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How Christians establish their
religious beliefs and policies

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Sources of information:

Christian individuals and faith groups generally develop beliefs and policies which are based on some combination of the following eight information sources. They are not necessarily listed in order of importance:

  1. Specific biblical references, particularly in statements attributed to Jesus, Paul, or other early Jewish and Christian leaders: Sometimes biblical passages appear to be in conflict.For example, Paul wrote in many passages about women who were his co-workers. Yet, he made a number of statements in 1 Corinthians which restricted women's allowable behaviors and appearance in religious meetings. These were further developed in other New Testament books which state that they were written by Paul, but which liberal theologians consider to be written by anonymous authors (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians). Christians resolve such problems in different ways.

  2. General biblical statements and themes: For example, when deciding whether to ordain women, some faith groups seriously consider Jesus', Paul's and other leader's general teachings about men, women, their roles, the need for respect and justice, the overriding importance of love, the golden rule, etc. While developing church policy on sexually related topics, they consider Jesus' teachings on human sexuality (which are essentially non-existent), along with those of other Biblical figures. Faith groups also consider the Bible's fundamental teachings about God, humanity and the rest of the universe. All have to be carefully evaluated to determine if they remain valid today, or were applicable only for other eras, other cultures, and other situations.

  3. Actions of biblical leaders: In gender-related issues, for example, the way in which Jesus and Paul treated men and women is important. There were about a dozen of Jesus' inner circle whose character is well described in the Gospels. Men and women followers in the circle were almost equal in number. Paul had many men and women co-workers in his ministry. He recognized their status in, and contribution to, the Pauline Christian movement.

  4. Church traditions: Some passages in the Christian Scriptures discuss beliefs and practices in the early Christian movements. Church tradition is also contained in writings of Christian leaders, church councils, and meetings down to the present time. Foremost among those Christian denominations that base their policies on both the content of the Bible and church tradition is the Roman Catholic Church. The writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians of the Christian Church are considered important sources of information for today's church policy. Papal bulls, encyclicals, and letters are also valuable resources.

  5. Continual revelation: Some denominations believe that their holy books do not give the final word on all matters. God is seen as revealing new truths over time. Since 1870, the Roman Catholic church has recognized that God prevents the pope from expressing error when he speaks "ex cathedra" -- when he defines a new doctrine concerning faith or morals that is to be held by the entire church. In 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, believe that they received a revelation from God to abandon polygyny (plural marriages). In 1978, they received a second revelation to eliminate racism in the denomination.

  6. Scientific findings by geologists, biologists, astronomers, cosmologists, social scientists, researchers into human sexuality, etc. Well established scientific theories can impact on denominations' decision making process. One example of this is the theory of evolution. Triggered by the appearance of Charles Darwin's book "Origin of Species," the theory of evolution has contributed greatly to many of the physical sciences, from astronomy to zoology. Some liberal and a few mainline denominations have accepted evolution and have relegated the creation stories in Genesis to the level of religious myth. Roman Catholic schools have been teaching evolution as reality for many years. The Pope recently acknowledged its accuracy on all matters up to but not including the development of the human soul. Another important example is a result of human sexuality research. During the second half of the 20th century, human sexuality researchers and mental health professionals changed their concepts of human sexuality as a result of their research. Most now regard homosexuality as a natural, normal, and unchangeable sexual orientation. Most liberal and some mainline denominations have altered their beliefs about homosexuality and have changed at least some of their policies accordingly -- including:
    bulletEligibility for church membership,
    bulletEligibility for ordination, and
    bulletRecognition of committed same-sex relationships in church ceremonies.
    bulletSame-sex marriage

  7. Personal experience: Everyone brings their lifetime of experiences to their religious faith: things they have learned in their family of origin, at school, with friends, at work, etc. This often influences their religious beliefs.

  8. Influence of culture: Everyone is heavily influenced by the culture in which they were born, raised, and live. Certain assumptions prevalent in a person's culture often influence their religious views to a major degree that is not often recognized. A good example is found in the policies and beliefs of homosexuality within various provinces of the Anglican Communion. Although all of the provinces share the Anglican tradition, cardinal beliefs, the Bible, etc., they are heavily influenced by their local culture. Their cultures lead them to positions on homosexual rights that are totally at variance with each other.

