Difficult issues series
Christians are often seen as conservative – about their beliefs, about politics and about ethics.
The old joke asks “How many christians does it take to change a light bulb?” And of course the answer is: “Change???”
So how do we know when to hold on to what we’ve got, and when to let go and embrace something new?
Some things don’t change ….
Christian belief is based largely on revelation, especially the stories and teachings of Jesus. And these stories don’t change. We are warned to hold onto the “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).
…. but some things do
There is a lot in the Bible and in christian belief that has changed.
Some parts of the Old Testament no longer apply
I recently heard a preacher say that the message of the Bible was the same right through both the Old Testament and the New Testament, because God doesn’t change, and his teachings and ethics don’t change. I was amazed, because clearly the Bible doesn’t say the same thing right through:
- Much of the Old Testament is about the sacrificial system that provided forgiveness of sin (e.g. Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement in Leviticus 16) yet Hebrews 10 makes it clear that these sacrifices are no longer required since Jesus came.
- The Old Testament requires the death penalty for those found guilty of adultery or homosexuality, but there would be few christians who would consider these punishments should apply today, and Jesus explicitly avoided supporting such punishment for a “guilty” woman in John 8.
- Jesus also was unwilling to accept restrictions on his behaviour on the Sabbath (e.g. Luke 6:1-11), and Paul says that we shouldn’t obey laws about Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16) and in Romans 7:6-7 he says we are released from the law – in both cases negating one of the Ten Commandments!
- Peter had to be taught that it was not unclean to eat with Gentiles (Acts 10 & 11) and the first disciples took some convincing before they gave up the requirement for male converts to be circumcised (Acts 15).
- Even within the Old Testament, teachings develop and change between the Law and the prophets – e.g the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5-6, Deuteronomy 5:9-10) says that God will punish children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers, but Ezekiel 18:19-20 says this isn’t so – we all stand or fall by our own behaviour.
Jesus brought new teachings and understandings
Jesus gave new, generally harder but more flexible, teachings to replace some of the Old Testament commandments (Matthew 5), thus emphasising that God isn’t interested in us following the letter of the law, but in our heart attitude. He treated women and the marginalised in inclusive ways that were a scandal to many of the teachers of the law.
Perhaps most important of all, Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would remain with us after he had gone.
The Spirit leads us into new understandings
Jesus promised the the Holy Spirit would lead his followers into “all truth” (John 16:13), and beginning with Peter and Cornelius, we have seen that happening ever since, for example:
- The church has been continually reformed over two millennia, to correct errors that had entered – obvious examples are the Reformation, the charismatic renewal and the abolition of slavery and apartheid.
- In our day we have seen many movements that seem to me to have been of the Spirit – a move away from materialism towards simpler living, addressing racism and sexism, environmentalism, a greater opposition to war, and the growing movement of christian social justice.
- Doctrines haven’t been exempt. We now have a better understanding of Jesus in his first century cultural and religious context and a more biblical understanding of spiritual gifts.
Plus ca change
So christianity has always balanced holding onto to the truths of Jesus while being willing to learn new truths from the Spirit of God.
If we are “walking in the Spirit”, our first reaction to any new idea won’t be to dismiss it without consideration.
We can see in the gospels that many of the religious leaders rejected Jesus as a new revelation of God. As christians, we believe they made a sad and serious mistake. I don’t want to do the same to any new understanding from God. So there will be times when we will need to temper our first reaction.
But how do we distinguish what is form God from what is not?
This is a fundamental question for christians and it is important that we approach this in the right way. Here’s a few suggestions:
1. Take a reality check. Ask ourselves whether this is really an important issue, or is it more one of custom and tradition. Christians have an unfortunate record of dividing over matters that really aren’t all that important, and on which we should tolerate difference of opinion – see e.g. Romans 14. Examples of such issues might include styles of church music, Bible versions, and doctrines that don’t practically change how we follow Jesus.
2. Pray. Ask God for the Spirit’s guidance on this matter – is the new idea from God? We want to follow Gamaliel’s advice and avoid opposing God (Acts 5:33-39).
3. Observe. Are there signs in the church, at home and abroad, that the Spirit is teaching these new things to others? The guidance of the Spirit often comes through the consensus of many – e.g. Acts 13:1-3, Acts 15 especially v 28, Colossians 3:15.
4. Test. Does this new idea point people to Jesus? Will they “see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly”?
