How religions establish and change their beliefs:
How religions establish and changing beliefs.
changes. Personal obligations.
How religions establish and change beliefs:
Religious beliefs differ among faith groups and have changed over time. Over the last two centuries a great deal of religious change has concentrated on:
Beliefs and policies are often established at
the religious, denominational, congregational and individual level on the basis of four
What do the scriptures say, as interpreted by the group or
What have the faith group's historical policies been?
What does one's personal experience say?
What does reason and scientific knowledge tell us?
Conservative wings of religions tend to more heavily weigh
the first two factors; the liberal and progressive wings tend to give more
importance to the last two factors.
Too often, these four factors lead to conclusions that are in
conflict. Often more liberal and more conservative members within a single congregation or denomination will use these criteria and come to opposing conclusions about the teachings of the Bible and God's will.
Unfortunately, many religions and faith groups do not have mechanisms to handle change well
without angry debate, and occasionally even schism.
This section describes how religious groups have handled or
are handling change and disagreements. Most essays linked to this section's menu deal with three examples of
changes -- relating to human slavery, the status of women, and the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals. We hope to add material on
changes among faith groups in their teachings and policies on transsexuality in the future as they become
clarified. These four moral and ethical conflicts in North America
represent a major focus of religious activity over the past two centuries. They are
to study because:
The first -- human slavery and its offshoot racism -- is largely
settled (although the negative effects of slavery and racism will be with us for
generations into the future);
The second -- status of women -- is partly settled; the main institutions that continue to heavily discriminate against women are conservative faith groups and -- to a limited extent -- the military.
The third -- equal rights for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals -- is in full swing;
The fourth - elimination of discrimination of people on the basis of gender identity -- is just surfacing.
Hopefully, study of conflicts and religious changes in the past,
will help us understand present-day conflicts; they may help us predict the
probable outcome. One rule of thumb is that whenever the conflict is between limited rights or equal rights for a group, the latter position always wins. Slavery was ended. Women were given the vote. Interracial marriages were legalized. Racial segregation and Jim Crow laws were greatly reduced. Women are gaining equality, Same-gender sexual behavior is no longer considered a crime. Same-sex marriage is expanding, etc.
How Christianity has changed in the past:
In early 2007, The Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton of the Episcopal Church of St.
Paul's in Chatham, NJ wrote an open letter to her fellow Anglicans. She was motivated
by the gradually unfolding schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion over
whether to include or exclude persons with a homosexual orientation as members
with full privileges. Part of her
letter notes the progress that the Christian church has made in the past in
many areas. She chose three examples:
"For centuries, the church's teaching about the
shape of the world was that it was flat, in accordance with what was
written in scripture, despite scientific evidence that it was not. People
were excommunicated – not to mention tortured, and tried, and sent to jail, and
murdered for disagreeing with the official church 'standard' of teaching."
"For centuries, the church's teaching about seizure disorder was that it was
demon possession, in accordance with what was written in scripture, despite
scientific evidence that it was not. People were excommunicated – not to
mention tortured and locked in asylums because the outward manifestation of
their lives were contrary to the official church 'standard' of teaching."
"For centuries, the church's teaching about left handedness was that it was a
sign of evil, in accordance with what was written in scripture, despite
scientific evidence that it was not. People were excommunicated – not to
mention tortured and shunned and exiled because the outward manifestation of
their lives were contrary to the official church 'standard' of teaching. (My
beloved can tell you stories that will raise the hair on the back of your
necks about the abuse she and others suffered in Roman Catholic elementary
schools because of their left handedness)." 1
We can look at these three conflicts and be somewhat amused at how church
leaders were so out of touch from reality in the distant past. We often lose sight
of how harmful this gap between reality and church teaching was to the churches'
victims at the time. It is even more difficult to see where present-day gaps are
creating and injuring victims today.
Personal obligations regarding change:
One of the most important themes in Christian writings -- both canonical and
extra-canonical -- is the Golden Rule. Some examples:
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to
you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them
likewise." Luke 6:31, King James Version.
"...and don't do what you hate...", Gospel of Thomas 6. The
Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among
various groups of early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures.
This commandment to treat other people fairly and decently is called the Ethic of Reciprocity. It is found in all of the
major world religions, in secular systems of ethics, and in philosophical systems.
Applying the Golden Rule is relatively easy when a consensus exists about
what comprises fair and decent treatment of other people. But, too often,
Christianity and other religions are divided over how to properly treat women
and various minorities.
remainder of this essay contains personal opinions.
The author of this essay suggests that it everyone has an obligation to
study carefully all viewpoints about the treatment of women and minorities. We
should thoughtfully and prayerfully determine which is the honorable and decent path forward. As
Elizabeth Kaeton wrote above on
the shape of the earth, the causes of epilepsy, and left
handedness, religious groups have often taken the wrong path. Their batting
average when applying biblical principles to everyday life has been abysmal. We may have to make the
difficult decision to reject our own denomination's teachings in favor of a
higher standard of morality. Our conscience may even prod us to
actively advocate for change within our religious and political institutions.
Elizabeth Kaeton suggests how Christians should respond to the current
controversy over lesbian/gay/bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights. She appears to
have determined on the basis of her personal experiences and the findings of
human sexuality researchers that the historical position of the Anglican Communion on LGBT
rights has been wrong. Other sincere, devout, intelligent Christians may reach the opposite conclusion. Either way, her final
point below seems to be a valid one. As appliers and
promoters of the Golden Rule, Christians and followers of other religions, etc. need to be very certain that the
traditional policies of their denominations are valid before continuing to accept them. Since the Golden
Rule is present in all world religions and non-religious ethical systems, everyone has an obligation to be certain that we are promoting the correct position.
"As we have learned from the evils of slavery, racism, sexism and the
ignorance which once taught that the world is flat, people who have
seizure disorders are possessed of demons, and left handed people are the
scribes of Satan: when the dignity of any human being is compromised or
insulted, a mortal wound is created in the Body of Christ."
"I think our Baptismal Covenant has something to say about 'the
dignity of every human being,' as does the Outline of Faith (commonly
called The Catechism). Who will take responsibility for the damage that
is done while a deficient standard is upheld and promulgated in the
church? Knowing what we know about the irrationality of prejudice, who
could claim innocence? Knowing what we know about LGBT people and social
sciences and lived experience, why isn't the church's 'standard of
teaching' being challenged -– if not absolutely rejected? And, what price
are we willing to pay for the damage done to the Sacred Body of Christ
while we wait?"
"If nothing else, these questions underscore what I see as the need
for a Season of Discernment, Study and Prayer so that we are
very, very clear what it is we are being asked to do." 1
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
menu. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- John Shelby Spong, "A second look at the first of the five fundamentals: The
inerrant Bible," "A New Christianity for a New World" subscription service,
Site navigation: Main paths
and other paths too numerous to list
Copyright © 2006 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAY-29
Latest update: 2012-JUN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson