“I’m more afraid of sliding into liberalism than being called ‘fundamentalist,’” a colleague once told me. “If I go too far to the right, at least I’ll still believe the essentials. If I go too far to the left, I’ll lose Christianity altogether.”

I’ve heard sentiments like these from Christians over the years, often applied to different issues, whether it’s fear of the social gospel (“Better to have a too-narrow conception of the church’s mission than to make everything the mission and lose the gospel!”) or fear of egalitarianism (“We may slide toward feminism if we start to prioritize and promote women in non-pastoral leadership roles”). The old joke in my former fundamentalist circles made light of fear-based principles: “We’re against sex before marriage; it might lead to dancing.”

But the motivating power of fear doesn’t just affect those on the right. Some are so afraid to be seen as “too conservative” or “fundamentalist” that they shy away from taking bold biblical stances—reaffirming central matters of Christian conviction when those views are unpopular. On guard against whatever might lead to the appearance of a legalistic spirit, they go quiet on matters of first importance, fearful they might draw the line too sharply and then be lumped in with “mean Christians.”

Warnings Against Drift

The Bible warns against drift, but drift can go in more than one direction. “We must pay attention all the more to what we have heard,” we read in Hebrews 2:1 (CSB), “so that we will not drift away.” Some of the early Christians drifted toward the dilution of the grace of God in salvation (Gal. 1) while others used grace as a license for immorality (Jude 3–4). Doctrinal drift is real, and there are various ways to shipwreck your faith (1 Tim. 1:19). The apostles commanded us to keep the faith and maintain sound doctrine.

History also reveals the reality of doctrinal drift and its impact. It’s true that over time, some of the churches most involved in outreach have seen gospel proclamation swallowed up in social ministry. Likewise, we can find churches and movements whose focus on holding tightly to a few key doctrines led to an insular mindset, resulting in complicity with social injustice. In my own church tradition, you can trace the decline of General Baptists, who emphasized the universality of the atonement and drifted into universalism. You can also find Particular Baptists, who stressed limited atonement and became missionary-thwarting Hyper-Calvinists.

Drift is real. It happens. We see it in Scripture and in church history.

Framework of Fear

But I don’t believe the framework of fear makes much sense in determining our theological outlook. Should fear be the primary motivator for the positions I take?

  • If my big fear is becoming legalistic, I’ll be less likely to stress the commands of Jesus and more likely to slip into antinomianism.
  • If my main concern is becoming a “social gospel liberal,” I’ll be less likely to look for ways to serve the disadvantaged or protest injustice and more likely to slip into an inward-facing quietism.
  • If I’m afraid I might overlook or excuse racism in the church, I may go quiet about unbiblical ideologies that seem, on the surface, to support the cause of justice. But if my big fear is Critical Race Theory, I may slow down in doing the hard work of cultivating racial repentance and reconciliation.

The fear of one error often leads to another. Slippery slopes go more than one way. And being on guard against a danger on one side can leave you vulnerable to problems on another.

Faith, Not Fear

Adopting a fear-based posture is the wrong way to avoid drift. How, then, should we respond to the danger? With faith, not fear.

The apostle Jude called us to build ourselves up in holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting expectantly for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life,” he wrote (Jude 21, CSB). But the same apostle opened his letter by describing his readers as “called, loved by God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1, CSB). By faith, we are to “keep ourselves in the love of God,” and by faith, we rest assured that we are loved by the Father and “kept” for and by Jesus Christ. We need not fear the danger of drift, even as we’re called to resist it.

Pursuit of Faithfulness

“I’d rather be too legalistic than too liberal,” someone says. Why even put it that way? Why choose between legalism and licentiousness? These false choices, rooted in fear, keep us from looking at the Scriptures and adopting a posture that relies on God to guide our steps as we seek to move forward in faith.

It’s faithfulness we’re after. At the end of our ministry, when we look back at our lives, we don’t want to answer for why our church did so little for the disadvantaged by saying, “Well, at least we didn’t adopt the social gospel.” We don’t want to answer for why we went silent on core Christian convictions by saying, “Well, at least no one could accuse us of being fundamentalist.” We don’t want the answer to disobedience in one area to be our fear of drift toward another.

Yes, we must keep our eyes open. Be aware of pitfalls you see in history. Recognize the temptations most attractive to your personality so you’d know which direction you’d most likely go astray. Heed the warnings of Scripture, and keep a close watch on your life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). But do all of this with feet grounded not in fear, but in faith. With a mind committed not to fretfulness, but to faithfulness. With a heart ever-earnest to follow all of Jesus’s teaching, no matter what artificial lines and categories get crossed.

We rely on the power of the Spirit and the grace of Jesus as we lean into the cultural winds, resist the schemes of the devil, and fight the sins that remain in our hearts. It’s faith in the outcome that motivates us, not fear of defeat. We know the One in whom we have believed. The Savior stands near us and steadies us.

Walk with your eyes wide open. But don’t be afraid.

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