’t see how these words have died. I don’t see how these words can die.

How about you? Where do you fit. Can you add anything to the list above? Are you a liberal, but not a Liberal?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    3 replies to "The Premature Funeral of the “L” Word"

    • Dr. G.

      In some Bibles, I seem to recall, God tells us to be “liberal.” In giving to the poor.

      Which is in fact, a major part of Democratic Liberalism; social programs to help the poor. Medicare; Medicaid; Social Security; etc..

      Pat Robertson uses “liberal” as a bad word; while God uses it as a good one. Which should we follow: Pat Robertson, or God?

    • Susan

      Ha ha! I’ve noticed this too…..but it is those whom the title befits who say it’s “not useful”.

    • Salvatore

      I would contend that most Liberals are also Legalists. And that they are Legalists in the worse sense of the word; that is, they believe, teach, and confess justification by good works.

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