Are We Using The Term ‘Liberal’ Correctly?


To some folks this word sums up all that is that is wrong with the world. It is the ‘liberals’ in the government that are destroying our nation… it is the ‘liberals’ in the church that one must be watchful for as they are the “wolves in sheep clothing” Jesus warns us about.

Yet, what exactly is theological liberalism?  What is it that has people in the church scared?

Or, to rephrase the question, are we using the term ‘liberal’ a little too, well, liberally? Perhaps we are calling folks a ‘liberal’ when they simply differ from us in some minor points and not on the big issues?

I, myself, for example, have been called a ‘liberal’ by folks who disagree with my stance on taking care of the environment. Or, for that matter, on my belief that women can serve at any level within the local church (yes, that means they can be pastors and preachers).

But do those beliefs make me a ‘liberal’?

To a fundamentalist perhaps…but in the history of theology, no – it does not.

The reason for this is that theologically speaking a ‘liberal’ is one who has believes that doctrines of Christianity should be subject to the consensus of modern thought.

As Dr. Roger Olson (Professor of Theology at Baylor University) recently stated in a blog post entitled “What is ‘theological liberalism?’”

“What [Friedrich] Schleiermacher [the early 19th century father of liberal theology] accomplished was to separate religion (including Christianity) from the realm of “facts” discoverable by science and philosophy.  He rescued religion and Christianity from the acids of modernity by reducing them and restricting them to an entirely different realm.  Also, rather than objective divine revelation standing at the center or bottom of the theological enterprise, human experience was placed there…..

“The liberal theologians did not throw out belief in the Trinity or the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, etc.  They simply reduced their importance (they are not of the essence) and reinterpreted them non-metaphysically…”

In laymen’s terms, the main difference between Protestant liberal theology and conservative evangelical theology is where our primary allegiance lies – the past or the present.

As mentioned before, theological liberalism places the focus on theology on the present while conservative evangelical theology holds the view that while it is good to listen to the wisdom of the present, it is the past – namely Jesus of Nazareth – on which we base our lives. It is this reason that we are the People of the Book (i.e. the Bible) for in it pages we see and learn the story of God throughout the ages – a story that we can join into today.

So the next time you start to call someone a theological liberal, stop and think if the term really fits – or if you just simply disagree on some minor points of Christian living.