The first element in conservative Christianity is devotion to the integrity of the gospel. The gospel is, so to speak, the boundary of the Christian faith. Christianity does not exist outside the gospel. If the gospel is not conserved, then Christianity itself will disappear.
The gospel is the boundary of Christianity, but it is not the whole of the Christian faith. The gospel must be conserved, but the gospel alone does not yield a vibrant Christianity. God has much more that He wishes Christians to know and to do.
Therefore, the second mark of conservative Christianity is commitment to all the counsel of God. If the gospel represents the boundary of Christian faith and fellowship, then the whole counsel of God represents its center and apex. Christian conservatism must manifest a robust orthodoxy that goes beyond the fundamentals and grasps the entire system of faith.
When the apostle Paul delivered his final benediction to the Ephesian elders, he stated that he was “innocent of the blood of all men” because he had not failed to deliver unto them “the whole counsel of God.” In other words, he had taught them everything they needed to know for faith and life. He kept back nothing that was profitable for them.
Paul’s statement implies that his conscience would not have been clear if he had given them less. If he had withheld some difficult aspect of Christian teaching or some uncomfortable requirement of Christian obedience, Paul’s own conscience would have been less than pure. From this we infer that to conserve the whole counsel of God and to deliver it to our successors is a matter of conscience.
Herein lies the uneasy conscience of modern evangelicalism. For within American evangelicalism—including fundamentalism—flourishes an impulse to reduce Christianity to bare essentials. Through much of the evangelical movement, we discover a feeling that so long as we maintain the gospel, we have all that is necessary for Christian fellowship and function. According to this perspective, if we are sufficiently committed to the gospel, then we can afford to de-emphasize the less important teachings of the Bible and to behave as if they were merely peripheral.
Most American evangelicals operate with a binary system of classification for doctrine and duty. In their understanding, a doctrine is either essential and fundamental, or else it is tangential and dispensable. They are willing to grip the fundamentals with a closed hand, but they juggle every other aspect of the faith in an open hand from which it can easily be brushed away.
Many evangelicals display a tendency to ignore or downplay differences over the doctrines of grace, dispensationalism, cessationism, baptism, eschatology, church order, and other non-fundamental doctrines. In some circles even the discussion of such differences is considered impolite and uncharitable. To raise questions about matters of personal disciplines or methods of ministry is almost automatically to label oneself a legalist.
Conservative Christians, however, assert that the doctrines and practices of Christianity occupy various levels of importance. Simply because a teaching is not fundamental to the gospel does not mean it is unimportant. One important task of conservative Christianity is to assign each aspect of the faith to its rightful level of importance. No part of the faith, however, is so unimportant that it deserves to be ignored or forgotten.
Of course, I grant that we must not treat non-fundamental teachings as if they were essential to the existence of the faith. We need not denounce one another as heretics simply because we disagree, say, on matters of church order. Nevertheless, we are not conserving the whole counsel of God if we fail to give these teachings their rightful place. While differences over non-fundamentals do not obliterate Christian fellowship, they often restrict it at some levels.
By definition, fellowship is what we hold in common. Where we do not hold some aspect of the faith in common, we do not have fellowship in that area. To pretend that fellowship existed would be hypocritical. We shall naturally find ourselves unable to manifest visible fellowship in any area that is affected by our disagreement.
That does not mean that our fellowship has to be affected in other areas. We can enjoy visible fellowship wherever we possess actual fellowship, that is, wherever we hold the faith in common. Even in the areas of disagreement, we need to keep talking to one another, partly to guard against misunderstandings, and partly because we have a Christian duty to instruct one another. Disagreement can become a powerful impetus to mutual exhortation and edification.
We engage in this edification best if we grasp the contours of the entire system of faith. We ought to know all the counsel of God, as Paul meant it in Acts 20. Furthermore, we ought to identify ourselves by the appropriate labels that denote our understanding of God’s counsel, and we ought to associate ourselves with the faith tradition that best preserves it.
If a man is convinced that the Scriptures teach Methodism, then I expect him to act and speak like a Methodist. If he is convinced that the Bible requires Presbyterianism, then he must act and speak like a Presbyterian. I will not respect him less for his frankness, nor will I withdraw fellowship in any area where it truly exists. Where it does not exist, however, we must not indulge in hypocritical pretense—even when our hypocrisy is propelled by what seems to be charity. Any charity that leads us to de-emphasize important teachings from Scripture and to ignore erroneous teaching is a false charity, and it will produce harm in the long run.
One more thing: a commitment to conserving the whole counsel of God will dramatically affect the living ministry of our churches. If we intend to conserve all of the faith, then we must preach and teach all of the faith. This commitment virtually mandates a pulpit ministry that majors on explaining the meaning of the Biblical text, supplemented by a teaching ministry that covers the entire Bible and the entire field of Christian doctrine and morals.
Conservative Christians believe that serving the Lord is a dangerous thing. Service that is not grounded upon right belief and practice can destroy churches and individual believers. Today’s conservative Christians believe that such destruction has been occurring within American Christianity for generations, with the result that more and more people have come to profess less and less Christianity.
If we mean to be genuinely conservative Christians, we must recommit ourselves to the entire system of faith. We must believe it all, attaching to each part the level of importance that it deserves. The whole counsel of God must become the substance of our catechesis. Why? Because the faith was delivered to the saints “once for all” (Jude 3). What we lose we may never be able to recover.
Kevin Bauder is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minn., and guest speaker at the 2009 GARBC Conference.