Some Christians condense the above seven criteria into four: Scripture, church tradition, reason, and personal experience. Unfortunately, the influence of culture is often ignored.

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Why denominations often adopt different policies:

Many denominations hold small group of cardinal Christian doctrines in common. However there are hundreds of other beliefs and policies over which faith groups often disagree.

Two devout, intelligent, sincere, educated, thoughtful, mature Christians can research a given issue and come to totally different conclusions about truth and the meaning of the Bible. Both are honestly seeking the will of God. Both may use the Bible as their main information source. But they frequently reach decisions that are mutually exclusive. In our list of "current teachings of religious groups on human sexuality", we show that some denominations may consider a certain practice to be "blessed" while other faith groups considers it to be "morally unacceptable in most cases", or even "condemned" in all situations.

Generally speaking:

bullet Conservative Protestant theologians have historically given great emphasis to specific Biblical references on a each ethical issue. "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation. "Quod non est biblicum, non est theologicum" ("What is not biblical is not theological) was anothre of its slogans. 1 Thus, one or two direct statements by Jesus, Paul, Peter or some other Biblical figure on a given topic is usually regarded as binding on present day Christians. Church tradition is also considered important. The remaining factors listed above -- personal experience, science, etc. -- are often considered of lesser importance. They are particularly opposed to altering church policies to respond to scientific findings. They often regard scientific theories to be changeable and transitory -- and just plain wrong when they differ from the Bible's accounts of reality.

bulletRoman Catholic theologians are almost alone with Christianity over the major importance that they give to Church tradition. They consider the remaining factors listed above important as well.

bulletLiberal theologians have tended to respond quickly to emerging scientific findings. Jesus' overall teachings are generally considered more important than St. Paul's actions and teachings, and to church tradition. They also tend emphasize biblical themes like justice and love, more than specific statements like the six "clobber" passages often used to criticize same-sex behavior.

By accepting different sets of information, and weighting each factor differently, denominations are certain to reach different conclusions, and perhaps develop quite opposite policies.

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Current status of major ethical topics:

bulletSlavery: At the close of the 20th century, only Christian Reconstructionists and some of the more radical of the Christian Identity groups still favor the legalization of human slavery. All other Christian groups have taken a solid abolitionist position. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a sincere apology for its past policies on race, slavery, and segregation. They vowed to eliminate any current residual racism in the denomination. Unfortunately, Sunday morning -- and in some denominations, Saturday morning -- continues to be the most highly segregated time in America, due to the country's large number of nearly all-white and nearly all-black congregations.

bullet Status of Women: Until 1930, few denominations were willing to ordain women. 50 years later, female clergy were allowed in all liberal and most mainline churches, including the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran. A minority of conservative denominations have the same policy. By the late 1990's women had risen to the highest levels in some denominations, and some conservative churches began to address the question of sexual bias and rigid sexual roles in their denomination. Others, like the Southern Baptist Convention have reinforced the submissive role for women and restricted leadership roles for men only in church and at home.

bullet Status of Gays and Lesbians: The movement to accept celibate and non-celibate gays and lesbians as church members, and as clergy started only in the 1970s, after the Stonewall riots, the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement, and the decision by the American Psychiatric Association that homosexuality is not a mental illness. 2 A few very progressive religious groups have married same-sex couples where same-sex marriage is legal, have authorized "services of union" for gay and lesbian couples, have ordained sexually active gay clergy, and have gone on record as supporting same-sex marriages. A number of other liberal and some mainline denominations have begun to change in this area -- notably the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian and United Methodists -- at great threat to their church harmony. Conservative faith groups have generally retained their traditional rejection of non-celibate gays and lesbians. We maintain a list of the policies of many dozens of faith groups concerning homosexuals.

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References used:

  1. James Akin, "The Practical problems of Sola Scriptura," at: http://www.cin.org/
  2. The Stonewall Riots are described at http://www.umr.edu/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-NOV-29
Author: B.A. Robinson   

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