1. It is subjective
When it comes to theology (and politics, and anything else, for that matter) one person’s conservative is another person’s liberal. While there are some generally agreed upon characteristics of theological conservatives (Biblical inerrancy, the need for personal repentance for salvation, etc.) and liberals (lack of belief in the literal resurrection, lower view of Scripture), it still stands that the terms are subjective that I probably define them at least slightly differently than you do.
2. It is often used to describe theological beliefs that are, in fact, not conservative
Suppose, in contradiction with my first point, we loosely define theological conservatism as, “Seeking understand the words of Scripture based on their original meaning in their original context and then appropriately apply them in our context.” If this is an acceptable definition (and it may well not be), then some theological positions that are typically believed to be conservative are actually not. The subject of the appropriateness of women becoming pastors is a great example of this. A “conservative” reading of the texts like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 would recognize that the prohibitions against women speaking in church were necessary instructions for that context because of the distinctives of that culture. They were not universal commands for all times and places. In suggesting that women cannot be pastors we are allowing our culture to reinterpret the Scriptures, and that sounds pretty “liberal” to me. I should note that a lot of the content from this last paragraph came out of a conversation I had with a friend a few months ago. Similarly, people often call me liberal because I am an almost pacifist. While it may be true that most almost pacifists are politically liberal (though I am not), pacifism is a biblical position.
3. Conservative theology often gets incorrectly associated with conservative politics
In other words, “conservative” is a political word, and often those with more orthodox (or conservative) theological beliefs tend to also adopt conservative political beliefs. While there is certainly some overlap between conservative political ideology and Scriptural principles, there are some irreconcilable differences as well (the same is true of liberal political ideology). While I am not politically conservative (I’m somewhat aggressively nonpartisan), I don’t think being purely politically conservative is wrong, I just think it isn’t biblical. The reality is that the Bible is not a politically conservative book (except for the laughable abomination that is the Conservative Bible Project) or a politically liberal book, and Christians who believe the Bible should be very wary of pledging their uncritical support to any partisan political ideology. I would go so far as to say that a high view of Scripture and a willingness to allow it to be the foundation upon which you built your ethics should probably make you not a very good Democrat or a very good Republican. “Conservative” is a different word when it is applied to theology than it is when it is applied to politics, and that, in my opinion, makes it a rather dangerous word to describe biblical theology.
4. The connection to politics hinders our biblical reflection on social issues
As Christians, issues like abortion, war, economic justice, the way we spend our money, euthanasia, worker’s rights, the death penalty, and even taxes are not political issues, they are biblical issues. I recently heard a pastor preach an excellent sermon opposing abortion, and he continually reinforced that his church is not a political church but it is a biblical church, and they were taking a stand on this issue (despite the fact that their stand was quite the opposite of the stand taken by many in their city) because it was a biblical issue. If our values are formed more by our political affiliation than our loyalty to the Scriptures we will necessarily be led to unbiblical, if culturally more acceptable, beliefs about these sorts of issues.
The question, then, is what is the alternative? I think there must be an alternative that clearly distinguishes theology from partisan politics. I like words like “orthodox”, but even that can be subjective. I also like the word “biblical”, which in this case I would loosely define as, “willing to take the Bible seriously and recognize it as God’s inspired word and our final authority for faith and life”. At the end of the day I believe that theology that isn’t biblical theology isn’t worth much, no matter what other labels it carries, so whatever word we use to describe a person who takes the Bible seriously, it is the centrality of the Bible to our private and public lives that must be maintained.
What are some other reasons why words like “conservative” and “liberal” are unhelpful theological words? What are some reasons that they are helpful? What sorts of words are helpful alternatives?