Introduction to religious change
Quotes, ethics and truth,
dynamics of change, examples
Key quotations (repeated from the religious change menu)
"We are in a transition between a new consciousness and old definitions. The new consciousness will win but as with
every human struggle to emerge from ignorance, there will be casualties long after the issue is decided."
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong speaking about same-sex marriage.
"On each of these issues, at one point the church had near unanimity of
opinion and then, over time and painfully, changed its mind to almost the exact
opposite view." Jack Rogers, referring to Christian beliefs on
human slavery, roles of women, and homosexuality 2
The need for revised ethical policies and understanding of truth:
Western countries have experienced Increasingly rapid social change since before the Protestant Reformation
in the early 16th century
Challenges to traditional Christian beliefs have arisen from other world
religions, anti-religious sources, secular forces, and from science -- including astronomy, medicine, social sciences, geology, biology, human sexuality research,
biblical research, etc. As each new ethical or religious "hot
topic" comes to the fore,
Christian denominations are forced to respond to the challenge. Liberal denominations tend
be the first to change; mainline faith groups follow; conservative groups are
often the last to
alter. The process sometimes takes a century or more to complete on each topic.
Faith groups have developed many new policies or modified old ones over the past 200
years. For example:
A century and a half ago, the main "hot religious topic" of the day was
human human slavery. One illustration of this was a debate in 1844 among the American
Baptists: should slave owners be eligible to be appointed as missionaries? Many
Baptists in the southern US thought that they should, and broke away to form the Southern
Baptist Convention. Many other denominations split on north-south lines as
various Christian denominations took either an abolitionist or pro-slavery stance.|
Fifteen years later, in 1859, Charles Darwin published "Origin of Species."
This eventually touched off a firestorm of controversy over the authority of the book of Genesis
in the Bible. The debate between evolution and creation science
seemed to be temporarily settled in 1925 after the John Scopes
trial. However, it simply went underground. It has since been reactivated, with the addition of a
new belief system based on the existence of a supernatural entity or
entities: intelligent design.|
||Starting in the late 19th century, major ethical topics of the day were
related to the status of
||Do they actually have souls?
||Should they be allowed to receive anesthesia during childbirth in
apparent violation of a curse from God in Genesis?
||Are they really
||Should they be able to vote?
||Should they be allowed to join various professions?
should they be considered for positions of power within churches, including being eligible
for ordination as clergy and consecration as bishops
(in those denominations that have bishops.)?
A quarter century ago, in late 1969-JUN, a Stonewall riot in a New York bar caused "the
hairpin drop heard around the world" and triggered a concerted drive for
equal rights by GLBTs -- gays. lesbians, bisexuals, and
transsexuals, -- including the right
of same-sex couples to marry,
the right to be considered for ordination, and have
their unions recognized by church ceremonies. 1 Religions have responded in various ways.
The dynamics of religious change:
As noted in the above quotation by Jack Rogers, former moderator of the
Presbyterian Church (USA), at least some Christian denominations have
extensively modified or even reversed
their teachings on a wide variety of social topics including Sabbath observance,
human slavery, racial segregation,
the role and status of women, divorce, remarriage,
equal rights for homosexuals, etc. They have also
altered their teachings on such theological matters as
salvation, the afterlife,
Hell, end of the world, etc. It is important that
people understand how Christian denominations have been able to change their teachings over time.
Many religious do not readily accept change. In the larger world religions,
religious beliefs are grounded in a holy book -- e.g. the Torah for Jews,
the Holy Bible for Christians, the Qur'an for Muslims, etc. Religious beliefs
evolve only as the interpretation of their holy book(s) change. However, many
people resist change; they specifically seek out faith groups because they need constancy in
life -- an fixed anchor that they can count on. Sometimes change involves great
agony, internal conflict, and even schism and violence.
If the general public realized how how extensively faith groups have changed
and even reversed their teachings over time, they might develop a different understanding
of currently "hot" religious topics. They might anticipate future changes and be able to
adapt more easily to them.
In contrast to religiously-based beliefs, all scientific beliefs are open to falsification.
Scientists know that their beliefs only approximate reality. Their beliefs are
grounded in observations. New data is continually becoming available. Scientists expect and aggressively search out change.
Fame and grants come to those scientists who are on the cutting edge of new
discoveries. As a result, change comes rapidly.
Some examples of religious change:
Many denominations pride themselves in maintaining "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints"
3 unchanged to the present
day. In spite of this, major changes in beliefs and practices have occurred over the past two centuries :
Premillennialism, declared a heresy in
ancient times, was reintroduced in the 19th century, and is now the most popular belief about
end times among conservative Protestants.
The idea of the rapture also first surfaced in
the 19th century. It involves the beliefs that saved individuals -- both dead and alive
-- rising from the Earth to meet Jesus in the sky.
Most denominations have abandoned the teaching of
Hell as a place of eternal torture as described in the Bible. When mentioned at all today, it is often
presented as being in a state of isolation from God.
Human slavery was once widely considered totally
compatible with the Bible, and a normal, natural cultural institution. It is now recognized as a profound evil by essentially
Ordination of qualified female candidates was
rarely allowed in the past. Severe restrictions on women's roles in the church,
family and society have largely been lifted by liberal, mainline, and some
Homosexuals were once universally despised as
sexual perverts and criminals for whom the appropriate response was
the death penalty. Today, some liberal denominations have accepted
gays and lesbians for ordination, have fought instances of discrimination
against them, have fought for the right of loving, committed same-sex couples to
marry, have blessed their unions and have married them. Mainline
denominations are now conducting sometimes destructive debates over these issues and
may well experience schism.
Conservative denominations have generally not begun the transition and have no
intention to start anytime soon.
"Dr. Phil" often says that the best indicator of future behavior is
past behavior. If this is true, then Christian denominations may well go through
the same agonizing processes to change their beliefs and practices about
gender, sexual orientation
and gender identity as they did during the 19th century over
human slavery. They may try to hold the line on
change. But that leads to a loss of the church youth and damage to the
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Bishop Spong Q & A on Origins of Homosexuality," 2006-MAY-31 weekly
newsletter. You can subscribe at:
Jack Rogers, "Jesus, the Bible, and homosexuality: Explode the myths,
heal the church," Westminister John Knox Press, (2006), Page 17.
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
From Jude 1:3: "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of
the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort
you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered
unto the saints." (King James Version).Joan Ryan, "A partial confession from the pope," San Francisco
Chronicle, 2000-MAR-14, at:
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Copyright © 2006 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAY-29
Latest update: 2009-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson