Monday, July 17, 2006

The Middle Way, Age Segregation, and A Bit of Irony

One notion I've been pondering a great deal over the past eight months or so is the notion of liberal v. conservative. For some reason I held the belief for years (whether or not I would admit it) that conservative = good, period. I was proud of the fact that I was conservative. My family attended a conservative church; we homeschooled and were part of a conservative homeschool group. We lived in a conservative county in the Bible belt, which is predominantly conservative. So we had a lot of company in our conservativism.

But one only has to give the gospels a cursory glance to realize that the group that most enraged Jesus was the conservatives. Really. Stop and think about that. Jesus was more merciful, more friendly with tax collectors and prostitutes, than he was to the morally upright rulers of the law. He was enraged with the Pharisees. He called the conservatives of his day a "brood of vipers." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The conservatives of Jesus' day, like so many conservatives of our day, were too morally rich to truly understand their need of a Saviour. Usually the conservatives of today fail more in recognizing this for sanctification than justification, but we are guilty of both :(. The Pharisees distorted God's grace with their extreme legalism, and for that they were condemned. More conservative does certainly not equal more righteous!

A few weeks ago my pastor preached on the Rich Young Ruler from Mark. One thing that especially caught my attention in the sermon was the observation that the Rich Young Ruler's riches were a stumbling block in two ways. He did not only have a love of money, but a love of himself as well. He had moral wealth that blocked his recognition of a need for a Saviour. Someone who claims to have kept all the commandments from a boy is not going to see his need for a Saviour. His moral riches were a stumbling block to him.

The Rich Young Ruler and the Pharisees both completely missed the purpose of the law. The law is not soap to wash ourselves clean; it is a mirror to show us our sinfulness and to point us to Christ. Because the Pharisees were in a false sense of security over their standing before God, their hearts were hardened more than the worst of sinners. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

But back to Jesus' befriendment of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I am certainly not saying that by fraternizing with them Jesus was endorsing their sinfulness. Far from it. So many people remember Jesus' kindness to the condemned prostitute and His challenge to her accusers: let the one without sin cast the first stone. But too many forget His charge to the prostitute: go and sin no more. Jesus wasn't in the business of ignoring or redefining sin; that's the liberal response to sin. Sin is an affront to God and cannot go unpunished. To deny this is to deny the very essence of Christianity.

Jesus attacked both the liberals and conservatives of his day! Jesus was in the business of dealing with and forgiving sin. But only for those who were humble enough to realize that they needed a Saviour. So, though I would never describe myself (for fear of misunderstanding) as a moderate, perhaps that is more what I am seeking to be. I pray that God continues to deliver me from Pharaseeism, even as I pray that He will keep me from antinomianism. Truly, the middle way is best. Human nature is prone to extremes, but usually what God requires is balance. Let's look at an application:

A year ago I was stalwartly against any form of age segregation in church. I am still no fan of the vast bulk of age segregation in modern churches. But I now have no problem with Sunday Schools, if they are implemented to support parental training, rather than usurp it. I strongly believe that children belong in service with their parents. But I admit now that the place of infants (or very young children) in church is not so clear in my mind. I still want to have my (hypothetical future) children in worship with me from birth (or conception, rather), but even then I admit that I may change my mind, and ultimately it is up to my (hypothetical future) husband, not myself.

I realized gradually that, while I agreed with most of the motives behind the anti-age-segregated movement (family togetherness is important, e.g.), some of the principles were applied in an extra-Biblical way. Just because Sunday School is often abused in our culture, replacing the Father's responsibility to train his children, doesn't mean that all Sunday School programs should be automatically tossed away, especially at the risk of brotherly unity. Children do learn at different levels (though not as stringently as many would have us believe). And Christians are saved into a covenant community to aid them in training their children. Sunday Schools and similar programs don't have to preempt worship, though sadly they often do. One response is to say the issue of age-segregation does not matter at all, and another is to think that all age-segregation is wrong. Period. I've come to believe, as I've studied the scripture this past year and as God has been teaching me about Christian grace and charity, that the moderate view on this is best.

