A.W. Tozer, who lived between 1897 and 1963, wrote a revealing description of the theological climate at the time and gave an inspiring alternative. I’ll include his words below and then briefly explain why I think we desperately need Tozer’s words today.
“We who are the fundamentalists and the ‘orthodox’ Christians have gained the reputation of being ‘tigers’—great fighters for the truth. Our hands are heavy with callouses from the brass knuckles we have worn as we beat on the liberals. Because of the meaning of our Christian faith for a lost world, we are obligated to stand up for the truth and to contend for the faith when necessary.
“But there is a better way, even in our dealing with those who are liberals in faith and theology. We can do a whole lot more for them by being Christlike than we can by figuratively beating them over the head with our knuckles.
“The liberals tell us they cannot believe the Bible. They tell us they cannot believe that Jesus Christ was the unique Son of God. At least most of them are honest about it. Moreover, I am certain we are not going to make them bow the knee by cursing them. If we are led by the Spirit of God and if we show forth the love of God this world needs, we become the ‘winsome saints.’” (A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1985, 10-11).
I find Tozer’s metaphor of “beating on the liberals” with brass knuckles descriptive and helpful. Please notice that Tozer is not calling for an embrace of liberalism. He clearly disagrees with the theological liberalism he encountered. What he’s doing is lamenting the conservative, or as he self-described, the fundamentalist response to that. Had he and his fellow conservatives been standing up for truth or calling for a return to the Bible? Not so much. They had grabbed their brass knuckles and had been attacking those they saw as only enemies.
Here’s something I found fascinating in this description. Look at the way Tozer described the “liberalism” of his day: “The liberals tell us they cannot believe the Bible. They tell us they cannot believe that Jesus Christ was the unique Son of God.” This is what liberal meant then (pick up a book on twentieth century philosophy—this type of theology was and is a whole thing). But note carefully that this liberalism is very different than what I see most conservative evangelicals spitting on as “liberal” today. At this cultural moment, I most often see the term “liberal” disdainfully applied to: churches that “overemphasize” grace or unity, churches that allow women to preach, Christians that take a stand against racism or who try to care for refugees and immigrants, Christians who consider themselves democrats, etc.
My point is that when you look at Tozer’s definition of liberal, the issues we’re seeing as indicative of liberalism are pretty minor. I guess I’m basically calling us wimps. If this is all it takes for us to dismiss someone as liberal, we’re not very thick skinned. But notice this: Tozer is calling us to be “winsome saints” with his more intense, more historically heterodox version of liberal. How much easier should it be to treat those currently deemed “liberal” with grace and love? On a similar note, by our current definition of “liberal,” Tozer’s argument here for being “winsome saints” who emphasize the love of God would be dismissed as “liberal,” despite his self-description in this quotation at a fundamentalist!
I also love that Tozer says our hands are calloused from the brass knuckles. In other words, we’ve handed out a ton of wounds, but we ourselves have been altered in the process. Our “opponents” bear the wounds, but we bear the callouses. Here’s his explanation of what it would look like for us to begin living as “winsome saints”:
“The strange and wonderful thing about it is that truly winsome and loving saints do not even know about their attractiveness. The great saints of past eras did not know they were great saints. If someone had told them, they would not have believed it, but those around them knew that Jesus was living His life in them.
“I think we join the winsome saints when God’s purposes in Christ become clear to us. We join them when we begin to worship God because He was who He is.”
His answer is Christlikeness. His call is for us to worship. When we do, we find it easier to lay down our brass knuckles and to begin treating the people around us in ways that make us look more like Jesus rather than less.