Jesus spoke to them, “Isn’t this the reason why you’re mistaken: you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God? (Mark 12:24)
It’s possible and dangerous to be more conservative than Jesus.
Let me give you a biblical example of this principle.
The Sad Case of the Saducees
The story of the Jewish people in the few hundred years from the close of the Old Testament canon until the arrival of Jesus Christ is complicated and intriguing. Over the course of this time, Judaism consolidated into several distinct sects or groups. Those who have read the New Testament will recognize some of these: Pharisees, Saducees, along with those such as the Essenes and Zealots. Zealots were militant revolutionaries. Essenes sometimes lived in something like monastic communities. Pharisees, the well-known antagonists of Jesus in the New Testament, largely believed the truth but missed its heart. The Saducees were the most political, powerful, and conservative of the groups. They believed that only the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) was Scripture. Because the doctrine of the resurrection appears most clearly in other parts of the Bible (Daniel 12:2, Ezekiel 36–37), they denied the doctrine of the resurrection. As our Sunday school teachers explained to us, this is why they were “sad, you see.” At one point in the gospels (Matthew 22:23–33, Mark 12:18–27, Luke 20:27–40), the Saducees try to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection.
Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and questioned him: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife behind but no child, that man should take the wife and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers. The first married a woman, and dying, left no offspring. The second also took her, and he died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. None of the seven left offspring. Last of all, the woman died too. In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be, since the seven had married her?” (Mark 12:18–23)
Jesus rebukes them and answers ingeniously from the part of the Bible they did believe:
Jesus spoke to them, “Isn’t this the reason why you’re mistaken: you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised — haven’t you read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to him: I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are badly mistaken.” (Mark 12:24–27)
From this dialogue and the Lord’s strong rebuke we see played out the principle I stated above: It’s possible and dangerous to be more conservative than Jesus. To “conserve” means:
“protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.”
The Saducees wanted to conserve or protect the witness of the Torah. They viewed the Scripture through such a conservative lens that they reduced the canonical witness from thirty-nine books to five. They wanted to hear only the founding author of the Hebrew scripture, Moses. They didn’t want to hear from Joshua, Samuel, and David, nor from Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel. Just from Moses. They were, quite literally, more conservative than Jesus. And this was a devastating and soul-threatening position. They denied the Scripture and the power of God. They denied the only hope for eternal life. And they even denied the doctrine of resurrection present in the Scripture they did believe, as Jesus demonstrates.
This possibility and this danger presents itself to evangelical believers in America today.
The Similar Case of the Evangelical Church
First, don’t hear what I’m not saying.(1) I am not saying that the evangelical church today mirrors or lines up with the Saducees denying the Scripture or crucial biblical doctrines. (2) I am not saying that the Saducees are the most closely corresponding biblical example for modern-day American Christianity. (3) I am not saying that liberal or progressive theology or political positions are not also dangerous in many ways. (They certainly can be, as the history of modern theology and many Protestant denominations has shown.) (4) I am not saying that being conservative is bad. (In fact, I identify as basically conservative.) (5) I am not saying what I’m saying here to progressives, but to those whose beliefs align most closely with my own.
With that in mind, here is what I am saying. That on this one point the evangelical church is in danger of mirroring the error of the Saducees. It is possible and dangerous for the evangelical church to be more conservative than Jesus. Historically, the conservative political movement has sought to protect basic institutions of society, the family being a prime example. The conservative theological movement has likewise sought to preserve the inerrant authority of the Bible and historic Christian theological and ethical teaching. Conserving these things is right and good.
Along this line, evangelical Christians want to conserve or protect many good things, such as the authority of the Bible. I praise God for this. For example, in the Southern Baptist Convention, I have benefited in my theological education and ministry from those who fight to conserve and protect the belief in the inerrant authority of Scripture. Socially and politically, evangelical Christians have fought to conserve or protect the lives of unborn human persons. I am all in with this desire. A conservative pro-life stance is good and righteous. The fight for the lives of unborn babies is a conservative fight for social justice.
But the Saducees show us that a conservative impulse can also be dangerous. This shouldn’t surprise us, because we believe in the reality of sin. The reality of sin means that we can and we do conserve the wrong things. We can conserve sinful things. We can conserve sinful things in sinful ways. We can conserve corrupt patterns of sinfulness dating back to the ancient serpent in the ancient tree in the ancient garden. We can conserve sin and refuse God’s forward movement of redeeming grace. The Saducees wanted to conserve or protect the Torah from harm or destruction and therefore denied the rest of the Old Testament and the power of God.
Evangelical Christians likewise want to conserve social institutions, but historically this has played out in some devastating ways. For example, many evangelical Christians were at the forefront of conserving and protecting patterns of slavery, and then conserving racial discrimination in the Jim Crow era and opposing the Civil Rights Movement. These Christians were more conservative than Jesus, and this failure haunts us still today.
Fairly often on Twitter, Facebook, or the blogosphere, I see the argument that a position is correct simply because the opposite position is “liberal,” “progressive,” or “Leftist.” One major instance of this is social justice, specifically on the issue of racial discrimination and tension. Because the movement to bring racial equality has sometimes come from more progressive or liberal circles, it is sometimes rejected as un-Christian. The argument goes: Christians are conservative and racial justice is liberal, therefore racial justice is not a Christian issue.
But here’s the rub: Christians should be like Jesus. Jesus was conservative in some ways, but not conservative in other ways. Jesus was less conservative than the Saducees. As the eternal Word of God, he had inspired all the books of the Old Testament that the Saducees were denying. God had given his people a gift. From Joshua to Malachi, he had given them more revelation of his promises and purposes and more demonstration of his character and conduct. The Saducees were too conservative to receive this wonderful gift. An example of how Christians follow Jesus on this point is the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is less conservative and more progressive than Judaism. We believe that the New Testament is the testimony of God. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We believe that God is a Trinity. At the time of the New Testament and the early Church, none of these were conservative beliefs. From a human perspective they were radically new. And from God’s eternal perspective they are also radically true.
This shows itself in the American, evangelical church today in the issue of politics. Many evangelical Christians are party-line conservatives, and they are in danger of the mirroring the failure of the Saducees. They are in danger of being more conservative than Jesus. When this happens, conservative politics shape Christian theology and ethics rather than Christian theology and ethics shaping political opinions.
But our Jesus is bigger than American political positions. God doesn’t vote Republican (or Democratic). God doesn’t wave the banner of the elephant (or the donkey). God is not a capitalist (or a socialist). God didn’t vote for Trump (or Clinton). God is an almighty, eternal monarchist. He’s the king. God is not a conservative (or a progressive). He’s the Alpha and the Omega.
The problem is that we say “Yes and amen!” to the everything in the last paragraph. We celebrate God’s sovereignty over all political parties — and then we tow the party line on every issue. We consider conservative (or progressive) political positions to be part of the gospel. We act like voting for a Democrat (or a Republican) is tantamount to denying the faith.
May we not be more conservative than Jesus. Because when we do this, we deny the Scriptures and the power of God.