Now for the ironic part. I need to end this post so I can go make some calls to recruit volunteers for our church's nursery. I recently agreed to become the assistant nursery coordinator for my church. Given my rather strong views last year, that is extremely ironic. And who said God doesn't have a sense of humour?


Anonymous said...

Yes, the thing with conservatism is that it depends what one is trying to conserve.

When I was studying church history, and we looked at the Reformation in England (so-called), it took me a while to get used to that fact that "conservative" referred to the Roman Catholics.

Jessica said...

Great post, Susan! I too used to be more conservative a couple years ago, but thankfully the Lord has tempered that and I've come to realize that, like you said, more conservative does not necessarily mean that it's better (though you said it much more articulately!). Have you ever read The Grace and Truth Paradox by Randy Alcorn before (wait, have I already asked you that?! Sorry if I have...)? It kind of deals with similar issues and how Jesus did, essentially, take "the middle way" as you mentioned. An excellent book and I would recommend it!

Anonymous said...

Great post Susan.

However, personally, I don't believe that there is a middle way. There is God's way, and generally it doesn't make sense to us. What we need to realise is that there is absolutely nothing worthwhile in us and yet God loves us. The only way is to lay down our lives before the Lord, as rubbish, filthy rags, and then pray that the Holy Spirit guide us in His footsteps.

As for Sunday School and any kind of school. There are no specific scriptures that indicate that a child must be kept at his (or her) parents' side the whole time. Look at Samuel and Eli. Look at Jesus who disappeared as a child for 3 days before they looked for Him (obviously not tied to His mother's apron strings).

We are responsible for a child's walk with God and we must take every opportunity to share His love and His guidance, but I don't think that any kind of school setting, as long as it is not dangerous in it's teaching, is OK in my mind. I wouldn't be happy with a boarding school though, lol.

Having said that I do love the idea of homeschool, my husband doesn't though, so hey ho.

I love your posts Susan, as you know. They are rich opportunities for some deep thinking and praying. Blessings.

Susan said...

Clarification to everyone:
By this post, I am not meaning to blur necessary distinctions between various viewpoints, but just to encourage really thinking before using very broad labels like conservative and democrat, and to realize that often we jump to extremes, when God requires neither extreme, but a balanced view. I am a fiscal conservative, a theological conservative, and a political conservative, but not "just because."

I remember studying various eras in history and thinking the same thing. I was so confused by the "conservative" and "liberal" labels. You actually brought up the point I never did make in my post, due to lack of time: conservative can be good (and I am mostly conservative), but it all depends on how conservative is defined, and just being conservative doesn't equate to greater holiness.

I think you may have already mentioned that book, but I'm not sure. I don't mind you mentioning it again :). It sounds good!

Mrs. Blythe,
My point was that the middle way often is God's way. And you are right that it often doesn't make sense to us. It makes more sense to some of us to earn our salvation through works, and it makes more sense to others of us to take God's free gift and misuse it with license. My point was that neither is God's way, but the middle way is His way (in this instance, and many others). Your description at the end of your second paragraph is what I meant by the middle way :). I loved the way you stated it!

Regarding Sunday School et al, maybe I didn't explain the issue well, because I was speaking of children being present in worship, not children never leaving their parents' sides in daily life. And the issue of children in worship largely goes back to one's view of worship and the preaching of the Word, the latter, especially, having a high view in reformed circles.

I wouldn't want to send my (hypothetical future) children to boarding school either! I just think my heart would break. I don't think alternatives to homeschooling are wrong, and if my (hypothetical future) husband wanted my children to attend a good, solidly Christian school (which are few and far between. . . ) then I would submit to him in this. God has been dealing with me in this area in the past year.

zan said...

Great post!

I always think how funny it is when single people or childless couples talk about how you should raise children.

Ii was so sure on how I would raise my kids. They would DEFINATELY sit in church during the WHOLE sermon.

