Why is Christianity conservative—that is, preserving of traditional political or social practices?
On one hand, it’s obvious why a religion would be conservative. Religions help preserve the social order. They’re like many other institutions or movements that want constancy in an area of society. A religion like Christianity needs to be conservative and reject new ideas since it claims to already have the perfect plan given by a perfect source.
On the other hand, Christianity accepts change in important ways. Many Christians feel free to declare competing church leaders or traditions to be heretical. Christianity is not at all conservative when you consider its 45,000 denominations, expected to grow to 70,000 by 2050. Ironically, every new denomination then becomes a stake in the ground, a conservative position that must be defended.
Social improvement comes from change. Slavery in the West was allowed, and now it’s not. Polygamy was allowed, and now it’s not. Voting and other civil rights were not given to women and certain classes of people, and now they are.
Christianity can’t embrace every crazy new social fad, of course, but Christianity isn’t an ordinary institution. It’s supposed to be the only one that comes from God. Its source is perfect, so it should know what the correct moral response is. It should be driving the change by giving us the bitter but necessary medicine to make society a better place on a dozen important issues.
And yet it never works that way. Why does the church never speak with one voice and make moral commands that we moderns find shockingly advanced? Instead, the shocking thing is when its position is too backward, with it constrained by an ancient book from an ancient time with ancient morality.
No modern social improvement was unambiguously advocated by Jesus and the early church. Rejection of genocide, slavery, and polygamy? Civil rights for minorities, immigrants, and women? Education rather than work for children? Laws supporting mixed-race marriages? Why did society have to inform the Church about the correct path on these issues? Shouldn’t we have learned this from the Bible?
Christians have pushed all these issues, citing scripture to justify their positions, but they have been on both sides, giving no unified Christian position. We don’t see clear guidance from Jesus, and these are modern concerns, not ones that the Christian church even saw as problems in its earliest days.
Imagine our descendants in a future society. They will have adopted new social changes. Whatever these changes are, can you imagine Christianity having driven the change? It never has in the past. Christianity has never led a reluctant society through a social change that is now almost universally accepted.
Progressive Christians pushing for social improvement don’t point out truths that were plainly in the Bible all along. These Christians are products of the Enlightenment and modernity, not the Bible.
The Church can be an unchanging fortress of tradition, or it can guide us into a continually improving society. It can’t be both.
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45,000 denominations: International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol 39, no. 1, http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2015-01/2015-01-028-johnson.pdf (line item 45).