5. Examine ourselves. God’s Spirit doesn’t lead us via fear (2 Timothy 1:7), but via peace (Colossians 3:15, Philippians 4:7). If we are getting uptight, angry, argumentative, negative, it is less likely that the Spirit is guiding us.
There are a number of contentious issues facing the church right now, for example:
- evolution and the interpretation of Genesis 1-3
- the place of women in church and in christian families
- a right understanding of the atonement
- what did Jesus really teach about hell?
- politics, climate change and social welfare
- new approaches to evangelism
- new approaches to how we should “do” church
- christian attitudes towards the LGBTI community
- new understandings of the Bible, inerrancy and inspiration
Some christians have already changed their views on many of these matters; others are vehemently opposed to change on many of them.
What is your attitude? Have you changed ahead, or against, where the Spirit is actually leading, without praying first? Are you digging your heels in without even praying and considering whether the Holy Spirit might be leading us to new understandings?
I invite you to join in praying, remaining open, and allowing God to refresh our understanding where he wants to.
I have been praying about many of these matters for several years. I believe I have found some answers, but remain unsure on other matters. I will be addressing most of these matters in the weeks ahead, and have already discussed some of therm:
- Hell – what does the Bible say?
- Evolution and christians
- Christianity is changing ( a series of posts)
- In what way is the Bible a special book?
Photo Credit: Gregory Williams via Compfight cc
Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law. Paull said the Kaw was a tutor to the Christ. Did he do away with the Law? No, but he substituted by “writing it it in their hearts.” At Pentacist, he told them to meet and they received holy spirit, which enables Chrustians to have a consciousness of what is right or wrong. The same Law in a different way was was given. What happened.at Pentacost? Isay it was thto be Jesus’s ‘birthday. Hust as the Torah wss given the sane day, Jesus gave hoky spirit. He had died and arise, yet he commanded a metting on Sivan . Siobwht not celebrate Oentacost? Did he say onlythat day?
Hi, thanks for your comment. How do you interpret Luke 16:16-17, Romans 7:4-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:4-11?
Phew that was a lot of reading to get through. I would imagine half the pews would have emptied before the end. How does one sort fact from opinion? This is probably one of the most difficult questions for many. Exaltations of “Let the spirit guide you” are as difficult to understand as the questions that arise from an article such as this.
Maybe the response should just be observations.
Take out too much of what don’t believe in the Old Testament and that’s the Jewish faith dismissed. Pick and mix in the New Testament and I am not sure where you will end up, spirit or no spirit.
For instance, one would think an obvious candidate for deletion would be the acceptance and encouragement of slavery. The problem is, this is still promulgated in the New Testament. eg Ephesians 6:5 …Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
1 Timothy 6: All who are under the yolk of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.
Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.
Luke 12: 47 etc.
It is no coincidence, that it was not by actions of the church that slavery was abolished, even though the prime mover William Wilberforce may have been a Christian. Indeed the Roman church condemned slaves that fled from their masters and refused them Eucharistic communion. (Ref Luis Bermejo Infallibility on trial.)
And maybe its this pick and mix that allows the atrocities that occupy the modern world. As someone once said “Evil men do evil things and good men good things, but it takes religion for a good man to do evil things”
Evolution: The conclusion that scientists overstate the degree of certainty for evolution is a misunderstanding of the pursuit of science. A true scientist spends his life trying to refute his conclusions by postulating as many alternative theories that might provide an answer. It is only when these have been eliminated is he left with a POSSIBLE explanation of the truth. The greater the number of theories tested and found wanting, the closer one must come to a valid conclusion. At any point, it is open to anyone to postulate his theory and have it tested by his peers. How well would religious faith stand up to this rigorous analysis I wonder.
Hi Martyn, welcome back!
“How does one sort fact from opinion?”
I think this isn’t too hard, in most cases. If the experts generally agree on something, it’s pretty close to a fact. We can each develop our opinions from there. How do YOU sort fact from fiction in your life?
“Pick and mix in the New Testament “
Use of an emotive phrase, like here, can obscure the reality. If I said I thoughtfully choose how to understand, interpret and apply the NT, it would sound very rational, but it is in fact the same thing.
Re:slavery, it helps to consider the context. The NT teachings on the treatment of women, children, slaves, the poor and the marginalised were revolutionary for their day, and historian/sociologist Rodney Stark says they were a major reason why christianity gained ground in the early centuries. You should be praising Jesus and the apostles for being so radically inclusive, so why criticise them for not doing more than was possible at the time?
