"He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters.
Webster’s Dictionary defines liberal as 1) favoring progress or reform and 2) Free from prejudice; tolerant. It defines conservative as 1) Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions and 2) cautiously moderate. There has been much talk about Jesus and what He would approve or disapprove of in politics today. Would Jesus have been liberal or conservative? Would He be fighting the war on abortion, the war in Iraq, or both? Where would our Lord and Savior stand on these issues and could we classify Him as either liberal or conservative? According to the definitions from Webster’s, I don’t think He fit neatly into either category.
It is true that He wished reform for the leading religious establishment, but He didn’t categorize reform as his sole agenda. Did He favor progress? It really depends on what you think He was progressing towards or from. He wasn’t progressing away from the Law of Moses. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus states, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” On the other hand, there were many examples of Jesus speaking against the Pharisees because of their legalistic attitude toward tradition.
As for being conservative, Jesus rarely fit into that narrow definition either. He wasn’t exactly disposed to preserve existing conditions or institutions, unless one considers the will of God to be a pre-existing condition or institution. If a system was corrupt, Jesus was soon speaking out against it. He had no problem calling the ruler of the day “that fox” (Luke 13:32). And He certainly had no problem correcting the religious leaders of that day.
As for the second definition of conservative: cautiously moderate, Jesus in no way could be described as cautious or moderate. He was extreme in every thing He said, in everything He did, and in everything He taught. At times, it seems as if He said specific things just to enrage and antagonize the current religious leaders. He hung around with not only a lowly group of fishermen, but tax collectors and women as well. In social terms, He was so ahead of His times, that it is odd that He had any followers at all. After all, who hung around with tax collectors and sinners? Who would stoop so low as to associate with women? He was extreme all the way down to His relationships.
What about the second definition of liberal? Could Jesus be described as free from prejudice and tolerant of others? On the surface, it does seem as if Jesus was one hundred percent the epitome of this definition. Actually, He was the antithesis of the norm for his day. Where everyone else looked at power, prestige and placement as the success of the day and strove for one or more of those crowns, Jesus forsook the trappings that His heritage offered Him and went about the business of His Father. He not only ministered to the poor and knowingly sinful as He went along His travels, he sought them out. He called to them and strove to meet their needs, both physical and spiritual.
Only the Pharisees and Sadducees could say that He was prejudiced against them, but that would only be looking at the world through their eyes. The main force of Jesus’ indignation was focused upon these leaders because of the power they abused and the position they misused. However, there are instances, Nicodemus for example, where a leader came to Jesus in humility and was met with love and respect. Now, while Jesus could never be accused of being prejudiced against any person, he withheld no favor when it came to his dealings with the sin of men.
No, the main thrust of concern when attempting to label Jesus as liberal or conservative is in His attitude of tolerance (or, perhaps it lies in our perception of His tolerance). To borrow once again from Webster’s Dictionary, tolerance is described as “a fair and permissive attitude towards those whose race, religion, beliefs, etc., differ from one’s own”. Did Jesus have a “fair and permissive” attitude toward others? When it came to other’s race, social standing, wealth or lack of, or age, Jesus treated all fairly and lovingly. However, it is in the second part of the definition where we find that Jesus could be labeled somewhat biased or prejudiced. He definitely held some beliefs or goals not only higher but of more importance.
For instance, He constantly preached on the subject of Heaven, emphasizing the spiritual above the material. However, He did not neglect the material world; He just placed it into a right perspective.
The main difference in Jesus’ teaching, when compared with the above definition, is when He came in contact with those people whose beliefs differed from His own. When He came across those leaders of religion and politics that were supposed to be shepherding the people of Israel, but were in fact living for themselves, He consistently and strongly opposed them. He opposed the Sadducees’ misconception that there was no afterlife. He also opposed the Samaritan’s misconception of worship when He spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus stood consistently with the Old Testament conception of God and defended that stance against any other’s misconception.
I think, perhaps, that it is not Jesus that needs defining, but whether liberals or conservatives today are living up to their definition. If liberals today are seeking progress or reform that is not in alignment with the Word of God, I cannot see where they would be in agreement with Jesus. In the same vein, if conservatives are disposed to preserve existing conditions, and those conditions are not what God intended for man, or they contain deficiencies that need to be addressed, then clinging to those conditions, regardless, and not attempting to address and resolve the issues is also clearly a violation of Biblical mandate. Where the Word of God is concerned, if the scriptures are ignored or interpreted contrary to other scriptures to support current societal standards in the pursuit of “supposed reform”, this thinking would not be in line with the beliefs of Jesus. Consider the following verse: "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In addition, there is not one point when Jesus does not confirm the validity of the Old Testament. So, where the Bible is concerned, the ones who believe that the Bible is the inerrant, unchanging word of God are conservative because their belief falls more into line with traditional thinking and the thinking of Jesus. Ones who believe that the Bible is not meant literally or believe that interpretations of Scripture can be based on personal experience or current societal standards as opposed to being interpreted by other scripture would not be following traditionally held beliefs and would are thus considered liberal.
Men, like Jesus, cannot be stored into a neatly filed category. One group of people cannot be considered as God’s chosen just because they categorize themselves as such. To be Christians, we have to be new creations, born of the Spirit, and following in the footsteps defined by Jesus. To ask if Jesus was liberal or conservative is really not the central issue. We need to ask ourselves if we are like Jesus.