So What’s Wrong with Conservatism?

One of my last articles was a definition of conservatism. I received some heat for that article on social media. Well, if you didn’t like that article, I’m going to warn you up front that this article is likely to be even more offensive, so you may want to just not read this. In fact, you probably won’t understand what I’m telling you anyway.

The reason I defined conservatism was because I make a lot of references to conservatism on this blog, and I want everybody to understand what I am referring to. I also wanted to bring out some of the characteristics of conservatism and the conservative mindset.

In this article, I want to go a step further and flesh out what’s wrong with this mindset, plus make a few more points.


Fiddler on the roofA couple weeks ago, I saw Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. I was struck by its application to conservatism. (If you haven’t watched Fiddler on the Roof, you need to.)

The movie begins with a monologue from Tevye, the main character, talking about traditions in the fictional village of Anatevka:

A fiddler on the roof… Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.

You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word!


Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started?

I’ll tell you.

I don’t know.

But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s problem is that the world around him is changing, and traditions can’t guide him in handling a new situation. Anatevka’s traditions give its residents a false sense of security and “sameness”—until the constable announces that they have to leave.

Tzeitel thinks about marrying Lazar, a man older than her father

Tzeitel contemplates the prospect of marrying Lazar Wolff, a man older than her father

In addition, as Tevye’s daughters realize, the traditional system of arranged marriages is broken. Yet, their father is more concerned about keeping traditions alive than making sure they are happy and cared for—despite praying, in his Sabbath prayer, for husbands who will care for them.


Like Anatevka, conservatism is based around tradition. Those extra rules that I mentioned in the definition article? Many times, they aren’t new rules that were recently decided upon. Instead, they are old traditions, or keep the traditional view of Scripture alive.

Now, obviously, if a traditional view is totally correct, then it is a good idea to continue it. My experience, however, is that many times, the traditional view is not 100% correct. Nonetheless, no one will take an honest look, step outside of the box and say, “Are we right?”

What are the consequences of holding on to tradition?

Creating Manmade Sins

Perchik inviting Hodel to dance at Motel and Tzeitel's wedding

Perchik inviting Hodel to dance at Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding

Going back to Fiddler on the Roof, we find an excellent example of traditions creating sin. At Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, the men and women are segregated from each other, with a rope dividing the dance floor. Perchik, the young communist, steps across to the women’s side and asks who will dance with him. He is met with gasps, and the declaration that it is sin for men and women to dance together.

But, as the rabbi admits, the Scriptures do not forbid men and women from dancing together. It was merely a tradition—probably with a “Scriptural” backing.

This is a real problem with conservatism. Applications of Scripture are made into binding rules. Then people feel guilty about breaking these rules, as guilty as if they were disobeying Scripture itself.

Creating Division and Rejection

Traditions create division and rejection because they have no solid basis. Each person, church, community, people group, and nation has their own traditions. Everybody tends to do things a little different than everybody else, because we are all different, with different backgrounds.

But when traditions conflict, the result is division, rejection, and repression. For example, predominantly white churches tend to frown upon the more exuberant, expressive worship of black people. Raising your hands and shouting “Hallelujah” in a conservative Mennonite church? Scandalous! Clapping to the music? Horrors!

When someone within the group attempts to stop a tradition, it creates division. They may be rejected by those who want to hold on to the tradition. It may even be a seemingly minor tradition, such as the order of the church service.

The worst sort of this rejection is the shunning of people who break the church’s traditions, as though they were terrible sinners. For example, shunning somebody because they got a radio or TV. Or had their ears pierced.

God’s body is not divided. There is not a Mennonite body, a Baptist body, a Lutheran body, and a Methodist body. Why do we treat one another as though we belong to separate bodies?

“That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!”



Rejecting and Ignoring Non-Traditional Viewpoints and Suggestions

In Fiddler on the Roof, Perchik’s ideas are ridiculed and tossed out because he’s a “radical”. Obviously, we know how communism played out in Russia. Not all non-traditional ideas are good. However, he had some good points—for example, that marriage didn’t require a matchmaker, and that a man and woman should be able to choose one another for marriage because they love each other.

Perchik proposing to Hodel

Perchik proposing to Hodel

Instead of learning from each other, the battle lines are often drawn along traditional versus non-traditional lines. Unfortunately, this results in each side throwing out the other’s viewpoint, without learning the beneficial things that each can teach the other.

Inability to Change with the Times

The Jewish people of Anatevka had several warnings that all was not well. Yet, like the onions they referred to, they buried their heads in the ground and hoped for the best—until the constable informed them that they had only three days to sell everything and leave. Talk about flooding the market!

