Conservatives v’s Progressives - the never ending struggle
Reflections on Romans 14:1-12 prepared by Nathan Nettleton, 12 September 1999
© LaughingBird.net


On a first reading you could be forgiven for thinking that this passage showed that there was a fight in the early church of Rome about whether or not vegetarians could be Christians, or on the other side about whether only vegetarians could be Christians! Well you’ll probably be pleased to know that there was a little bit more to it than that. What is quite clear here at the start though, is that at this point in his letter to the Romans Paul is responding to some very specific problems that were threatening to split the new church in Rome. And it was a lot bigger than vegetarianism.

There are two issues of dispute named here. In v2 it is eating everything or eating only vegetables. In v5 it to make or to not make distinctions between one day and another. Believe it or not, what was actually at stake here was the whole self-understanding of early Christianity. Let me explain.

The background issue to the vegetarian question was not today’s animal liberation views or even modern alternative health thinking. It was a specifically religious question. The Jewish law prohibited the eating of meat that had been offered to idols. In many places in ancient times the temples were virtually the abbattoirs. The priests would slaughter the animals brought for sacrifice, then they’d take them out the back and sell them to the butchers who’d take them down to the market, cut them up and sell them to the public. Therefore if you lived in a city or town where there were temples to idols, there was no way of knowing whether or not any meat that you bought in the market had been offered to idols. And the chances were that it had. So if you wanted to keep the Jewish law and your town didn’t have a guaranteed kosher butcher you had to play it safe by avoiding meat all together.

The background to the question about one day being better than another was also to do with the Jewish law. If you know anything at all about Judaism, then you’ll probably know something about kosher food laws and something about Sabbath keeping and Jewish holy days. If you didn’t observe certain days as being holy days then you weren’t living by the teachings of Judaism. If you worked on the Sabbath then you were violating the religious law.

Along with circumcision (which was debated in Paul’s letter to the Galatians), the food laws and the Sabbath laws were the probably the most important laws to Jews, especially to those living outside of Israel. It was the food laws and the Sabbath laws that most clearly set them apart from everyone else as Jews. It was the strict observance of these laws that enabled them to protect and preserve their distinctive faith and culture even when they were living outside of their homeland. This has worked repeatedly for centuries, ever since the Babylonian exile. Of all the peoples on earth, only the Jews have managed to maintain a distinct identity for more than a few generations without a homeland. And because it was well understood that these observances were crucial to the survival of their Jewish identity, you can imagine how deeply attached to them the Jewish people became.

So the dispute we are looking in on in the church at Rome is between those with a Jewish understanding of Christianity and those with a gentile understanding of Christianity. This is yet another expression of the most difficult and divisive question that the first generation of Christians faced. Was Christianity a movement within Judaism, or was it an independent movement that just happened to have its roots in Judaism? If the first view held sway then all Christians were Jews and so for a gentile, becoming a Christian meant becoming a Jew and submitting to the Jewish law. If the second view held sway, then it was possible to be both Jewish and Christian, but it was also possible to be Christian without having to live by the Jewish laws - that is without observing the kosher food laws and the Sabbath keeping laws.

Now it is a historical fact that the second view won. Jewish Christianity came to be seen as the overlap between Christianity and Judaism instead of as the only acceptable pattern of Christianity. But when Paul wrote it was still very much a live issue and as this passage reflects, he was working very hard to get the two sides to continue to respect and accept each other, to agree to differ, and not to split the church. While Paul was clearly on the side that eventually won, he was desperately trying to ensure that the gentile Christians did not cut themselves off from the Jewish roots of their faith.

So, what’s all that got to do with us 19 centuries after it was sorted out? Well the specifics of the dispute might not mean much to us, but the nature of the dispute is one that keeps coming back again and again and is clearly present even in our own congregation. In every generation of the church there is some conflict between those with a more conservative view of the faith and those with a more progressive view.

Those with a more conservative view see it as important to maintain the forms in which the faith has been expressed in the past. The maintenance of tradition is seen as vital because it keeps us firmly rooted in the patterns and forms of the faith that have proven themselves to be true and effective for generations. It is all about the faithful carrying on of the heritage that has been passed on to us. To those who see the faith through conservative eyes, if you change the requirements and structures and expectations you are flirting with danger. You are risking the collapse of the secure foundations of our faith and by so doing you risk causing many to stumble into error and sin and be lost. The risks are too great. Any changes to the tradition must occur only gradually and very very carefully.

