New Directions for the Church 6: accept diversity of belief

The Roman emperor ConstantineThis post continues my series looking for new ways to conceive of the Church and its role. Here I argue that we need to accept diversity of belief as normal and not treat it as a problem.

I have been critical of the post-1970s version of Evangelical Christianity that dominates the thinking of church leaders. One of its characteristics is the fantasy that all Christians believe, or should believe, the same things. We don’t, and never have done. The idea that we ought to discourages honest expressions of doubt, and encourages those with a little theological training to imagine they know all the answers.

Defenders of ‘orthodoxy’ often have little idea what the history behind it is really like. New Testament scholars and church historians tell us that Christianity was a diverse movement from the start. As it spread from Galilee it got adapted by different communities. The variety was so wide that people soon started setting boundaries, as can be seen by some of the later New Testament books like the Epistles of John. There have to be some; if you can believe anything at all and call yourself a Christian, Christianity becomes meaningless.

It didn’t stop there. 300 years after Jesus, Constantine became Roman Emperor and threw in his lot with Christianity. It gave him a problem: church leaders spent a lot of their time arguing against each other. He decided to settle the matter. He instructed the bishops to hammer out a statement of Christian belief.

The result was what we now call the Nicene Creed. From then on emperors and popes could insist that all true Christians should believe exactly what the Creed states.

Plenty of Christians, of course, continued to disagree, and later Ecumenical Councils updated it; but they eventually stopped. Once hallowed with age, the Creed could be interpreted as divinely inspired. Anyone who disagreed with it could then be accused of exalting their own powers of reason above divine revelation. Error, many believed, led people to eternal damnation and had to be stamped out – if necessary by war.

The saving grace of the Creed is that it is comparatively short. The Bible is a lot longer. Over a thousand years after Constantine, Protestants argued that it was God’s revelation, given to the Church, true with a certainty that transcended all human reason. Catholics were misinterpreting it. But without the authority of the Catholic Church, how was it to be interpreted?

At first they argued that since it had been written exactly as God had intended, it was to be accepted without any interpretation. Literally.

This only made sense if anybody literate enough to read it would be able to understand it. So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there arose the theory of biblical perspicuity: that the whole Bible was easy to understand.

However, when Protestants read the Bible, they did disagree with each other about what it meant. How could they explain this, without admitting that the Catholics were right?

The logic was tricky. All Protestants were to accept the plain, easily understood, uninterpreted meanings of every biblical text. Yet when they did, the results differed. Another authority was needed.

Since no human authority was acceptable, a divine one was the only alternative. Reading the Bible wasn’t enough. One also needed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. To Luther, without the Spirit’s guidance ‘They most sadly err who presume to interpret the Holy Scriptures and the law of God by taking hold of them by their own understanding and study’. Similarly Calvin taught that it is through the witness of the Spirit that the Scriptures impress themselves on the human heart as divine and life-giving wisdom. It was the only possible solution to their conundrum.

To summarise:

Stage 1. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with the Catholic Church. Anyone who disagrees with it is rejecting the Church’s authority and is therefore a heretic.

Stage 2. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with every individual Christian. I read it and understand it, so those who disagree with my understanding are simply refusing to accept the clear, plain teaching of Scripture.

Stage 3. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with Christians who read it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I read it. I know that I have the Spirit’s guidance because I pray to the Spirit and submit to the Spirit. I have the required feelings inside me. My opponent also claims to be duly submitting, to have the required feelings and therefore to have the Spirit’s guidance. My opponent is either lying or is being guided by some other spiritual power capable of disguising itself as the Spirit. It can only be the devil. My opponent is not just in error but is speaking the devil’s words. To disagree is not enough; his or her words need to be denounced, driven out, exorcised.

The theory had tragic effects. It encouraged individuals in over-confidence. Convinced that their own beliefs were simply the clear, plain teaching of the Bible, they refused to tolerate disagreement. Large parts of Protestantism were in this way set up for endless sectarian disputes. In chapel after chapel half the congregation refused to accept what their minister taught. Discussing their differences would have meant exalting mere human reason above God’s Word. Instead they felt that in all conscience it was their Christian duty to build a rival chapel, preferably bigger than the other one and higher up the hill.

