Monday, November 27, 2006

Things That Bother Me As a Theological Conservative

This isn't a rant. Neither does it qualify as thought. It's really just a list of a few things that I've been thinking about off and on... things that bother me a bit as a theological conservative and that I should give attention to.

I was planning to post something I wrote some time back... a short piece firing most of the African-American Civil Rights leadership... but my wife prevailed in her wise discouragements not to post it.

So, I'm down to my list... which may get more treatment over the week. As a theological conservative committed to historic Reformed orthodoxy as the best approximation/summation of the Bible's teaching, I'm bothered by:

1. Reformed heros of the faith who held slaves, and...

2. My contemporaries who sometimes defend them;

3. Poor or altogether absent articulation of a compelling, theologically conservative, gospel-centered statement on the church qua church and engagement in social issues;

4. The equation of theological conservatism with political conservatism as if the two are synonyms or one necessarily leads to the other, especially where "political conservatism" is read Republican and Republican-platform public policy;

5. The label "evangelical," especially when it's a thin mask for an already-failed, doctrinally soft or indifferent ecumenism; and

6. My own heart's wandering. "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love." Oh, "take my heart Lord and seal it for thy courts above!"


Mathew Sims said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mathew Sims said...

Great thoughts. I like your list and especially the last one. That's one of the things I appreciated about the T4G statement. It came right out and said,"We're saying sorry for what our forefathers did. It was wrong. period."

My alma mater for a long time had some rules concerning interracial dating which a lot of schools during that time, but they held on to it a lot longer. But what bothered me the most about was when they finally got rid of the sinful thing, they did not come out and say, "We were wrong." Really they just got rid of it and tried to sweep it under the rug.

As Christians, we should not only be open to abandon godless standards and prejudices but be willing to openly admit we were in sin.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bill said...

Unless you have walked in the shoes of Jonathan Edwards, slave owner; please judge not.

jrr said...


I can agree with number 4. Especially the republican aspect. However, the democratic/liberal party's stance on abortion, homosexality, and wealth redistribution automatically disqualifies it from getting my vote as a reformed, conservative Christian. I still can't figure out though why Dobson et al continually follow the republicans even when they are pretty much just giving lip service to those issues.


Brian Hamrick said...


Your humility, if it is possible, is betraying you when you say that is not thought- it most certainly qualifies.

Your points are on target. Thank you for loving us enough to be honest about our shortcomings and failures and promote repentance and reflection among the saints. Now, Lord, give us the grace to be bold and walk in Your path!

Anonymous said...


This is a very helpful post. I resonate with many of these bothersome things, though the first two are no doubt infinitely more bothersome to you. To offer some brief thoughts on each one:

1. Ditto. While they were no doubt a product of their times, part of being a Christ-follower is being willing to distance yourself from the status quo when that status quo conflicts with the gospel.

2. Unfortunately, among many of our Reformed brothers, a man's theology is sometimes seen as more important than his practice. So we harken back to the day when more American Christians were Reformed, glossing over the fact that their commitment to the doctrines of grace did not preclude them having many other serious shortcomings. I think the slavery issue is a reminder that a mere commitment to Reformed principles is not in and of itself a guarantee of personal godliness. Sin is way too powerful for that to be the case.

3. Strong ditto. I do not know how old you are, but those in my generation (25-40) are increasingly irked by the lack of a fully-orbed, gospel-saturated, Christ-centered, redemptive critique of cultural ills. Though I cannot prove this, I believe this is one reason why so many my age gravitate toward the various emerging movements. Not that said movements are accomplishing what you mention, but they at least have the appearance of being hip and culturally relevant, as well as socially progressive. And when First Baptist or First Presbyterian are falling so short in this area, it get's mighty tempting to go to the local emerging church where they at least talk a good game.

4. Even bigger ditto. The strong alliance with secular conservative politics will be the undoing of American evangelicalism.

5. And speaking of American evanglicalism, what exactly is it besides a useless sociological designation that describes a bunch of people who aren't Catholic or (too) liberal? Evangelicalism is at best a myth; at worst, it is a death knell to historic, born-again, doctrinally substantive Protestantism.

6. Very convicting.

Sorry for the long comment, Thabiti, but these are truly good insights.


Kyle said...