I agree with you that the church was painfully reactionary about many social issues, and parts of it continue to be. But fortunately I follow Jesus, not the church!
“The conclusion that scientists overstate the degree of certainty for evolution is a misunderstanding of the pursuit of science.”
I didn’t say anything about that in this post. I’m not sure why you raise this again, when I have said I accept the science of evolution.
“A true scientist spends his life trying to refute his conclusions by postulating as many alternative theories that might provide an answer.”
Yeah that’s the ideal. But I can give you examples of the opposite happening, which gave rise to the saying that science proceeds one funeral at a time!
“How well would religious faith stand up to this rigorous analysis I wonder.”
I’m certainly willing to take the challenge, are you? If so, it may be best to go to my other website, Is there a God?.
Perhaps I should set out my or non beliefs more clearly.
You believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. I acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, if I have persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41). If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, I have misused my life in the worst conceivable way. I admit this without a single caveat. The fact that my continuous and rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are.
CONSIDER: Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible’s account of itself. There is a vast literature describing the life of Muhammad that, from the point of view of Islam, proves that he was the most recent Prophet of God. Muhammad also assured his followers that Jesus was not divine (Koran 5:71–75; 19:30–38) and that anyone who believes otherwise will spend eternity in hell. Muslims are certain that Muhammad’s opinion on this subject, as on all others, is infallible. Why don’t you lose any sleep over whether to convert to Islam? Can you prove that Allah is not the one, true God? Can you prove that the archangel Gabriel did not visit Muhammad in his cave? Of course not. But you need not prove any of these things to reject the beliefs of Muslims as absurd. The burden is upon them to prove that their beliefs about God and Muhammad are valid. They have not done this. They cannot do this. Muslims are simply not making claims about reality that can be corroborated. This is perfectly apparent to anyone who has not anesthetized himself with the dogma of Islam. The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn’t it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn’t it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn’t it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry? Yes, these things are obvious. Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.
Thanks for setting all that out. But you have made many wrong assumptions about me. I don’t blame you for thinking as you do, but it is best not to assume.
So let’s make clear. Here are what I think are assumptions you are making about me that are not true :
“to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so”
“I should expect to suffer the torments of hell”
“Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.”
“Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible’s account of itself.”
“you need not prove any of these things to reject the beliefs of Muslims as absurd”
“you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims”
“the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity”
“The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.” (Of course this is technically true, but I am saying you are not expressing here what I think.)
Have I got your attention yet?
I don’t believe many things you assume I do. Many christians do believe those things (and many don’t), but you are talking to me, and it would be helpful if you engaged with what I think.
You say “just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are”, but it seems obvious from the above that either you have very little idea what my reasons for being a christian are, or you are not allowing that to affect what you are saying here.
So can we perhaps start again. I will state two of my beliefs in return.
1. I think there are very good evidential reasons for believing in christianity, much better evidential reasons than there are for disbelieving.
2. I think it is a logical fallacy to think that because one religion is wrong, that has ANY BEARING AT ALL on whether another religion is wrong. Each case must be assessed on its merits. (We might as well say that because I don’t live in any of the houses in your street, I don’t live in a house at all!)
But we are agreed on one thing: “if one of us is right, the other is wrong”. Let’s attempt to see who is most likely to be right, but let’s base the discussion on what we each actually think. If you don’t know, please ask rather than assume.
It seems we are saying the same things in different ways. If you thoughtfully choose to understand, interpret and apply the NT, does that signify it is true? Well of course it does in your mind, for you. But all our minds perform individual functions and may come to different conclusions. Does that signify we all have access to the truth, well of course it does for us. When we started this discussion I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that you were promulgating a universally accepted form of Christianity that could be disputed. But like me you are speaking for yourself. Under these circumstances, of course, it would not only be wrong to say your views were incorrect but discourteous.
You find it illogical that because one religion is wrong it has any bearing at all on whether another religion is wrong. Each case must be assessed on its merits.
With respect that statement is completely illogical. Each case must be assessed BY THE SAME MERITS. I am using the Oxford dictionary definition here.
Hi Martyn, If we are saying some things the same, then that is good! 🙂
“If you thoughtfully choose to understand, interpret and apply the NT, does that signify it is true? Well of course it does in your mind, for you. “
I still don’t think you understand. The logical order (for me) is not I choose to apply the NT therefore it is true for me, but rather I decide evidentially that it is true so I choose to apply it. You can see there is an enormous difference.