Likewise, tradition prevents us from recognizing change in the world and adapting. Recently, I was down in Washington, DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. I noted that probably 95% of the women were wearing pants—as women have been doing here in the US for decades. Yet, some traditionalist, conservative groups still insist that pants are only men’s clothing. There is no room for change and progress.

This is sad, because God can use new technologies and new ideas to advance His Kingdom. His people should be cutting-edge—actually, they should be the innovators, not lagging 20 years behind the rest of the world. Not that we should embrace every new technology and idea that comes along, but we should be open to Him working in new ways.

Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters… Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:16-19)

Which brings us to the most significant point of all:

Traditionalism/Conservatism Quenches the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is a very important part of the Christian life and the working of the Church. He dwells within us and guides us to do His work. He guides us into all truth (John 16:13). We can only live the Christian life through His power.

God warns us, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Yet that is precisely what conservatism and traditions of men will do. Because tradition spells out how to live life, there is no room for the moving of the Holy Spirit to do something new or different than we are accustomed to. If the traditions contradict the Holy Spirit, the traditions usually win out, as with the Pharisees.

In addition, there is less impetus to ask God for guidance, because our traditions tell us what to do. We don’t have to ask God if there’s something He wants us to share with the rest of the church on Sunday, because we won’t have a chance to bring a psalm, teaching, revelation, or tongue for the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26). We don’t have to ask Him how to dress because our church and our customs tell us how to dress. We don’t have to ask Him how to raise our children, because the multitude of teachers around us have given us the tools and step-by-step plans for success.

In short, traditions quench the Spirit and prevent Him from having full control over our lives.

Make no mistake: as long as you follow tradition instead of the Holy Spirit, you are not completely surrendered to God.

So What Do We Do?

Should we throw out all tradition? Is the word “tradition” a dirty word?

No! A knee-jerk, anti-tradition response is no more spiritual than being traditional.

Instead, we need to stop quenching the Spirit and start following Him.


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6 Replies to “So What’s Wrong with Conservatism?”

  1. I hope you have an article in the works that gives us an answer to the concerns you have raised here. It’s wonderful to encourage everyone to follow the Spirit instead of quenching it. But what does that look like? Are there congregations that are “doing it right”? I’m not being confrontational, I really want to know. It’s pretty easy to point out problems with the current paradigm. As a minister in a “conservative ” Anabaptist group, I see them too. I also see the chaos that results from abandoning all standards of dress and conduct relating to the culture around us. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But “If I were a rich man…”. I’ve always liked Fiddler on the roof.

    1. Edward, thanks so much for your comment! It got me thinking. I hope to answer you much more fully in the future, but for now, let me say: you probably do not know the half of the problems in the conservative Mennonite church, because they have been swept under the rug and hidden. When my dad’s book, The Failure of the Great Amish and Mennonite Dress Experiment, comes out, you will be shocked and disgusted at what is going on. When you know more of what I know, you will probably understand better why these problems that I discussed in this article are so disturbing to me.

      Jesus is the only reliable pattern for the church. I wish I could point to a church or group of churches and say, “Emulate them, as they emulate Christ,” but I can’t at this point.

      Where do we start with dealing with conservatism’s problems? I suggest looking at your church’s membership guidelines and evaluating carefully what is tradition and what is straight Scripture. For example, does your church prohibit women from wearing makeup? God never forbids women to wear makeup.

      Above all, ask God to guide you. He does know all the answers, unlike me. 🙂 If He shows you anything helpful, please share it!

  2. Many years ago, I watched Fiddler on the Roof and it made a huge impression on me because I saw so many parallels to the Anabaptists within it. I came away with some of the same thoughts you share here. At that time it was a struggle to change my thought patterns because I was steeped in tradition and did not want to let my children lose the traditions that I held dear. God has been working in my heart to see that traditions, when held as highly as a Biblical command, can be enslaving and wrong. Traditions are good only when they are viewed as being only a tradition-not as the Word of God. My family still has traditions but its not as hard on me as it once was when we change them. I’m learning…

  3. This is a post I’d never read. I guess I didn’t know you back then. ? But this is great. For one, I love the musical and sang parts of it in college. More importantly however, you made striking comparisons to the current Anabaptist traditions, and very clearly articulated what often is a muddy subject. Good job. You know, as a believer, we have the option of having the same Holy Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead, living IN US! Why settle with manmade traditions when we can have HIM?!

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