How to be a Liberal, Confessional Christian (and Lutheran)

1. Remember the centrality of the Word of God.

This should go without saying, but if you don’t remember this fundamental fact about Christianity, there’s not much point in continuing, is there?

And what is the Word of God? Fundamentally, it is not the Bible–it is the on about whom it was written. The core belief of Christianity, who we trust, is not in a book, but in God, the Son of God (the logos, the “Word” of John 1:1). God is as living, breathing, alive, active, and engaged in the world today as in every age. This is the God we worship.

2. Remember the centrality of the Word of God(2).

Okay, here, I do mean the Bible. That includes both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments. There’s a reason that conservative-evangelical Christians harp on liberals for leaving behind the Bible–sometimes, we do. Just like there are crackpots that believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old or that it  is flat (I’m not joking, there is still a Flat Earth Society, and whether or not that organization is serious, a colleague of mine visiting another church encountered a true flat-earther during a Bible study), there are extreme liberals who throw out the Bible because they don’t like part of it. Well, tough, we have to live with the parts we don’t like, such as the casual rape and genocide in the name of God, or Paul’s homophobia. Those are part of the history and we don’t get to sweep them under the rug. We have to decide how to respond to them.

It is important to remember that the Bible describes two things: how humanity has already responded to encounters with God, and who God is. Taking these two together, looking at the whole story, is how we learn about God, not by taking each verse in isolation on its own (it wasn’t separated into verses until the 16th century anyway, meaning that for 1600 years people read the stories as cohesive stories). Simply taking the words by themselves is no more helpful than trying to have a conversation with a dead body (unless your name is Donald Mallard). There is a difference between what the Bible says and what the Bible is saying. We don’t worship the book, we worship the One who inspired it and whom is revealed in it. Always ask, “What is God trying to tell us through this?” Notice, I said “us,” not “me.” Christianity is a community of faith, not an individual act.

3. Don’t forget the Confessions (for us Lutherans).

For other traditions, substitute your own confessional writings or magisterium or whatever. For Lutherans, the Book of Concord is the defining book of the tradition. It presents itself as a valid interpretation of scripture. It itself is not scripture, though sometimes I get the impression that it gets treated this way. It is the guideline for how the Lutheran tradition has interpreted the Bible and, especially the Formula of Concord, is an example of how people with different views and interpretations can come to common resolutions and agreements. The Lutheran Confessions are important to Lutherans because that’s what makes us Lutheran. And there’s really a lot of good stuff in there. But we don’t worship the book, and Martin Luther had a tendency for dramatic ass-hattery, so be warned.

4. Look to the Biblical prophets.

This is something liberal Christians excel at, and about which other Christians could learn a thing or two. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are concerned with two main realities–1) the worship of God (and only God) and 2) taking care of the poor and the oppressed. Which is more important? The famous words of Micah 6 are emblematic of the entire prophetic voice: God doesn’t care about the rituals, the ceremonies, the right acts of worship nearly as much as God cares about the poor and oppressed. Liberal Christianity is right in line with the prophetic tradition: take care of each other, and the rest will come. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” Right belief means nothing without accompanying action.

5. Be missional.

Buzz word alert! I tried, I did, but I couldn’t come up with a better word yet. To be missional is not to dedicate your life to converting non-Christians in far away places and saving their souls (as if we could save anyone, anyway). To be missional is to recognize that the church, the gathering of Christians, does not have a “mission from God” (that’s for Jake and Elwood), but is itself the hands for God’s work in the world. It’s not our work, but God’s work–and we better make sure that what we’re doing is indeed God’s work and not our own idea of what that is. See points 1-5.

6. Always be willing to talk.

The great thing about liberal Christianity is it can say it may not be right all the time. It’s okay to have debates, it’s okay to have dialogue. The early Ecumenical Councils were great deliberations (and fistfights, but let’s leave that particular expression of disapproval in the past, shall we?) in which opposing views were presented, debated about, and, ultimately, decisions and compromises were made. The Book of Concord is the result of dialogue and discussion. I can’t remember who said it (and can’t seem to find it anymore, hmm), but I can confidently confess, “I believe I have the truth–but I’m not the only one who does.”

