Conservatives and liberals? There have probably always been two ways to look at life. We only have to look back to New Testament times to see the opposing views of the conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees, or the ultra-conservative Essenes and ultra-liberal Herodians – each looking at life from their own perspective and each believing themselves to be right.
Historically, the two views of life have existed in countless forms and variations, but the essential approaches have been the same – conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, those desiring to maintain what is established and those looking for change, those wanting to uphold good and those wanting to implement improvement. Of course there are other aspects to the great dichotomy – for example, those who feel the implementation of justice is all important and those who stress the importance of mercy. This does not mean, of course, that those with a conservative viewpoint are never merciful or support progressive ideas, any more than it means those with a liberal outlook never support justice or seek to maintain established patterns, but that people usually gravitate to one approach or the other, depending on their view of the world.
One would think that the Bible would have something to say about these fundamental outlooks– and in fact, it does. We don’t find words that can be translated “conservative” or “liberal” in the Scriptures, of course, but we find parallel ideas in such dual biblical concepts as “justice and mercy,” “law and grace,” or “truth and love.” Although some people may stress one of these qualities over the other in a given pair, the fact is both are necessary and right. We see this in the many scriptures stressing that both halves of the duality are found in the nature of God.
The God of Two Ways
In the Old Testament two contrasting Hebrew words are often used to describe God: hesed and ‘emet (Exodus 34:6, etc.). These words are often translated “love” and “faithfulness,” though it is possible to translate them in other ways – such as “love” and “truth,” or other terms that reflect the two basic underlying views of life. For example, in Genesis 32:10 the two Hebrew words are translated “kindness and faithfulness” (NIV), “love and faithfulness” (ESV), “mercies and truth” (NKJ), and so on. But while hesed and ‘emet are frequently used individually, they occur together more than any other words in descriptions of God.
Sometimes, other pairs of words are used in the Old Testament to show the same combination of qualities in God's nature. Consider what Isaiah tells us: “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice...” (Isaiah 30:18, emphases added)
In the New Testament we find a parallel word pair in the Greek words alētheia and charis. While alētheia is usually translated “truth,” charis is translated “grace,” “loving kindness,” and in other ways. When the apostle John described the nature of the son of God, he wrote of “…the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
So, whether we look at the Old Testament or the New, we find both views of life being combined in descriptions of the character and nature of God. The two views may be characterized as love and faithfulness, grace and truth, judgment and mercy, compassion and judgment, or in many other ways, but their essential equivalence with the two basic approaches to life is clear. God clearly embraces both views, and if we are to be like God, we need to be able to do this, too.
But if we say that we should embrace and utilize both approaches in our lives, what does that mean for daily living? Do we become registered members of both the conservative and liberal parties of our nations? How can we be for both the prosecution and pardon of criminals, for preservation and for change? The answer to how we apply both worldviews through careful and prayerful balance is found within the Scriptures themselves. We see this in many scriptures – such as Hosea 12:6 which urges us to “… maintain love and justice …” rather than one or the other.
An often overlooked example from the New Testament is seen in the story of how Joseph dealt with the pregnancy of Mary. The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). This verse shows us with remarkable clarity the approach Joseph took of being faithful to the law (choosing law, truth, faithfulness), yet at the same time, choosing to quietly divorce Mary rather than to cause her public shame and disgrace (choosing love, mercy, grace). Joseph did not choose one view of life or the other – he chose to apply both.
We see this same approach in the words of Jesus: “…neither do I condemn you …Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11) and expounded by the apostle Paul when he wrote: “But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Notice that Paul urges us not to choose truth or love alone, but to apply one with the other – and to do so that we may become more like Christ himself.
This does not mean that we can always combine the two approaches in every situation. Paul himself speaks not only of applying unencumbered mercy: “Anyone you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Corinthians 2:10), but also of applying pure judgment when he had to do so: “I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned…” (2 Corinthians 13:2).
Walking in Two Ways
The Christian is called to walk according to both approaches to life – that of justice and mercy, truth and love, or however we may define them – at the same time to the degree that it is possible. Sometimes we must choose one or the other approach depending on the circumstances, but we need never feel that we are called to one worldview to the exclusion of the other. If both approaches cannot be taken simultaneously, we can still strive to apply whichever worldview best fits the particular situation.
We should always remember that both approaches are part of the nature and character of God. A prophecy in the Book of Hosea illustrates this beautifully: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (Hosea 2:19).
That is the “forever” life to which we are called – one of both righteousness and justice as well as love and compassion. We are called to a life that accepts both views, a Way in which wisdom is found in learning when to apply each.
* See also our post “Balancing Justice and Mercy” here.