Ecclesiastical Zoology

A Three-part Definition of the Three Kinds of People Found in Today’s Church: the “Conservatives,” the “Middle-of-the-Roader,” and the “Liberal.”

I. The Liberal

As “concerned” groups of one kind and another have begun to multiply within the Church, a rather severe problem of definition has been created.

What do you mean by “conservative,” “middle-of-the-roader” and “liberal”? Can the various species within these genera be recognized by certain characteristics?

From our voluminous notebook we offer the following suggestions—perhaps not to be taken too literally:

LIBERAL – This genus comes in two species: Genuine and So-Called. The Genuine liberal is a rare bird, but he does exist and the species seems to be multiplying, especially among the frankly radical.

In surprising profusion, ministers (this study is mainly concerned with ministers) who cheerfully admit they reject Christianity’s historic beliefs and who plug hardest for revolution, have also been found among those most willing to permit Concerned Presbyterians to live unmolested and have voted for acceptance of a graduate from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Generally young, the Genuine liberal consistently practices “freedom”—recognizing no restraints himself, he is charitably unwilling to force others into prescribed molds, of any sort.

The So-Called liberal, on the other hand, may be found in much greater profusion, but is not nearly so domesticated. Generally inhabiting ecclesiastical offices and control centers, this species is crafty, cunning, deceptive, intolerant, unmerciful, ruthless. “Liberal” only towards his own kind and charitable only when he is having his way, he will plead for tolerance when he is at a disadvantage and never yield an inch when he’s in the driver’s seat. Never, but never expect a fair shake from him.

Both species may be recognized by the way their ears perk up when you call out, “War!” “Poor!” “Black!” “Vote!” “Freedom!” and the like; but immediately droop when you call out, “Saved!” “Grace!” “Sin!” “Heaven!” “Bible!” and the like.

You can distinguish the species quite simply. Just ask what they think of non-official literature. Or of designated giving. Or of ministerial candidates from non-denominational seminaries.

Or if they read the Presbyterian Journal.

Neither will be in favor of such things. But one will reply charitably. The other will bristle, sometimes to the point of alarm.

II. The Middle-of-the-Roader

This genus, like the Liberal, also comes in two species: Genuine and Self-Designated. Unlike the Liberal, the Genuine Middle-Of-The-Roader is somewhat less desirable as a house guest than the Self-Designated. At least the latter’s interest in wearing the label often is a good sign that he is breathing.

Genuine Middle-Of-The-Roaders often must be pinched in some fashion (as by a congregational squeeze, of some sort) in order to determine whether they are really alive.

Ordinarily this species shows signs of life in much the way a cork merrily bouncing downstream shows signs of life. He doesn’t buck the current, he doesn’t run ahead of the current, he simply bounces with the current.

In his sermons he accentuates the obvious; in presbytery he moves to refer to a committee for study. His greatest desire is to get along with everyone. His greatest fear is that he will be constrained to take a stand.

The effect of his presence is to reinforce the majority opinion. Tn the company of liberals he is assumed to be liberal; in the company of conservatives he is assumed to be conservative. Nobody really knows, but his voting record is impeccably with the majority.

The Self-Designated species of this genus bears a striking resemblance to the other, with this exception: he bestirs himself from time to time. He has an objective that he actively works for and which he calls the Middle-Of-The-Road objective.

Unfortunately, his objective always represents a compromise, so it seldom is warmly received either by conservatives or liberals. The conservative notes that he is willing to change the fundamentals under pressure and the liberal observes that he is unwilling to really kick over the old traces where the liberal deems it necessary.

Actually, Self-Designated Middle-Of-The-Roaders do not stand in the middle at all. While their public image is that of a heroic figure standing grandly erect, with lofty disdain holding palms outstretched against both extremes of right and left, in actual practice they definitely lean to the left.

This is because their steady willingness to compromise—their unwillingness to stand fast—always plays into the hands of those working for change.

Give us a committed Liberal any day in preference to a Middle-Of-The-Roader. The committed Liberal is committed to something and if he can be shown the error of his ways (or if the Lord gets hold of him) he becomes an equally committed conservative. We’ve seen it happen.

But the Middle-Of-The-Roader never changes. If you build a fire under him, he may rouse himself and look around. But the chances are he will move over just enough to get out of the fire, then subside again.

III. The Conservative

Again, as in the case of the others, this genus comes in two species, Genuine and So-Called. Like the Liberal but unlike the Middle-Of-The-Roader, the Genuine is the most valuable.

So-Called conservatives occur in a wide variety. They differ from the Genuine by a characteristic that is often quite hard to detect: the true reason for their conservatism is not exactly the announced and public reason. Sometimes they, themselves, do not realize this.

Sometimes this species will defend his nest, not because it is the best nest possible but simply because he doesn’t want to move. Or the cost of building a new nest is more than he wants to spend.

Sometimes his voice is raucous and the song sounds more like a crow than a canary. When urged to pipe down in order that the melody of the canary may be heard he will double the decibels simply because his pride has been wounded.

He has long frequented the same haunts and pulled his worms from the same plot of soil. Should richer plots of soil with fatter worms be discovered, he will firmly maintain his former habits because he simply does not wish to change.

The Genuine conservative, on the other hand, is a rare and valuable species. He derives his name from his habit of recognizing a good thing when he sees it and accepting it as given, without being distracted by every new thing that comes along.

Like the canary he develops a beautiful song and sings it, instead of becoming a poor mimic of everyone else, like the mockingbird.

He is willing to forage for his own food, hatch his own eggs, feed his own young. If the best possible nest is built of twigs, he will not try to build one out of straw. If it is the better part of wisdom to lay lip in store for the winter, he will not try to get by without adequate provision. He will take good care of his own plumage without becoming consumed with covetousness over the more brilliant plumage of his neighbor.

To abandon the figure: a Genuine conservative knows how to distinguish between those things that do not change and thosc that do. He can make necessary adjustments in understanding and practice without concluding that the ‘Word of God no longer lives and abides forever.

In particular he knows that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that the basics of faith have not altered with the knowledge explosion of our day.

Man is still a sinner, desperately needing a Saviour, for without him he is eternally lost. Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of sinners and all must be born again by faith in him in order to see the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation and it still is ordained that by the “foolishness of preaching” men’s hearts shall be reached.

These things the wise man is conservative about.

G. Aiken Taylor, editor of the Presbyterian Journal, is an ordained minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church and a recognized leader of the confessional, Bible-believing forces within the denomination. This material appeared first in the Presbyterian Journal, and is re-printed with permission.