Boy, was I wrong. I spend just about every Sunday in the nursery or quiet room. My two yr old throws horrible tantrums. We take him out and discipline him in the bathroom, but he screams and throws himself on the floor. Then my infant starts to whimper and want to feed. So, I have to take him out to breastfeed him. We have a quiet room with glass, but I don't feel like I have the privacy I need to breast feed. I could leave the screaming toddler with my husband , but then none of us would even hear the sermon or partake in worship so what is the point of going to church?

So, I take both boys in the nursery and turn the speakers on to listen to the service. There really is no point in having nursery workers for just my kids and since nursery workers can't breastfeed my baby they should just stay in the service.

I have read some blogs that really irritate me. They say that you can keep your kids with you no matter what throughout the whole service. I probably could spend the whole church service spanking my toddler and fighting with him, but I don't think that that is a good way to spend in worship.

One thing about Church history. I have been reading a book called, "The Mayflower." The Puritans and Pilgrims would be called a cult today. That's how they were viewed in their day by the Church of England. I have always had a high opinion of the Puritans and Pilgrims, but this book has been changing my mind. There were definately some godly men among them but there were a lot of nuts. Miles Standish being one of them. The reformed churches have always held the Puritan community on a pedastal ( in my view) and I have realized that that is not right.

The whole liberal vs. conservative thing is very overused. Some people would think I am ultra conservative because I believe there is only one way to God, I vote Republican, am pro-life, homeschool and read Ann Coulter books. However, on the flip side, people would also think that I am a flaming liberal because I love white wine and strawberry daquiries, have a TV, say the "s" word whenever I see a snake (I can't help it is the first thing that comes to my mind. I have said it exactly three times this summer), think it is OK for women to go to college (in some cases), and think that women wearing pants is a great thing.

Amy said...

I often picture Pharaseeism and antinomianism as ditches on either side of a road. To be balanced, we need to stay on the road, but it isn't easy. Personally, I've had a tendency to come too far over to the "law" side. There's a constant tension there in an effort to be balanced, that's for sure.

On the one hand, what we do and our obedience to the law are the fruit of a changed heart, but we need to remember that we are saved by *grace*. On the other hand, while we are saved by grace, our lives should show evidence of that salvation by *what we do*.

One of my pastors used to say that when you *really* preach grace you sound like an antinomian, and when you *really* preach about good works as evidence of salvation you end up sounding like a legalist. It's a difficult balance for sure, and you need both.

Anyway, hope this isn't too muddled! I appreciated this post :)

Susan said...


You make some great points about having ideals and then having to eat them all when you actually have kids! I'm sure I'll do the same :). Perhaps you've heard this little saying: Before I had kids I had six theories on child raising. Now I have six kids and no theories. ;)

My view on singles holding theories on child raising, etc. is this: if their views are based on the Bible, not their feelings, than they are to be commended for thinking these things through now. However, if they are based on opinion, then offering advice to parents is truly laughable. Even if a single person's views are based on scripture, I think normally another parent should be doing the counselling, not someone who hasn't experienced parenthood before.

I'm curious about the Mayflower book you are reading. Do you know the background of the author? Most people (who are not reformed) do think the Puritans were way extreme, and I'm not denying that they had their problems. I think a lot of their problems were grossly distorted, though, and their piety distorted as legalism when it wasn't always.

I went to a Presbyterian conference recently on the WCF, and one of the speakers said he was glad to be in a room where he could speak of the Puritans positively without getting weird looks. He rattled off a number of stereotypes of Puritans that were absolutely hilarious. My favorite (you've probably heard it) was a Puritan is someone who is deathly afraid that someone somewhere is having fun.

Overall I find myself uplifted (not shackled) when I read Puritan writings, and their doctrine and knowledge/interpretation of scripture is excellent!

I loved your list of "why you're liberal." Some of those only make sense in conservative circles. In a liberal circle you would be labelled as conservative just for thinking you could be labelled liberal for holding those views :).


I love your picture of the ditches of the road. That is what I visualize as well - or a balance beam. I also tend to the law side.

I really like what your pastor said. That is an excellent point. Martin Luther summed up the law/grace balance with this: We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith. This was the point of James' epistle, though many have accused him of legalism by misinterpretation.

zan said...

