Is it OK for my Christian beliefs to change?
Will God protect you in a pandemic?
What does God think about sexuality?
How do you understand the word ‘hell’?
What about the end times and the rapture?
Have your beliefs on any of these changed over the years? How about your views on, say, baptism, other denominations or even other religions? I could go on, but there’s a long list of tough questions out there, and I for one have changed my mind on several. Here’s why I think that’s OK.
Women in Leadership
In the early 1990s I remember voting against the ordination of women at my church council meeting. The CofE was asking all churches to give their view on this divisive topic. My church overwhelmingly supported women in church leadership –I did not. But, in the following 10–15 years, my view of what the Bible says on this matter, changed 180 degrees.
We don’t like to admit that our Christian beliefs change. It makes us feel that somehow our faith might be on shaky ground. We worry that “mature Christians” will think less of us if we start to doubt something everyone else round here is dead sure about (at least that’s the impression they give). But, as NT Wright once said: “Has your understanding of Biblical theology changed over the years? … Then you are in great company!”
Our beliefs, our theology, what we believe and know about God should change over time. The only way our understanding of God could never change is if it was perfect to start with. The only person in this universe who has a perfect understanding of God is God (… and you are not God :-)).
Are there shifting beliefs in scripture?
Yes! We see examples of changing beliefs in God’s people in scripture. Here are just two. (They should involve a lengthy discussion, but I avoid that here).
First is it OK for Christians to eat meat that has been used in idol worship? Acts 15 says no, but Paul writing later in 1 Corinthians 8 says, it’s more complicated than “yes or no” and in fact, often it’s fine to eat it.
Second question, is the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, also for non-Jews (Gentiles)? The early church assumed the Gospel was only for Jews, since that made sense from everything they knew. But then, in Acts 10–11 God brings Peter to visit Cornelius. Cornelius is most likely a pagan and yet God has heard his pagan prayer. Peter and the church are astonished, but realise they were wrong — the Gospel must be for all.
Of course, it’s easy to dispense with the above by saying: “they were wrong – they needed correcting”. But isn’t that the point? Why would we presume that our theology, our understanding of God never needs correcting? A friend and minister from a nearby church once said to me: “20% of your theology is wrong Chris, and you don’t know which 20%”. This is not “being blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4.14). It’s just having the humility to accept that, on some matters, I might be wrong.
Are there stages or steps in our journey of faith?
Over the centuries theologians have offered descriptions of why our faith can change over time. Faith is sometimes described in three “stages”:
- Infant / institutional faith – here we accept at face value what we are taught. We learn by memory, and we don’t question. It’s like being a child in Sunday school but some people can go through their entire life in this mode very well – never feeling the need to get wrapped up in the really tough questions.
- Adolescent / critical faith – at this second stage we question our faith: why does God allow all kinds of awful tragedy? Why is he silent when I ask him about mine? And we look at opposing arguments from intelligent humanists, atheists, other faiths; to try to discover meaning.
- Adult / faith as mystery – we become aware of the complex and frankly conflicting nature of our world, and our God, but increasingly we feel able to hand our lack of understanding over to him. We learn to hold two conflicting, opposing ideas in tension (something writers of the scriptures were well able to do). We realise that God is less like us and more inexplicable than we ever imagined.
(Which stage best represents your faith right now?)
We can make the mistake of assuming you start at the first stage and work your way to the third. But no, it’s much messier than that with lots of back and forth. And eventually, we need to hold all three positions simultaneously. Eg it’s always good and helpful to memorise scripture and to thank God for the simple things, but we also learn to be content with having questions with no answers; while we also “challenge God” as to why things are as they are. And of course, we have to test out our new position on matters. Changing our view on a matter doesn’t make us right — it may take us into error, but if we are prayerfully seeking and staying in step with God’s Spirit, that shouldn’t be the case — he is the one who leads us into truth.
In recent years the last two stages (adolescent and adult faith) have been called “faith deconstruction” – taking apart foundational but potentially mistaken beliefs we may have held since childhood. This is an unsettling but healthy thing to do provided we are able to “re-construct” a more enduring faith at the end of it. Another phrase used in the past is “progressive revelation”, where God progressively reveals his truth to us but only as we grow to cope with that truth. (The Biblical examples above are examples of progressive revelation).
At its most severe, faith deconstructing can result in what Christian tradition calls “the dark night of the soul” – a spiritual crisis, which can include a crisis of doubt including that most fundamental doubt …. Is God there at all? (There are helpful resources at hand if you are in this place right now).
Where does all that leave us?
Sometimes I look back wistfully and wish my faith was as sharp and as simple as in my younger days. Everything seemed to be straightforward, whereas now there are so many questions. But I have also learnt that whether you call it deconstruction, progressive revelation or a crisis of faith, God uses such times to call us into a new and deeper relationship. He bids us let go of the comfort blankets we have carried for many years in order to enter a richer relationship which is more like a continuing conversation than simply “having the answer”. Maybe sometimes we have to momentarily lose our way for God to grasp us and show us a way we never noticed.