In any other context this would be condemned as pure bigotry. Yet once it was accepted that orthodoxy transcended human reason, the logic was impeccable. Rationally debating it became heresy. Transfer the criterion of orthodoxy from the Creed to the whole Bible, and Stage 1 is reached. Once the Catholic Church could credibly be accused of misinterpreting the Bible, Stage 2 followed; and once that was tried and found wanting, Stage 3 seemed the only way to avoid going back to Stage 1.

Of course most Protestants never went so far. The dominant church discourse of today is nothing like what happened then. It has been so generously watered down that the overwhelming majority of our population take no interest in it at all.

Nevertheless enough of it remains – or perhaps has been revived by the post-1970s version of Evangelicalism – to undermine all attempts of church leaders to present a credible Christianity.

It is, after all, from that tradition of bitter sectarian intolerance that we have inherited the common – and utterly false – assumptions that all Christians

(a) share the same beliefs, and

(b) do not need to examine them because they are so well established.

When a community shares these two convictions, the public agenda seems absolutely clear. Evangelism proceeds on the basis that we know the answers, so we do all the talking. We do not need to know what outsiders think. Their role is to receive the truth from us.

Of course most present-day Evangelicals would not be so presumptuous as to express themselves this bluntly; but these absurdities are only just under the surface of church discourse and are easily revealed.

What are we to do instead?

Once we recognise what the problem is, the way forward should be reasonably clear.

  • Accept diversity of belief as normal. Give up the intolerant, dogmatic bigotry which gives modern western Christianity such a bad name. Positively value other people’s genuine efforts to share the search for truth, as researchers do in every other field of discourse.
  • Instead of suppressing disagreement, be more open and intentional about publicly exploring the different versions of Christianity and how the God of Christianity would want us to live. Let the bishops disagree with each other in public, as they used to do before the lid was put on them.

Nobody knows everything. Nobody knows anything with absolute certainty. There is always the possibility of learning something new from an unexpected source. Only control freaks feel uncomfortable about this. For the rest of us, this is how we like it. It makes life more interesting and exciting.

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14 Responses to New Directions for the Church 6: accept diversity of belief

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  2. Peter says:

    When you refer to “intolerant, dogmatic bigotry” was there anything in particular you had in mind

    • Thanks for asking. Yes, I had in mind that whole tradition of imagining that when you have accepted a divine revelation that transcends all human reason, anyone who disagrees with your own opinions is just plain wrong. I summarised the development of this belief in the post, but a few years ago I wrote a book about it, ‘Liberal Faith in a Divided Church’.

  3. Paul Mayo says:

    You write that: “if you can believe anything at all and call yourself a Christian, Christianity becomes meaningless.” This sentence suggests that you do accept that there are some core things one must believe in order to be a Christian. Isn’t the purpose of the creeds just that? You may disagree with the content of the creeds (as you said in an earlier article), but if you agree that there are some things Christians must believe then I can’t see how you can disagree with the purpose of the creeds.

    • Good question, Paul, and when I wrote that bit I half expected that someone might pick me up on it.
      We need to distinguish between definitions of words and the search for truth. The bit you quote is about the meaning of the word ‘Christian’.
      I have more sympathy for the Apostles’ Creed and Irenaeus’ arguments against the Gnostics than I have for the Nicene Creed. I don’t know a huge amount about this, but as I understand it the Apostles’ Creed developed as a summary of what Christians believe, to inform enquirers and provide a basis on which people could say ‘I am a Christian’. As such, it needs to describe what distinguishes the beliefs of Christians from contrasting beliefs actually held at that time and place. As such it should be open to modification as beliefs change, both within and outside Christianity. The Nicene Creed was more a product of Constantine wanting to impose a single cult on the Roman empire. Because in his day bishops spent their time arguing against each other, he wanted to impose a single set of doctrines. It got modified later, but the idea was to establish what all Christians had to believe, and thus close down debate. That control freakery is sadly still around and I think we should resist it.

  4. Paul Mayo says:

    “the theory of biblical perspicuity: that the whole Bible was easy to understand.”