I don't think the author of the "Mayflower" is a Christian at all. He is a historian and got his information on the book from Gov. Bradford's journels. I used to be wary of anyone who said anything bad about the Puritan (Pilgrims were Puritans). The author lives on Nantucket and became interested in the history of it. His prevous book was called, "In The Heart of the Sea," which is the true story of Moby Dick. It is about the whaleship Essex. I love his way of retelling history. I totally forgot his name, though...oops. I think it is Nathaniel something or other.

The book goes into detail about The crossing, building of Plymouth, dealings with Indians (actually the first thing the Pilgrims did when they landed was steal from the Indians corn supply, years later they did pay them back), all the way up to King Philip's War. I guess it is the first time I had seen them as just humans who are fallible. They really believed that they were going to usher in God's kingdom. They also went to New England to escape religious intolerance and as the colony grew they themselves became intolerant.

Some of the Puritans were very kind to the Natives, but some were horrid, including Miles Standish who had a severe case of short man's syndrome. : )

The author doesn't bash everything they do. I think he is very fair. he also describes their incredible faith. One thing that I think that was very wrong is that they brought women with them. They should have built their colony and sent for their families when it was settled. So many women died. Bradford's wife was forced to leave her three yr old son in Holland because they were afraid he would not survive the crossing. She died in Plymouth Harbor. Historians today think she commited suicide because she was found floating in the harbour. It was a very still day (no rough waters or waves). I also think it was very careless that they didn't leave Holland until late and they arrived in New England in the fall. They were cheated by the owner of the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were easily deceived by investors. They didn't want to lose the money they had invested in their voyage and that is why they did not put off their voyage. Because of this, so many people died when they reach N. E.

Anyway, it is a really intersting book. I agree that some Puritan's writings are very uplifting.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book.

You will have to excuse my dirty mouth. I HATE snakes!!! The first time a said the naughty word one was in my pantry!!!HELLO?! The second time I said it one crawled under my chair. AGHHHHH!

The Happy Feminist said...

Yep, liberal and conservative are certainly relative terms. I know I am a flaming liberal by the standards of this blog community --and over the years I have come to use the term "liberal" more frequently to describe myself.

But there have been times in my life in some of the more liberal circles I run where I have been labeled "conservative."

I have always thought of Jesus as a liberal because he was more concerned with substance than picayune rules and matters of form. Of course that may tell you more about how I view the terms "liberal" and "conservative" than about Jesus himself!

Sherrin said...

I have been waiting until I had time to read over this post and the comments. Short breaks at school are not sufficient for this sort of length and depth!

I do think it is very important to evaluated whether or not ideas are Biblical, not just go for whatever seems to fit with our preconceived notions of where we fit in the liberal to conservative scheme.

However, I am not sure about the idea of "balance". The concept seems too loose to me. I agree that it is not good to be so one-eyed you cannot see others' perspectives. However, this seems to be more about an attitude than about what views you personally hold. In fact, I think the key in all of it is attitude. I think it is very important to live by what we believe, but it is also very important to realise that we may be wrong and to have charity toward others.

You covered the issue of where you are resting salvation upon very well. This is the key danger for us all. Often we get caught up in things that are secondary or trivial, and make those the measure of whether someone is a good Christian, instead of focusing on these most important things.

Vision Forum produced a good CD covering the issue of legalism. It is by Jeff Pollard and it is called something like "Legalism and the Sufficiency of Scripture".

Susan said...


I admittedly did not do an excellent job in this post laying out what I mean. This post was written in a hurry, which I always hate doing! I always regret it when I rush through writing.

You are right that the idea of "balance" is loose. By it I do not mean balance as to whether we keep the law that is clearly laid out or inferred from scripture. That is not balance; that is sin. Just because some people think abortion should be available on demand and others think it is murder does not mean we should take a middle road on this.

Let me give some examples of what I mean by the middle road, though. I've had several of these situations come up in the last year - if only I could remember them all! Now, I am giving these examples without knowing if you do take one of the two extremes, so please don't be offended if you do! I'm not ridiculing people who hold to one of the two extremes I give in each example, just stating that I think either extreme is not correct - attacking the belief, not the person :).