It’s like our knowledge of God is a tiny island in a huge expanse of ocean which is the vast mystery of God. Over time we experience life, we learn stuff, lots of stuff, and the island – what we know about God – grows bigger. Very good! But at the same time the boundary, the line along which this island touches the great unknowable ocean grows bigger still. So we know more but we realise there is ever more to know, our knowledge itself can create new questions. Perhaps a better phrase might be progressive bewilderment – but in a growing, trusting relationship, that’s OK!
We learn to not have the answers but to sit alongside the questions. We stop assuming that doubt equals weakness and realise that doubts are just human. We stop thinking we always have to get somewhere and relax and enjoy the journey. And, most of all, we give ourselves and others around us permission to change our mind.
So, whatever your view on the topics listed at the start, or others, make sure it isn’t be tied to the idea “… I always believed this so it MUST be right”.
Absolutely! Sometimes we don’t like to admit that our Christian beliefs change. It makes us feel that somehow our faith might be on shaky ground. We worry that “mature Christians” will think less of us if we doubt something that everyone else seems to be dead sure about.
I came to the Lord at 45 and in the beginning, like a teenager, I knew all you can know about the Bible though I knew little about the Bible. Looking back, I realize I have done a one-eighty on most things. We must stay with the basics, but our beliefs will move toward a more complete truth. Thank you for a thoughtful message.
Thx Patricia — very honest — I agree
I don’t agree what you say! “ Is it OK for my Christian beliefs to change” Let me put it this Way. If you are a Christian Your core believes, conviction, Life Style, You Needs to follow what God Word Says.….. If Jesus Christ said it and he passed his teachings down to his 12 Disciples, later Apostles and they tough the people in those days how much more should we who we call our selves Christians today need to OBEY what the Scriptures say and not ADD to it, and take it away because we don’t like what it… Read more »
Sounds noble on the surface and the core truth you hit the nail on the head is the general bent of one’s desire should remain fixed on Christ. How you work this out will necessitate changes in auxilliary beleives. For example,
Do you really fully understand ALL Jesus said and commanded at once?
Do you fully obey ALL at once.
If the answers are No, then the more you understand the more you change.
If your answers are Yes, what are you striving for?
A very thoughtful article as always, and yes I have changed my mind on all of those topics: and that sometimes includes holding two different views simultaneously in mysterious tension!
Thoughtful as usual! T’woud be a strange individual who NEVER changed or grew from childhood onwards — makes me think of the verses in Corininthian’s ..when a child I thought as a child! I think God gives us all space to grow and develop — and I know from experience that God sometimes changes us and our long held beliefs so that HE can do a work in us and through us that would not have been possible in spiritual babyhood. I do though believe that some belief’s are not for changing for if they did — all scripture would… Read more »
Thank you Chris.
I can come to think that there is no perfect theology this side of heaven. Thus, I am much more able/willing to wrestle with questions and doubts and certainties bringing them before God who is the author of our faith. I believe that He desires a living relationship with us and to enrich our lives and through us, enrich the lives of others. He is also a God of love, justice, and has a special place for the poor in whatever sense exists in other words a broader sense that challenges our capacity to grow in how we see God’s… Read more »
Certainly agree Paul that we cant separate our understanding from our life experiences. I think its simplistic to think you can. And yes that pushes us toward certain answers over others. Thx
Good article Chris, I must confess I had to read it twice to understand it, that’s down to my lack of understanding! I think it’s probably much harder for Christian teachers than followers to plot a way forward. God is beyond our understanding so we must have faith to take us across the difficult parts of passage in the Bible. For example, I believe God made heaven and earth, but I don’t believe he made the universe. Does that diminish God in any way, I don’t think it does. To me, God made us to question and learn how to… Read more »
Interesting — thx Howard. Do you believe the universe always existed or was formed from “nothing”?
As the Earth is a part of the universe, then his statement makes no sense. Plus there is no evidence for a heaven!
Hi Neil, sorry if I didn’t make much sense. What I was trying to portray was, what did the writer mean by God made heaven and earth. Did they mean heaven, everything you can see in the night sky and where God lives.They certainly had no concept of how big the sky(universe) is to us now. I do believe the Bible is the word of God but those words are certainly open to interpretation as Chris’ article points out. Hope this makes more sense.
Hi Chris, no idea how the universe was formed. I am sure God could tell me but he’d have to kill me first. Seriously though, God trying to explain the universe to humans would be like us teaching applied mechanics to a cow. I don’t really grapple with whether God created the universe or not, as long as I can realise that he is my universe, how heavy is that. Cheers your articles do make my think outside the box
Thanks for your wisdom, openness and insight. A really healthy, meaningful confirmation that we should welcome change continually, not for change sake, but to have light she’d on our beliefs, strengthening our faith.
We don’t change our belief in GOD , Faith is constant . We don’t pull God to us and say we are right all on this issues . We live under Grace and not the law . God changes us , refines us . We learn to repent of wrong character traits , opinions of others , wrong interpretations of the bible . The Holy Spirit guides us in all truth . If we read scripture ” properly ” we see things as they should and that is our compass to live by . We change , We are discipled… Read more »
As learn more about the nature of the creation, the better I understand the nature of the Creator. Therefore as my understanding changes l, so do my beliefs