    I can’t think of anyone who defined perspicuity like that. The key voices went to some pains to distance themselves from such a misunderstanding. They only argued that things necessary for salvation were clear – the sort of things other generations would have put into a creed. They repudiated the idea that the whole Bible was easy to understand (generally with an appeal to 2 Peter 3:16); they argued instead that enough of the Bible was clear enough on enough things that it was useful for everyone as a light to their path.

    Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7:

    “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

    This resonates with my experience: I certainly don’t find everything in the Bible easy to understand, but I find it gives me comfort, strength and wisdom – and best of all it fixes my eyes on Jesus.

    • That account of perspicuity certainly was around in the early stages of the Reformation, because it was essential to the claim that God had provided scriptures which didn’t need to be interpreted either by the Catholic Church or by any other human authority. However, for the reasons you mention, it didn’t last long. Unfortunately it has been revived. Popular Evangelical discourse often refers to the ‘clear, plain’ teaching of the Bible. Facebook and Twitter are full of it.
      The Westminster Confession, as you quote, modifies it. So also Richard Hooker. But the problem doesn’t go away. Who decides which bits of scripture count as easy to understand? Needless to say, nobody ever produced a list. Then as now, the bits the speaker agrees with are easy to understand, the bits we disagree with are lumped together with the bits we genuinely don’t understand. One example: for all the controversy over gay sex, nobody defends Leviticus 20:13b, which is as clear as anything could be: men who engage in anal sex are to be put to death.
      When you say the Bible fixes your eyes on Jesus, I assume you are referring to the New Testament.

      • Paul Mayo says:

        Hi Jonathan,

        I really appreciate your engagement on these things. Thank you!

        I am still curious as to who exactly has said that “the whole Bible is easy to understand”. I have lots of gaps in my historical knowledge so I would be fascinated if you can point me to a source.

        I don’t think the claim to describe the ‘clear, plain’ teaching of the Bible is a claim to understand all of the Bible – it is a claim that some things are very clear. We never have complete understanding of any book or person, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have real understanding. You and I don’t perfectly understand each other – but we are able to communicate. (And I am enjoying the process.)

        You say that no-one ever wrote lists of which bits are easy to understand, but I would argue that they did write lists of what they believed could be clearly seen – we call those lists creeds.

        • Good questions.
          On perspicuity. My main sources are McGrath, Alister, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell, 1993, and Reardon, Bernard M G, Religious Thought in the Reformation, London: Longman, 1995. Luther taught that every believing Christian has the right to interpret Scripture (McGrath p. 151; Reardon p. 65). To Zwingli, ‘The Word of God, as soon as it shines upon an individual’s understanding, illuminates it in such a way that he understands it’ (McGrath p. 152). To Calvin, Scripture reveals the evidence of its own truth every bit as clearly as black and white things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste (Reardon p. 167). Even Erasmus said the ploughman may read Scripture and understand it without any great difficulty (McGrath p. 151). If you want references to original texts I can look them up. However it didn’t last long. McGrath says that by the 1530s it was more common to believe that in order to understand Scripture one needed a knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and linguistic theory. In similar vein, Calvin wrote in the preface to the 1541 edition of his Institutes that his book could help readers to understand Scripture, thus implying that help would be needed.
          In context, it’s understandable. Western Europeans had very little sense of historical development. (That began at the end of the 17th century.) Protestants and Catholics alike thought Christianity had been set up in New Testament times, and thereafter life had continued pretty well unchanged. They also agreed that the Bible provided everything God wanted Christians to know. What they disagreed about was whether God had provided a human authority to interpret it for them. Before there were any Protestant churches with recognised authority, Protestants claimed that Catholics were misinterpreting Scripture, but had no alternative authority to appeal to. So they claimed that it didn’t need interpretation. That was the theory, but of course it flew in the face of experience.
          I think this is worth stressing for two reasons. One is that, as soon as it is modified in the face of experience, it turns out that the Catholics were right. Even if some texts are easy to understand, others aren’t, and Protestants disagreed about which texts went into which category. So a non-biblical authority for scriptural interpretation was needed after all. The options were (1) reason, (2) guidance by the Holy Spirit, and (3) the development of an alternative profession of biblical study.
          The other reason is the way Evangelicals today appeal to those early Reformation ideas. Then, individuals were terrified of eternal Hell if they believed the wrong things, and governments fought wars over how God wanted the state to be governed. Today, the lightweight Evangelicalism of church leaders picks out a few biblical texts which contradict modern society’s moral consensus, and uses them to offer a counter-cultural identity. In this counter-culture people are invited to adopt a Gnostic sense of superiority to the big bad world around them, at the knock-down price of disapproving of the latest taboo: same-sex partnerships or abortion or evolution.
          You write:
          I don’t think the claim to describe the ‘clear, plain’ teaching of the Bible is a claim to understand all of the Bible – it is a claim that some things are very clear.
          Whether we pay any attention to them is another matter. The Bible contains hundreds of condemnations of lending money at interest, for example. In practice, the clear ones we don’t like just get reallocated to the ‘unclear’ category.
          Finally, the creeds weren’t ever intended to be summaries of the clear bits of the Bible. They were intended to be summaries of what Christians believed. The whole idea of identifying biblical texts which are clear, and therefore binding on all Christians, was an invention of 16th century Protestantism.

