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?