When denominations, churches, faith-based organizations, theologians, pastors, and Christian celebrities change their beliefs on homosexuality, abortion, immigration, and other political and social hot-button issues, they often face a vitriolic pushback from many Evangelicals. Obviously, many see their final stance — such as supporting marriage equality — as a sin, but more surprisingly, many of the vicious reactions attack the very idea of changing one’s beliefs — as if change itself is bad.
American Christianity has created a culture of theological permanence, where individuals are expected to learn a set of beliefs and latch onto them for the rest of their lives. Many of our first theological beliefs were probably taught to us in Sunday school, which was part of a church, which was represented by a denomination, which had its own parochial schools and Bible colleges.
Theoretically, Christians can go from preschool to seminary hearing the exact same religious doctrines. Theologies are often considered too “valuable,” “right,” and “holy” to change or question. Therefore, pastors debate instead of dialogue, professors preach instead of listen, schools propagate instead of discuss, and faith-based communities ultimately reject any form of honest questioning and doubt.
Indoctrination is preferred over critical thinking, certainty is favored over doubt, and we expect our leaders to offer black-and-white answers. A change of theology is viewed as weakness, poor exegesis, and a sign of insecurity. “If they change their views now, how can I believe anything they say in the future?” Christians often perceive change as a break in trust and a loss of identity.
Imagine if John Piper suddenly altered his views on Calvinism and became an Arminian, or if Mark Driscoll publicly became an egalitarian? They would be publicly rejected and humiliated, and their followers would be lost, angry, and confused.
Additionally, Christian communities often reinforce the idea that any variations from sanctioned teachings about God are dangerous and destructive. If pastors change their views — they’re forced to resign. If professors sway beyond a college’s strict theological statement — they’re fired. To emphasize preferred beliefs, preachers and teachers and authors and theologians attack those they disagree with — and we follow their example (Remember when Rob Bell published Love Wins?) During the rare occasions when theologians and pastors are brave enough to (publicly) have a change of heart, they’re labeled a “heretic” and often lose their jobs, their respect, and many of their closest friends and followers.
But theology — our study and beliefs about God — should be a natural process involving change instead of avoiding it. Our God is too big and too wonderful to completely understand by the time we graduate high school, or college, or get married, or have children, or retire. Our life experiences, relationships, education, exposure to different cultures and perspectives continually affect the way we look at God. Our faith is a journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress, and our theology will change. And while we may not agree with a person’snew theological belief, we need to stop seeing the inherent nature of change as something negative.
Having a baby, getting diagnosed with cancer, living in a foreign country, getting a new job, losing a child in a car accident, infidelity, poverty, being forgiven of a crime, being robbed, experiencing injustice and an infinite number of other things can directly affect the way we view God — ultimately changing our beliefs.
There are distinctively sinful reasons and motivations for changing one’s beliefs: for self-promotion, pride, popularity, power, professional advancement, or because of peer-pressure, fear and, manipulation. But many people refuse to change their beliefs for these exact same reasons.
As Christians, we need to have grace and understanding when people are honest, vulnerable, and courageous enough to admit a change in their beliefs. The negative stigmas associated with theological change need to be removed.
One of the titles used most to address Jesus in the New Testament was the word ‘Teacher.’ In many ways, Jesus’s entire ministry was about changing the way people thought about God — changing their beliefs. Jesus was also lovingly patient with his disciples as they bumbled their way through mistake after mistake, and we need to be equally loving and gracious.
Interestingly, the characters in the Bible who were the most self-confident about their beliefs were usually the ones who were wrong and rebuked by Jesus, while those who were humble and eager to learn were the ones Jesus used in powerful ways. Wise people admit when they’re wrong, but when it comes to theology most people spend all of their time and energy buttressing and protecting their own personal beliefs instead of critically, prayerfully, humbly, and honestly questioning them.
I used to be like the Pharisees, someone who proudly believed certain things that I thought were utterly and undeniably true. I was a person who judged and attacked those who held different beliefs than my own. I used to know it all — until I realized that I didn’t. Looking back, I’m ashamed and embarrassed about some of my theological beliefs, and I cringe when I think about the damage I created when I cruelly berated friends, relatives, classmates and complete strangers over minor theological disagreements.
Thankfully, through the grace of an unchanging God, I changed. When the time comes, are we willing to accept and embrace change within ourselves and those around us? God help us.
Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Red Letter Christians and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
Image: Change illustration, alphaspirit / Shutterstock.com