  5. Excellent article, Jonathan, and many thanks. Last year I wrote to 105 present Church of England bishops, urging the case for ‘unity in diversity’ rather than ‘unity in uniformity’. I was writing in the context of the now decades-long problems that exist, over human sexuality, in the Church of England.

    Of the 45 bishops who kindly responded or engaged in dialogue, I should say that the central ground was held by those who favoured the principle of ‘unity in diversity’ but held back from championing it because of the perceived likelihood of division or even schism if it was formalised in the Church.

    There were other bishops who actively wanted to see the acceptance of diverse views on sexuality – led by conscience – in the Church. And there were others who insisted that, for example, heterosexual marriage was the only acceptable context for marriage and that this was a ‘first order’ issue.

    My concern (I can’t say if you share it) is that the status quo on gay sexuality defines gay sex as ‘sin’ because it occurs out of wedlock, and that can be seen being enforced with regard to priests and ordinands if they express their gay or lesbian fidelity in intimate sexual ways.

    To me, this desire for ‘control’ and uniformity – which was really what drove the ‘Anglican Covenant’ initiative that was rejected in England – amounts to theological domination – the imposing of the conscience of one set of people upon the consciences (and religious life) of another set of people. In addition, with growing numbers of church members accepting gay sex, and young people largely accepting it, the Church of England risks alienating people and making its gospel message seem ‘nasty’ and discriminatory.

    Surely we should resolve issues like this by letting priests, PCCs, churches serve their various and differing communities according to what they conscientiously believe – including radical acceptance of all loving relationships, and celebration/seeking blessing for them.

    Our unity, is not in doctrinal uniformity. It is in Jesus Christ. And our primary commandment, in the context of which we should receive the rest of the bible, is LOVE. We can hold differing views, and still seek the flourishing of others we disagree with. We can be diverse, but still focus – far more in fact – on the desperate needs of people in our communities.

    The Archbishop of Canterbury has said he is “not quite sure” whether gay sex is a sin. But he presides over a Church that theologically vilifies gay sex, and sanctions (or fires) priests who love their partners in that way. To me it is not enough to say, ‘We want to radically include you, but we don’t accept the whole of who you are, and you should remain celibate for life.’

    ‘Unity in Diversity’ means respect for divergent consciences, and I believe it should be promoted so that individual churches can decide their position on human sexuality (and gender identity) and decide, at the local level of the communities where they serve, how they will express inclusion and acceptance.

    The reality is that there is NO uniformity of opinion in the Church. We should stop trying to dominate one another. I wonder what you think?

    Thanks again for an excellent article!

    Susannah Clark

    • Thank you for this Susannah, and well done for your initiative in writing to the bishops. The responses are interesting.
      I too was involved in campaigning against the Anglican Covenant. When the focus of attention turned to LGBT sexuality, 20 or 30 years ago, it kind of replaced a disapproval of heterosexual sex outside marriage, so the marriage issue was there – in fact I very much remember the fuss made when the pill was introduced in the 1960s. Church leaders feared moral collapse. What they feared – more sex outside marriage – does indeed seem to have happened, but it has liberated people to engage in more serious moral issues like peace and the environment.
      I agree with you that we should accept unity in diversity. The attempt to forbid differences of opinion closes down honest debate and contributes to a church culture which is out of date and can’t engage with new issues.
      Well done.

