Can Christians be Liberal?

  • By: Jac Filer
  • Time to read: 5 min.

In America, evangelical Christians have donned the mantle of political conservatism for decades. And as political differences continue to divide people, an increasing number of Christians perceive political liberalism as a threat to Christianity.

As some churches – and even whole denominations – have embraced and promoted aspects of social liberalism, new questions emerge. Is liberalism in any way compatible with Christianity? Can a Christian even be a liberal, and vice versa?

People of all political perspectives can be Christians. However, as Christians, we are called to look to our faith first for all truth, wisdom, and moral instruction. Christians must avoid allowing our politics to distort our faith.

What is a Liberal?

In modern America and other western nations, liberals might characterize themselves as compassionate champions of the poor and marginalized. Their detractors, however, might describe liberals as morally compromised regarding matters such as sexuality or abortion.

Different perspectives emerge between liberals and conservatives on economic matters, too. The modern liberal might favor progressive tax brackets and robust social spending, while a conservative espouses a philosophy of free enterprise and smaller government.

Why People Choose Different Ideologies

People adopt political ideologies for a number of reasons. Often, an individual’s family and upbringing serve as the foundation for their political perspective. Similarly, a person might be passionate about a particular cause – such as climate concerns, immigration, free speech, or abortion – that sways them to one side or the other. Others might simply choose the ideology that best serves their interests as members of a certain socio-economic class, trade, or profession.

Yet, because all political ideologies are human inventions, they are imperfect and subject to constant change. As Christians, we require a much more solid foundation:

Putting Faith Ahead of Politics

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:6-8

What is true of liberal – and conservative – ideologies today will likely be different in the next generation as society changes and new priorities and issues emerge. Similarly, the liberalism of the twenty-first century espouses different ideas than in previous centuries – even previous decades.

So, we can think of political views as shifting sands that change with each new development and each new generation. That makes them terrible places for establishing strong roots and firm foundations. Instead, Paul instructs us to be rooted and built up in Christ and strengthened in our faith in Him.

If we fail to let our faith drive our thinking, then we risk becoming deceived by hollow philosophies that are built on the shifting sands of human tradition. One perspective might seem more in line with the gospel today, but in a generation, that same ideology might find itself very far removed from its current location.

So, we must recognize that no single political ideology – liberal or conservative, classic or modern – aligns perfectly with the gospel. So by being rooted and built up in our faith, we gain wisdom to discern where our politics are out of step with God’s desire and purpose for our lives.

Individuals – and even whole branches of the church – have been taken captive through unbiblical political ideologies that have distorted their understanding of the gospel. And the sad result is that these churches continue to perpetuate the false gospel of hollow philosophies.

A Biblical Example to Follow

By contrast, when we allow our politics to take their rightful place as subservient to our faith, we find that there is room in the church for an array of political views. This is possible because the church is made up of people with divergent backgrounds, interests, and cultures, which inherently produce different perspectives.

We need look no further than Jesus’ inner circle of disciples to see a politically diverse church:

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:2-4

We focus today on two disciples whose stories are largely absent from scripture. Yet, this passage tells us everything that we need to know about them.

  • Matthew: As a tax collector, Matthew was an operative of the occupying Roman government. Though Matthew himself was a Jew, he collected taxes on behalf of Rome’s vassal, King Herod, (who himself paid tribute to Rome). For this reason, Matthew, like all tax collectors, was viewed as a traitor to the Jews.
  • Simon: The Zealots were a loosely organized party of Jewish nationalists whose aim was to rid Judea of the Romans. Zealots were frequently responsible for acts of violence against Romans and their allies, and organized several failed insurrections. Zealots were willing to kill for their cause and saw any acquiescence to Rome (including the payment of taxes) as a violation of God’s law.

Jesus’ core disciples included representatives of opposite political extremes. Yet they found common ground—and even a new calling altogether—in the ministry of God’s kingdom.

We might be tempted, depending on our own personal views, to try to draw parallels between these two disciples and our modern political parties. We might even go so far as to label one ‘liberal’ and the other ‘conservative’.

This would be a distraction and a mistake since the political environment of the first century was completely different from our own political climate. So, any such comparisons are bound to be incomplete at best, and not very useful.

Maintaining Our Perspective

As westerners, we must remember how young America, the US Constitution, and the causes of modern political liberalism and conservatism really are. In many ways, these ideologies are still in their infancy, having been in existence for just a few centuries. By comparison, kingdoms elsewhere in the world have survived for thousands of years with little change in their structure, culture, and values.

Yet scripture reminds us:

 “All people are like grass,

and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;

he grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:24-25

Every earthly kingdom will fade. The philosophies that give rise to new kings and kingdoms will fail with them. Only God’s word is enduring. Only God’s word stands as a reliable foundation for truth, wisdom, and understanding, in any age, regardless of the prevailing political winds.