I am really interested in #3. I've only ever seen a great divide on this issue. Some of my Presbyterian friends are staunchly opposed to any kind of social ministry by the church qua church (most of these are in the OPC). Others of my Presbyterian friends say that if we are to follow Christ's pattern, the churh must minister in word and deed (a la Tim Keller).

And of course this issue relates to #1 and #2 of your list, since it seems the most historically prominent proponent of the first view I mentioned was a Southern Presbyterian writing in the mid-19th century.

In light of all of this, it seems that you, Thabiti, might be the best person of all to articulate a "compelling, theologically conservative, gospel-centered statement" on this issue.

Personally, the strength I see in the view that church qua church should not involve itself in social issues is that it helps the church to maintain a clear focus on gospel proclamation. It prevents the distractions that have so often shipwrecked goood churches in one way or another. But I would like to know if I'm wrong in thinking this way.

Please write about this more.

G. Alford said...

Thabiti Said:

As a theological conservative committed to historic Reformed orthodoxy as the best approximation/summation of the Bible's teaching, I'm bothered by:

1. Reformed heros of the faith who held slaves, and...

2. My contemporaries who sometimes defend them;

Brother Thabiti,

As a theological conservative committed to historic Reformed Orthodoxy (who grew up in the Old South and has lived a lifetime under the constant slander of my christian heritage), I'm bothered by:

1. Reformed brothers who sometimes feel the need to be more “PC” than “BC” (that last one stands for “Biblical Correct”)...

May I recommend a little light reading?

44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. 46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: (Leviticus 44-46)

I guess by your standards that Abraham would not be a hero of your faith? And since the Bible defends Abraham you are bothered by it as well?

May I also recommend a book by one of the most highly respected Presbyterian Theologians of that time; “A Defense of Virginia and the South” by R.L. Dabney.

Grace, Truth, Blessings

FellowElder said...

Mr. Alford,
Welcome to Pure Church, and thank you for the comment.

Might I also suggest a little light reading:
"We know that the Law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for muderers, for adulterers and perverts, FOR SLAVE TRADERS (ESV renders it "enslavers") and liars and perjurers--and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

Seems clear to me that slave trading, kidnapping men, is contrary to "the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God." Also seems pretty "BC" as well.

And, "yes," Abraham is a hero to me. So is Edwards. So is Whitefield. So also Machen. I appreciate Dabney. I could go on. They're heroes... but certainly not perfect. And neither does the Bible "defend them". And they were all blinded on this issue.

To round out your book recommendations, consider:
Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) issued an antislavery response in 1700, notable for its review of Old and New Testament arguments against slavery and for liberty. In 1706 New England Puritan Cotton Mather (1663-1728) published The Negro Christianized, a tract defending the humanity of Black men but failing to attack slavery as a system. The Reverend Samuel Willard (1640-1707) retorted against pro-slavery arguments that the soul of a slave was of equal worth to that of his owner and as precious in the sight of Christ. Quaker thinkers like John Woolman and Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) launched the most pervasive and steady assaults on proslavery sentiment.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out just a couple of responses of Christian brothers of a darker hue who responded agains the evil institution: Lemuel Haynes' essays "Liberty Further Extended: or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-keeping" and "The Nature and Importance of True Republicanism" are classic statements of republican political philosophy and its relation to freedom for all. David Walker's Appeal is must reading.

I might suggest you review some of these this Christmas season as you contemplate the birth of the Savior who died to set us free from the bondage of the law, sin and death.

Grace, truth, and peace,

G. Alford said...

Brother Thabiti,

Thank you for your gracious reply and the Christmas reading list, but “my goodness” I don’t get that many days off for Christmas… It is good to know however that you are not just a drive by historian taking cheep shots at the Southern Christian Heritage.

I think the text you gave me did not forbid slave ownership (some men made themselves slaves by choice), however I fully agree with you that forced slavery “enslaving” someone else is indeed a sin. In this we are 100% in agreement!

You may find this little known fact of history interesting: not one single slave ship ever sailed from a southern port… not one. It was never legal for the South to import slaves… Importation of slaves into the United States was regulated by the federal government and reserved for the northern slave traders only.

