Thursday, February 08, 2024

Stuck in the Middle with You

“Clowns to the left of me,
  Jokers to the right,
  Here I am
  Stuck in the middle with you.”

— Stealers Wheel, 1972

Doesn’t it seem these days like the world has divided right down the middle? We’ve got Conservatives and Liberals, Democrats and Republicans, Brexiters and Europhiles, open borders advocates and controlled immigration people, social justice warriors and free speech advocates, the politically correct and the deliberately controversial, individualists and collectivists … and on, and on, and on.

Iron and clay, maybe.

Human Nature

I’m starting to wonder if this is really so new, though. I’m kind of thinking that it’s a reflection of human nature, perhaps just magnified to absurd levels of publicity by the media and Internet. It’s certainly been something the evangelical church has been experiencing in the last few decades … or the last couple of centuries.

Remember the split between the Fundamentalists and the Social Gospel-ers? Naw, I don’t remember that either. It was a century ago, and I’m not that old. But it does show that those kinds of splits aren’t new. Those of us in middle age can probably recall the last such historic divide among North American evangelicals. It seems to me it was in the 1980s, over an issue called Renewalism. That was a sad split, and really hurt both the sides, I think.

What happens in such cases? It seems that people sort of divide along two different priorities: the liberals are anxious over something in the present moment — some social need, some evident injustice, some pressing opportunity — and the conservatives are aware of an erosion of tradition, core values or theology. Neither finds the other very easy to understand. The liberals say, “Don’t you people care?” The conservatives say, “Have you lost your morals?” Both are responding to important imperatives, but their particular foci have become so pressing to them that they lose all touch with the opposite perspective.

Getting Personal

Eventually, the struggle turns more personal. People get called out as one thing or another. Issues break out wherein strong personalities get counterpoised against other strong personalities. Factions form, each convinced that more and more strenuous measures are required to preserve the agenda they value. At the end of the day, a split seems almost inevitable: it’s just easier if we, on each side, take our ball and go home. We can play it our way, and you play it yours. Talking is done. Compromise is over. No more negotiation. Here we stand; we can do no other.


It’s too bad. The middle ground’s gone. The chance for the conservatives to become more thoughtful and flexible about their practices has been lost — perhaps even surrendered to sclerotic tradition. The chance for liberals to steady themselves and realize everything that is worth preserving is gone too. Both sides will henceforth be harder on their chosen course than they would ever have been if they’d managed to sustain a relationship with the other side.

Listening to the other side — really listening, with the intent to understand and negotiate — is essential to the unity of Body life. When we stop listening and start parading our preferred agenda or personal biases, we’re cooked.

The Middle Way

I was thinking of this today. I was visiting a large community church in my area (not my usual taste, but one has to have a look around sometimes). Anyway, the speaker was talking about the importance of knowing what’s going on in society around us. He was using a passage in Chronicles which talks about David’s men, the sons of Issachar, who “understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do”. From this, he drew the application that it was important for Christians always to be looking at “the times”: at what was going on in society, and reacting to that by taking every opportunity to introduce Christ.

He started with analogies about fads through the ages, from flagpole-sitting to fidget spinners. He gave examples of when he was a young people’s leader: how he used to read Rolling Stone magazine and listen to Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails to find out what the kids were hearing. He talked about reading people’s tattoos and asking them what they meant, or inviting neighborhood folks over for hot dogs just to hear what was in their hearts.

He wasn’t wrong. (Okay, his exegesis was a little sketchy, but he was trying to say something good.) We DO need to have a look around us. But something wasn’t quite right either, and it bothered me. What was he missing?

Then I had it.

The Journey

Every journey is made up of three parts: where you are, where you need to go, and what you need to do and overcome to get there. There’s the starting point, the destination, and the hazards and opportunities as you pass along the way.

The liberals have got focused on the journey.

The conservatives have become absorbed with the destination.

Neither is really seeing the importance of what the other is bringing to the table.

And because they’ve lost touch with each other, both are wandering.


Let me explain.

What the conservatives have tended to get more or less right is the idea of the destination. They seem to have a firmer grip than the liberals on questions like “What is the basic function of a church?” or “What objectives are central to church functioning?” They tend to have their sense of the gospel more grounded in scriptural citation, and a more serious engagement with the nuances of theology. They also tend to have a stronger sense of the past, to realize we are not floating independent of others who have come before us, and to be more judicious about what can be lost when we throw the doors too wide, too suddenly, to innovation.

In contrast, the liberal side seems more presently awake. They tend to be more attuned to the real way people are experiencing church, whether as rewarding or as difficult. They are much quicker to realize when some practice or idea is not really working anymore, or when an opportunity to improve things appears on the horizon. They are creative in generating new ideas, and quick to embrace the chance to freshen things up and make them more positive. They tend to be more aware than the conservatives of how society is changing, more astute about how people are starting to feel and think, and less afraid to do something different.

Of course, each of these orientations comes with certain liabilities as well.