Those with a more progressive view see things very differently. They don’t see Christian faith as a fixed thing to be preserved, but as something that continues to progress and unfold. In the words of the old hymn, they believe that “the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.” They view Christianity as a faith that needs to continually reinvent itself in each generation because the world keeps changing and yesterday’s expression of faith will be meaningless and irrelevant in tomorrow’s world. Sometimes the new forms will be the recovery of older patterns and sometimes they will be completely unprecedented. But the progressive mind believes that Christianity must always be at the risky cutting edge. Christian faith must always be pushing the edges of the envelope and finding ways of bringing the love. justice and freedom of Christ to more and more people.

Let me give a couple of examples of the way that these two views of the faith find expression in our church.

In recent decades the question of women in church leadership has been just such an issue. Some people have seen it as a dangerous departure from time honoured traditions. Others have seen it as the way the Spirit is leading today’s church and that we would be disobedient if we did not embrace such change. Now for most in our congregation that battle is long since over, but other similar questions are still very much alive. If we were to poll this congregation on the acceptance of people who live in homosexual relationships into the membership of the church or into the leadership of the church, we would be much more divided. That one still has more of the sort of angst that Paul's letter reflects. To some it would be an abandonment of the faith. To others it is the authoritative call of the Spirit.

But let’s consider an issue that is alive and fresh right now for our congregation. Our recent move to using fixed liturgical patterns for worship is highly unusual in Baptist circles. To the conservative Baptist mind it is fraught with dangers. Our Baptist forebears fought for the the right to freedom in worship, and in our tradition that freedom has usually been expressed in forms that valued spontaneity and an absolute minimum of embellishment. So to a conservative Baptist our recent changes represent a dangerous abandonment of traditions that have served us well and enabled us to carry on a vibrant living faith for many generations. We risk falling into dead routines and second hand expressions of faith. To the progressive Baptist mind it is a bold experiment - a faithful attempt to respond to the changes all around us and find forms that enable us to nurture our faith and spirituality in a rapidly changing world.

So who’s right? Well both have truth on their side. The conservatives need to remember that some of our most cherished traditions are in fact the compromises of a previous generation. There’s not much point in saying that the early Christians didn’t worship the way we are doing. They didn’t have the choice. Most people were illiterate and since printing hadn’t been invented most churches were lucky if they had one Bible - worship books for everyone would have been an impossibility. It is purely speculation to try to decide whether they would have adopted the same patterns in a post-print literate society. And when our Baptist forebears rejected set liturgies during the reformation, it was in the face of an attempt to impose a single liturgy on every church in the land as a form of social control. It is purely speculation to try to decide whether they would have made the same decisions in a secular society with access to desk-top publishing so that every congregation could produce its own unique liturgy.

The progressives have to remember some other things. They have to remember that in any change of this magnitude, some good things are lost. One of the reasons we’ve made the change is that set liturgies allow us to become familiar enough with the liturgy for it to really begin to become a part of us. But in introducing it we have abandoned some patterns that had really become a part of some people over several decades of faithful worship. The sense of dislocation and confusion can be every bit as real as for the Jewish Christian who is suddenly served pork at a church lunch. If our supposedly “progressive” moves are causing grief and fear and pain to some people, then at least we need to be very sensitive and gentle about it.

What Paul would have to say to us all is pretty clear from his words to the Romans. From verse 3 he’d be saying something like, “You progressives who can embrace change easily must not despise or look down on those who feel more uncertain and insecure about change. And you conservatives who faithfully carry on the traditions must not pass judgement and condemn those who depart from the traditions and do things in new and unfamiliar ways.”

And then, from verses 6 - 8, he’d go on to give us a model for discerning the legitimacy of the views of either side. “Let those who embrace change do so in honour of the Lord. Also let those who cherish the traditions do so in honour of the Lord. For we do not live for ourselves but for the Lord.” In other words, regardless of which side a person is on, providing they do what they do as an offering to God and in a spirit of thanksgiving to Christ, then there is no basis for anyone else to condemn them and question the reality of their Christian faith. Each side will have to agree to differ and allow the other side to hold their view and live as they believe is right. However wrong you might think those on the other side of an issue are, if they make their choice in a spirit of thanks to God, then they are accountable to God for it and not to you. Your responsibility is only to be faithful to what you believe and to honour the choices of others.

I’ve said more than enough. Perhaps these questions may provoke some further discussion of these issues.

• Clearly conservatives and progressives have some differing views about what God is like, but what does Paul’s view of the necessity of both groups accepting one another in the church imply about the nature of God?

• What are some other issues that have seen the conservatives and the progressives pulling in opposite directions in the church? How have they been resolved or how are they still affecting the churches?

• Are there other examples of these kind of conservative/progressive tensions in our own congregation? How do the two sides view the issues? How can we improve understanding on these issues?

• How can we improve our ability to accept and respect both conservatives and progressives in our church? How can we allow both groups the freedom to express their faith in their own way without becoming wishy washy and standing for nothing?