You might also find it interesting that such was their treatment at the hands of northern slave traders that many slaves who were brought to the South to be sold actually begged the southern planters to buy them in order to escape their northern masters. You see there was a very profound difference between the treatment they could expect to receive from a Southern Christian Planter and a Northern Slave Trader. Do I know this for a fact? Yes I do! See my great, grandfather was one of those Southern Christian Planters and during the War of Northern Aggression, while he was off fighting the invasion, his slaves stayed home and defended the estate (with arms). And after the war upon being informed of the defeat and demise of our Southern Society they wailed and cried what are we to do? What is to become of us? To which my great, grandfather told them, you are all free men now… but you are also free to stay. Not one chose to leave!

Grace, Truth, Blessings

Anonymous said...

I know I am probably spitting in the wind, but here goes:

Did Great-Grandpa Alford give his slaves the option of leaving BEFORE the U.S. Army defeated the Confederacy and dismantled the system of white supremacy at the barrel of a gun? I suspect not. But if he and the other Southern "Christian" gentlemen had been so kind, then perhaps they could have spared this Nation, and more importantly, Christ's Church, a great deal of shame and anguish.

I wonder, would it have been appropriate for the Alford Slaves to defend their "heritage" and "way of life" against Great-Grandpa's "invasion" and "war of aggression" against their liberty?

I also wonder if Great-Grandpa Alford ever thought twice about letting his slaves take up arms in defense of his property. Because if he had given this descendant of slaves a gun, when he returned from the War, he would have been in for a rude awakening!

- Nathaniel Turner

G. Alford said...

Brother Turner,

“this is probably spitting in the wind” but

Did you live in the South during the years preceding, during, and after the Civil War? Do you have any first hand knowledge about my Great Grandfathers Christian Character? If not, then regardless of your position against slavery, you have just slandered a fellow Christian.

Brother if you had read my post carefully you would have noticed that I agree with you that forced slavery is a sin… and by the way according to the state laws of the South any person (including the slave) could at anytime buy his or her freedom by paying the price to (redeem them) from their masters. So why did not those noble northern Christians who supported the invasion of the South and the killing of 500,000 Southerners, when they (as individuals or as a nation) could have bought back every single slave they had sold to the South without the loss of even one life. Brother it is they who “could have spared this Nation, and more importantly, Christ's Church, a great deal of shame and anguish.”

Perhaps I did not make this clear in my first post… so I will try again.

When my Great Grandfather went off to fight the northern invasion for four long years… he did just what you suggest! He armed his slaves and they fight to defend both his and their homes while he was away to war… and if you had showed up at the Alford estate wearing blue during or after the war it is you who would have been in for a rude awakening!

In fact the only reason his slaves did not go with him to war is because he would not allow them… see those noble northern Christians were shooting every black man captured wearing a confederate uniform and my Great Grandfather would no so risk their lives. Here is a link to an article that might shed some light on this for you.

In closing let me just say that you may “spit” upon us Southern Christians anytime…

pilgrim said...


For whatever reason many "conservative" Christians believe that it is appropriate for the Church to speak out on moral issues, but to remain silent on so-called social issues. But I am slowly coming to the conclusion that one man's "social issue" is another man's "moral issue." (Like beauty, it is often in the eye of the beholder.) Where we choose to draw the line on these matters often reveals more about our own personal predilections and (political) prejudices, than they do about our fidelity to God's word.

In my judgment, many of the things that bother you are a result of the fact that American Christianity is overly-politicized, and even those of us who seek to remain independent of this have not gone unaffected. (Consider that TIME magazine included Roman Catholics among America's most influential Evangelicals!) But sadly, we have fallen into the trap of referring to ourselves in political categories such as "conservative" and "liberal." Really, aren’t we being too generous with those who deny the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ when we refer to them as "liberal Christians" rather than heretics (or even better, antichrists)?! Why is it that we do not resort to more biblical/religious language such as orthodox, heterodox, unorthodox, heretics, etc? Yes, there may be "Culture Wars" in America, but there is an even greater War waging for those who have eyes to see--and it is no respecter of political labels.

Some time ago you posted a critique of the use of the word "progressive." I think similar criticism could be leveled against those who use the word "conservative." The word is easily subject to one's temporal frame of reference. What exactly is it that conservatives (theological or political) are conserving? All too often (for theological conservatives) it is the traditions of men.

As for me, I will aspire to theological orthodoxy (not conservatism), by the grace of God. Is this merely semantics? I think not. I see it as a helpful step away from the things that bother FellowElder as a pastor/theologian committed to biblical orthodoxy.