7. You may have to “shake the dust from your feet.”

It’s not worth it getting into fights with someone whom you disagree with. Even Jesus’ disciples were told not to sweat it if the good news they proclaimed was not received. They were told to dust themselves off, move on, and don’t worry about it. You don’t have to prove you’re right. You may not be. Human religion is also a faded mockery of what God hopes for us.

8. Always act in love.

This relates back to points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The defining character of God, God’s Word, God’s Son, and God’s relationship with creation is love. It overrides everything else. God changes God’s mind out of love. God throws out the old rules out of love. God eschews ritual purity out of love for the poor. God continues to return to a marriage with a rebellious world because God loves it. Our idea of justice demands punishment, but God bends over backwards out of love. There’s a pop song “Love Can Move Mountains” (go ahead, judge me, I dare you), and if we treat our own love this way, what do you think God’s love can do? There is a reason that Jesus boils down all of God’s law into two commandments–love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Above all else, this is what we are called to do, and to be.

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Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

13 thoughts on “How to be a Liberal, Confessional Christian (and Lutheran)”

  1. Hmmmm….Am I to understand that only “liberal” Christians think/behave this way? There is no room to apply any of these points to “conservative” Christians??? Maybe I am reading this with a thin skin. Gee, I consider myself a conservative Christian (no, not a fundamentalist, or “evangelical”) and I agree with about everything you have stated here.

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    1. Good thoughts though and something I have wondered in the past. I think this is a false dichotomy we’ve created, that being confessional means you are conservative. Being confessional has nothing to do with politics. Perhaps it would be best to leave the words liberal and conservative out of a discussion about worshiping a living active God who works through both parties, liberal and conservative.

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      1. I am finding this to be more and more the case. My classmates once pointed out to me that I seem to be theologically conservative but socially liberal, and that’s not a combination one expects. So though I consider myself liberal, I don’t know what to call myself.

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        1. Politically liberal, orthodox, theological conservative? Yeah, there really is no good descriptor. I’m right there with you on this one. I have often struggled being labeled politically conservative because of my theology this year on internship. Its definitely a confusing thing to say the least.

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    2. The point of the post wasn’t to be extreme in either direction (which I think I managed) and, in some ways, to be a correction to extreme liberal Christianity. I don’t like extremes.

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  2. Actually there is a real literal serious Flat Earth Society in my home town of Lancaster, CA. I worked at a TV station and they were invited on a show (along with a Big Foot admirerer). Sadly they had no idea that they were on as a joke.

    I don’t mean to take away from your message. It is a nice article and I actually did not know that Lutherans were liberal.

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    1. Lutherans run the spectrum from conservative to liberal between and within denominations. The “big three” in the United States are the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the most conservative; the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, also conservative; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is more liberal, and the church I am a part of. Even in the ELCA, though, Lutherans of all political and confessional persuasions are found.

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  3. I just discovered your blog, so sorry for the late comment. I agree with much of what you say, particularly being willing to talk. However, I am extremely conservative, by any standard, especially in the ELCA. I am actually a young earth creationist. I see love and grace all over your blog, and then I read that I am one of the “crackpots that believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.” That isn’t loving or graceful, it is insulting. My guess is that you don’t want to be insulting. It is possible to be a well reasoned, well educated, ELCA Lutheran and believe in a literal 6 day creation. For what it is worth, I think that we conservatives tend to be downright insulting about liberals too. I have learned one thing as a Lutheran, grace never fails. When I choose to show grace and love, I always radiate Christ better than when I let an insult slip. Just something to think about for the future.

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    1. Thank you for calling me out on my choice of words. At the same time that I talk about being graceful in speech, I prove that I myself don’t always choose to be.

      Which of the Young Earth Creationist “camps” would you say you find yourself in?

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      1. I am certainly slow to respond. I don’t claim a camp as a Young Earth Creationist. I simply believe in a fairly literal interpretation of Genesis. To say that I am not always made to feel comfortable in the ELCA is an understatement. At the end of the day, grace never fails. So as long as someone acknowledges the essentials of the faith, I am pretty happy to let the other issues be things that we discuss in love and tolerance. Thank you for your apology. You have just become my very favorite blogger. Most people cannot admit when they make a mistake, certainly not publicly. the people who can are the ones for whom being a means of grace is possible.

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  4. (Late Post): I think it was Thomas or Alexander Campbell, who said something like “…we believe in being Christian only, but we are not the only Christians…”

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