“I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that you were promulgating a universally accepted form of Christianity that could be disputed. But like me you are speaking for yourself.”
I’m sorry, you have come halfway to understanding me, but there’s a little more to go. I do think christianity can be disputed because I think it is evidentially true – but the evidence can be disputed. So while I am speaking for myself, I think it is REALLY objectively true. I just think some of the things you thought were part of christian belief, I do not (nor do I think Jesus thought them).
“With respect that statement is completely illogical. Each case must be assessed BY THE SAME MERITS.”
I think here we do now agree, we just are using terms differently. Let me test that. I think each case (i.e. each religion) should be assessed in the same way (i.e. is it evidentially true?), but I think each one has very different merits (i.e. each one has different evidence and different levels of evidence). I think you probably agree with that, to some degree at least.
So, now we seem to have got some misunderstandings out of the way, what do you want to say to me?
Each religion should be assessed in the same way. Absolutely agree. But YOU think evidence and levels of evidence for other faiths are different. I must assume you mean lower. But THEY think the same about your faith so we have stalemate. As an unbiased observer I can see no difference in the levels of evidence between the major faiths. It’s the conclusions that differ. It is for this reason, amongst others, that religious faith is decreasing at an ever faster rate, in the western world. In the less developed world where lack of education exists this is not quite the case yet. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reason fails.
This great disparity between faiths, and non faiths would disappear if everyone accepted, that belief is a personal thing true only to oneself and disclaim it as a universal truth. I personally could not care what people believe in, if it only affects them. If the word TRUTH could be struck from religious texts and BELIEF preceded by the word PERSONAL, the walls created by religion, if not destroyed, would be lowered enough for us to speak over them.
If there is one possible exception to all this it would be the Jainism faith. Mahavira, the Jain patriarch surpassed the morality of all other religious texts with a single sentence: Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being.
Imagine how different the world would be if, for instance, the bible contained this as its central precept. Christians for example, have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theological defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism.
HI Martyn, thanks again for your thoughts.
“But THEY think the same about your faith so we have stalemate.”
So people disagree – including you disagree with them and me too. But what matters is the evidence. I think the evidence points to christianity being true. If (and it is certainly an “if”) they think evidence is important and justifies their belief, we can discuss that and see who has the best evidence. You think the evidence justifies your viewpoint, and we can discuss that too.
“As an unbiased observer I can see no difference in the levels of evidence between the major faiths.”
Are you sure? Do you think there is historical evidence for Hinduism that compares with the historical evidence for Jesus?
“This great disparity between faiths, and non faiths would disappear if everyone accepted, that belief is a personal thing true only to oneself and disclaim it as a universal truth.”
But Martyn, do YOU think THAT statement is true?
“Christians for example, have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theological defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism.”
It is impossible for christians to behave that way if they adhered to the principles of Jesus. The problem is that many people who say they are christians don’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and none of us do perfectly. I imagine Jains are no different, or anyone else, including humanists.
So I don’t think you have yet said anything that offers evidence for or against your worldview or mine. Why not have a go at the evidence question?
I am now beginning to think that we have narrowed our differences to the words HISTORICAL EVIDENCE. Let me clarify my understanding of these two words.
It is a historical fact that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941.
Consequently, this fact forms part of the world view of scientific rationality. Given the evidence that attests to this fact, anyone believing that it happened on a different date, or that martians dropped these bombs, has a lot of explaining to do. The core of science is intellectual honesty. It is time we recognised a basic feature of human discourse: “When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”
Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.
Hello again Martyn,
“we have narrowed our differences to the words HISTORICAL EVIDENCE”
I’m sorry to be disagreeing, but I think the evidence for christianity, which you have said you reject, includes scientific/philosophical and human experience, as well as history. But let’s go with history for the moment.
So let’s look at the historical evidence for the four major religions.
I don’t think there’s any historical facts that are important for Hinduism, so there is not really any relevant historical evidence.
There is some historical evidence for the Buddha’s life, but the important thing is his teachings, not anything that would demonstrate the truth of his teachings. So historical evidence is not particularly important for a Buddhist.
Ditto for Mohammed. Historians have a fair idea about his life, but can say little about anything that throws light on his status as a religious teacher or prophet.
But with Jesus, historians can say with some confidence that he lived, was recognised as a travelling teacher and healer, was believed from a very early date to have been raised from the dead, and most historians accept that either his tomb was indeed empty and/or his followers had visions/hallucinations/ whatever of him alive after his death. His teachings, his healings and his resurrection are therefore supported by the historical evidence, even though the evidence cannot say one way or another whether they were real or not.