Out on the Right Wing

Conservatives are inclined to be too hesitant to change. Sometimes they have difficulty extricating mere tradition from sacred precept and begin to insist on “the old paths” more because they’re old than because they’re good paths. They often mistake rote behavior for faithfulness, can be myopic about opportunities for improvement and hidebound about disruptions to their habits. As the vitality drains out of their routines, they tend to become progressively weary, and thus even less likely to produce the energy to change; that is, until things become critical, when finally, they will change — but usually too little, too late.

The worst we can say is that sometimes their faithfulness becomes no more than rote. They lose touch with essentials — first with kindness and hospitality, then with basic functions like prayer, worship and even the gospel — not because they don’t understand what these things are in theory, but because in practice they’ve lost touch with the essential spirit of what these things were supposed to produce in us. They’re no longer learning, changing, growing and finding new expressions of faithfulness for a new age. And when things get to this stage, decrepitude and death often follow shortly — that, or a violent convulsion of late change that throws the church into confusion.

Out on the Left Wing

The liberals seem to do better at first, but if what I have seen is typical, they do just as badly in the long run … and in some ways worse. Initially, their love of change promises a bright future for the local church. But in their haste to move forward, they tend to overlook or negotiate away certain essentials. In response to social trends, they tend to throw out traditional practices and theology with no thought to how much they’re losing in the process. The theology of gender is the very first to go, shortly followed by any sound ecclesiology. Then it’s current social practices brought straight into church practice without sufficient reflection on their implications. Because, as they say, “doctrine divides”, the liberal church tends either to become unashamedly pluralist about all doctrine, or else to write a new bare-bones kind of church manifesto, very specific and strongly-worded about a few things (to reinforce the feeling of faithfulness), but unwisely silent on issues the congregation doesn’t yet see as sufficiently pressing.

Symptoms of decline appear. The songs sung become theologically vague, emotional and highly individualistic. Worship falters badly. The communion table is reduced to an afterthought, a short and rare performance by clergy, usually. And while talk of “welcome” and “the gospel” becomes routine, the sense of what the gospel is, or why we’re welcoming people becomes less and less certain. Innovation, expansion, addition and numbers become the things most talked about, along with values like openness, community, outreach and vision. There is enthusiasm, at least for a time, but not enough sobriety, caution, wisdom and restraint. The congregation becomes very active, but why or what it is becomes less and less clear.

In Search of a New Dialogue

In their enthusiasm for journeying well, liberals have lost the destination, just as in their earnestness to stay on track the conservatives have lost the ability to travel well.

What I think both sides need is the counterbalancing of the other. Probably the biggest tragedy of the conservative-liberal divide today is that it is generally a strict divide. If only there were some common ground for discussion, some things to be worked out with each other, some shared territory in which the left hand was obliged to figure out how to work with the right, and the right to work with the left. Sadly, such grounds have generally been evacuated, because people on one side or the other have, so to speak, “taken their ball and gone home”. The left and right aren’t playing on the same team anymore.

All Apologies

Now, with all apologies to Stealers Wheel (the authors of the quotation at the top of the post), we need to realize this.

Christians on the left, the more liberal side, are not “clowns”.

And Christians on the right, the conservatives, are not “jokers”.

What they are is our brothers and sisters in Christ. Like us, they are blood-bought, Christ-redeemed, heaven-bound sons and daughters of God, destined to share eternity with us. And because that’s what they are, then neither side can afford contempt for the other.

They may be differently-disposed than we are, maybe differently-gifted and differently-burdened as well. But we need them, and they need us; because none of us on his own is balanced. And both sides badly need balancing today.

In Short

The great tragedy of the evangelical situation today is the polarization that separates left from right. It takes the voice that speaks of methods, innovation, practices, social concern and updating out of the conservative side; and it takes the voice of seriousness, steadfastness, endurance, theology and faithfulness out of the liberal side. Both are weaker for it.

What’s the remedy?

Humility. We need the memory of who we are — sinners, saved by the grace of God, but still very flawed. That, and a recommitment to biblical truth.

We need to reject the world’s trend of fragmenting into causes of left and right, each sanctimoniously sure of its own territory and basely contemptuous of all opposition. We need to show that we believe in principled unity — “unity”, because with all our faults and failings, we still know we are all one in Christ; and “principled”, because there never can be any unity if in our haste to get it we compromise the truth of God.


How will this happen?

I do not know. I apologize for that, but I would be less than honest if I said I did. I just sense that it needs to happen. Perhaps a few congregations that have heeled over to the conservative side will go and visit some of their liberal brethren, just to see how they’re doing. Or perhaps some on the liberal side will graciously condescend to visit the conservatives and see how they’re doing. Or maybe congregations of both sides will just start to pray earnestly to be restored to fellowship with the other side, and wait for the Lord to show us the next move.

And maybe the Lord will even stir up a wise and truthful voice from the middle (that space that is so generally vacated today) and a third way, a better way forward will appear to both sides. Maybe both sides will come to see the other side with some compassion, and to remember to Whom we all belong, and will begin to make common cause with each other again.

I’m really not sure.

But this I am sure of: there is still a Head of the Church, a Great Shepherd of the flock, and we are the sheep of his pasture. When he calls us, his own will hear his voice and follow him as one.

When that happens, it will be very good for us all.

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