I am not KJV only (Does the KJV debate exist in Australia?), but neither do I think The Message is a legitimate version of the Bible. I think reacting to paraphrases by insisting that only one version of the Bible is correct is the wrong reaction. But carefully assessing some of the better versions that are out there is the middle way, and I think the best way.

Some people react to the general undress in our culture with indifference and others resort to very legalistic stances on dress. I've seen some families gradually over the years become more and more "cultish" in their apparel. What was once dressing to be modest is now dressing to be "the most modest" as if it is a contest or something. Wearing dull-colored sack clothing that is shapeless doesn't make you more modest than someone who dresses in an attractive but modest manner. The middle road here is best.

Entertainment would be another example. We could try to shut out all references to evil in our entertainment by never watching movies (I know people who consider movies worldly and sinful), or we could say that it does not matter at all what things we set before our eyes. But the middle way, choosing our choices with care, is the Biblical response.

Some people freely drink alcohol to the point of drunkeness with no outward shame and others, on the other extreme, insist that all use of alcohol is sinful. Neither is the Biblical response. The middle way, recognizing that alcohol is a gift from God but must be used carefully, is the Biblical view.

You are absolutely right that it comes down to attitude :)! Though I didn't state it (I don't think), that is mainly what I was speaking of - the attitude of conservativism-is-better. If I want to wear sack cloths and a veil and never eat meat and never drink alcohol (which, actualy I don't anyway. . . ) then fine. But if I am judging my brother in Christ for not doing the same, then that is wrong. I'm talking about the attachment of "right" or "wrong" labels to conservative or liberal ideas that are not Biblical laws, not just practicing them or not. Does that help clarify what I meant? I'm thinking back through my post and thinking, wow, I should have been a bit more clear :). Ah well.

I haven't heard that Jeff Pollard CD, though I've heard him before in another lecture. Are you familiar with Matt Chancey? He wrote an interesting post on legalism last summer. He talked about the difference between differing methods of Biblical interpretation and then extra-Biblical rules. Also the fact that so many Biblical views that are clearly inferred from scripture are decried today because of legalism. It's an interesting read.

Anyway, this was not supposed to turn into a really long response! Sorry :). Hopefully I clarified myself a bit. As you said, attitude is the main issue.

Sherrin said...

Thanks so much for your clarified response, Susan :). It is good to have an intelligent conversation about this with someone who is familiar with similar things to what I am. I am looking forward to reading Matt Chancey's thoughts when I have time.

There is a tiny KJV only debate in Australia, but I try to steer well clear of it :). I use the NKJV myself, because I think it is a good translation. I agree with you about Bible translations (and everything else you mentioned, I think!).

I try to be careful in using the term extreme, however, because I think it is easy to rate things as extreme or not extreme based on what is around us. For example, I some people may think my stance that it is sinful to use hormonal birth control because it acts to prevent implantation of an already conceived human being is extreme. They do not realise that it is actually their interpretation of Scripture that is extreme, in light of historical norms in the church in regard to this issue (e.g. that the church considered all birth control to be sinful until recently). All I'm saying is that we have to look at history and scripture to understand what truly is extreme, and what is a considered and appropriate position in the light of God's word and the wisdom of those who've gone before us.

I don't think that you are being overly affected by culture in your understanding of what is extreme, however. You are trying to arguing that things are extreme or not extreme based on biblical references.

Susan said...

Very good point about the use of the term "extreme"! I was referring to two opposite sides of the issue, not whether or not they were "out of line," though most of my examples (excepting abortion) did have the "extreme" view align with my own label "unBiblical" or "extraBiblical." I need to be more careful when I use that term! I wasn't defining it.

I like your historical perspective, which is something the modern church has mostly lost. One thing I appreciate about reformed circles is that there is a bit more of an historical view. If there is an issue (like hormonal birth control, with which I agree with you) that the church has opposed for centuries, we should look at that issue more closely and investigate the reason for the change in view. Was it further study of scripture or going with the ebb and flow of culture? Far too often it is the latter :(.