Thus Jesus is very different to the other figures in that historical evidence at least provides a basis for assessing his status as a religious teacher, whereas in the case of the others, either the evidence isn’t there or isn’t important and/or helpful for that assessment.
Thus there are good reasons for assessing Jesus and christianity very differently to other religions, and some reasons (which I think good, but over which people disagree) to consider him to validly be considered to have been divine or at least “from God”.
“Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”
There are christians who make the same accusation towards atheists. I don’t think they have a strong basis for such a generalisation, and I think neither do you. No-one is perfectly honest and free from bias. So let’s just leave it that we could each say this about the other, but we won’t. (Unless of course you have solid evidence – but beware, because I think the scientific evidence points slightly the other way.)
I am now at a complete loss. I readily admit I am unable to discern whether you are unable to intellectually understand the definition of historical evidence postulated in my last posting, refuse to accept it or your faith prevents you from accepting it.
If you disagree please tell me why. If you agree with it, give me an example of an historical event from religion that would survive the same rigours of examination
Hi Martyn, I’m sorry you are at a complete loss. And I’m sorry, but I didn’t see any definition of historical evidence in your last comment. What I saw was a statement that if something is a historical fact, a person believes it if they are honest and rational (with which I agree), but I saw no definition of what a historical fact was. Can you point out your definition please?
So I can’t say whether I agree or disagree. But I can tell you what I think.
There is almost nothing in life that we can PROVE – only mathematics and some logical arguments. Science cannot be “proven”, but can generally be shown to be true within certain confidence limits. Some things in science are more speculative than that. Other things in life are less certain, but we can still ascertain likely truth, i.e. what is most probably true. So juries decide beyond “reasonable doubt” (having been on a jury on a difficult case, I know that isn’t a very clear definition), we decide things like personal relationships including marriage, careers, how to vote, etc, on what seems most likely without being able to define the probability mathematically.
Historical matters are somewhere there in the mix. Even recent events can’t be known certainly because memories and reports can be in error (so your statement about Pearl Harbour can only be known to be almost certain), but we manage well enough despite the uncertainty.
And so no-one doubts the existence of Julius Caesar or Hannibal, even though the evidence for their lives isn’t certain. Historians are confident of their existence and the general course of their lives because in their expert judgment, the records we have would be unlikely to exist if they were totally false – the explanation required to explain how the records are totally false would be unbelievable.
It is the same with Jesus. The experts say it is virtually certain that he lived, and they are confident that our sources tell us reasonable information about him, because it is difficult to find any plausible explanation of the sources if the stories were total fiction. Of course the experts differ about many of the details, and certainly differ in what they believe about Jesus’ status, but they agree on plenty.
It was on that basis that I made the comments I did. So can you tell me your definition of historical evidence and where you disagree with what I have written here? Thanks.
Lacking your response to my last posting I think might be a good time to finally bring it to an end, with a summary of my position.
We have both mentioned other religions during our exchanges although I judge your encounters with them may have been brief.
I have spent a large part of my working life living, working and socialising with people from all the major religions in many parts of the world. I have attended their places of worship, been a guest at their weddings, birthdays (or equivalent ) and at least two funerals. The most dramatic of these experiences has been the Hindu Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, ending up in the holy caves of Batu. The most dour, standing the whole service in an incense filled Serbian orthodox church in Belgrade. The most colourful, the Hindu and Islamic weddings I have attended. The most moving, sharing Shabbat and the delicious Challot bread with my Jewish friends in Temple Beth Zion in Brookline Boston.
I have had no direct connection with what I call the crazies ( without apologies) eg Scientologists.
All these experiences, as pleasant and as interesting as they were, has led me to conclude that religion is of man made origin probably dating from or before the sun was worshipped, which made complete sense at the time, I am sure. One central theme that shines out from all these faiths is a fear of and reluctance to accept, mans mortality. This I am sure plays a large part in their religious thinking..
Nowadays I get great pleasure in attending services in St Albans Cathedral here in Hertfordshire and listening to my granddaughter singing in the choir.
Hi Martyn, I’m unsure what you mean by “Lacking your response to my last posting”, as I made a response. I understand your position, but I don’t see any real evidence for it, and I thought you were heading towards talking about evidence. But I’m quite happy to finish up there. Thanks.