      • Thanks Jonathan,

        I think “differences of opinion” are permitted in the Church of England, but my view is that “differences of practice” should be permitted, with individual local churches following their own sincere consciences, and an institutional acceptance of a diversity of practice that would reflect the reality of profound diversity of views in the Church of England on human sexuality.

        It is surely a conscience issue. Churches should be able to affirm, celebrate, and bless gay and lesbian relationships if in all good conscience they believe these relationships (including their sacrifices, fidelity and intimacy) are decent and life-affirming.

        If Scotland is magnanimous enough to permit ‘unity in diversity’, why not England?

        At present, that conscience is dominated by (I have to say) a perfidious status quo – where leadership talks about ‘radical inclusion’ (which is a lovely catch phrase and declared intent), about the evils of criminalised gay people overseas, about how everyone ‘sins’ and gay sex (in all its loveliness) is just another ‘sin’ so ‘we’re being quite nice to you really’… and then (while saying he’s not sure any of it’s wrong himself, because he can’t – or won’t – make up his mind) the status quo Justin oversees, vilifies gay sex, and asserts required celibacy (which is a calling for individuals to discern) on a whole class of people – and their partners.

        Some people I talk to want a more absolutist, pro-gay solution than me – that includes some bishops I’ve corresponded with. However, I personally believe in a ‘broad church’ where we accept our differences, and learn to love one another better, respecting conscientious differences of belief. That is the wider aspect of ‘Unity in Diversity’.

        The present status quo, however, allows none of that. It is the domination of one group’s conscience by another group’s conscience. In a country where more and more people have much-loved lesbian daughters, gay uncles, colleagues with same-sex partners, sons who love men, friends who are gay or lesbian… good, decent people, accepted by more and more Anglicans in the pews for who they are (as opposed to who they ‘ought to be’ – aka ‘celibate for life’… in our country today the theological vilification of gay sexuality, and the condemnation of gay priests and ordinands to lives of unnatural celibacy, is a kind of domination and discrimination that to many people outside the church seems frankly disgusting and abhorrent.

        Personally, I fear the can will be endlessly kicked down the road into the long grass. Meanwhile decent people’s lives slip by. People face conflict between their sexuality and their faith as it is filtered by the institutional Church. You have only to reflect on the tragic death of Lizzie Lowe, the 14-year-old young woman who could not handle the clash between her lesbian feelings and what the Church seemed to think. Erasure, or language of ‘sin’, could alienate a whole generation.

        The impressive thing about Lizzie’s church was that, after her suicide, they were overwhelmingly sorry, and underwent a deep change of heart. The Church as a whole seems to lack the courage for a similar change.

        I believe that individual churches, priests and PCCs should simply make a decision to stand their theological ground, on grounds of conscience. They should collectively network, and set a deadline date, and say ‘from this date onwards, we *shall* celebrate and bless and affirm the faithful and devoted (and tender and sexual) relationships of gay and lesbian couples.

        My view is that, as local churches, we should assess the reality and needs of our local communities, and if that includes being truly ‘radical’ in our inclusion, then so be it.

        ‘Moral decline’ should not be elided (I know you weren’t but others do) with gay and lesbian love and intimacy. It might be argued that the church itself needs to attend to its own moral decline. It’s small-mindedness and dogmatism; it’s introspection and internal struggles to control one another. As I said, we need to stop trying to dominate one another, and we need to open our hearts to the love of God – and not least, pray for the flourishing of people we disagree with, and love and allow that we differ in some things but are, eternally and only ever, one in Christ.

        Thanks for your comments, and the original article.

        Susannah

  6. John Bunyan says:

    Of course, not all Christian churches subscribe to the Apostles’ Creed – the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is one that comes to mind. What I like best in the Apostles’ Creed is represented by the comma between “Mary” and “suffered”. And the creed that Jesus affirmed in S.Luke 10.28 is sufficient for some of us – and although we have to work at what that may imply for us in various situations, Jesus gives one memorable example in the story that follows. And seeking for the unity of the SPIRIT in the bond of peace, I guess, as you are doing, would be another. Thanks, Jonathan.

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