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When should religions adapt?

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Not surprisingly, there's been some push-back to my suggestion a few days ago that religious conservatives would do well to adapt to increasing social acceptance of same-sex marriage. "Sorry," writes Perpetua, in one of the less vituperative comments. "God said that heaven and earth will pass away, but his Word will never pass away."

Not much in evidence was a willingness to conjure with the challenge that religious traditions face in peddling their wares to a changing world. "So Mr. Silk," questions Joel Wegman, "how is it that back in the day when the Church more or less followed societal norms like slavery (to use your example), they were wrong, but today when the Church resists societal norms they are wrong?"

Actually, I never said that the Church was wrong when it accepted slavery; what I implied was that it did well to oppose slavery as society at large began to do that. It's a nice question whether Christian leaders should have run the risk of undermining the progress of the Gospel by vigorously opposing slavery when slavery was an intrinsic part of the social order. 

No doubt, there's cultural pottage that religions cannot sell their birthrights for. In an amusing spoof on Pope Benedict's new Twitter feed, The Onion imagines @pontifex connecting to Christian youth by tweeting out messages like, "Can someone go to church for me lol."

On the other hand, there's the longstanding evangelical recognition that if you don't meet people where they are, you won't meet them at all. In his latest post, the conservative Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson takes on those of his co-religionists who deplore Super Bowl fellowships and other cultural adaptive religious practices. "I propose in this post that the adoption of cultural mores and norms to communicate the message of Jesus Christ is precisely what the inspired Scriptures mandate we Christians should be doing, he writes.

Burleson is hardly down with same-sex marriage, but he's not all that bent out of shape about it either. The point about Christianity, I always thought, was that it came into being as a religion that abrogated "the law" for the sake of sharing its good news with one and all. While the legalism of my Christian correspondents is unsurprising, it doesn't seem to me all that Christian.

Topics: Ethics


  1. Time for churches to get out of the ethics business altogether. Ethics is a secular discipline, a specialty in philosophy. We now recognize that cosmology, astronomy, biology and Middle Eastern history are the business of secular scientists and scholars; time to recognize that ethics is too.

    Of course charity and good works are the business of churches—and there are plenty of uncontroversially good works for churches to do. But adjudicating controversial moral issues isn’t within the expertise of theologians or clergy. It’s the business of philosophers.

    What’s left to religion then? Metaphysics, mysticism, liturgy, community, charity, etc. Lots.

  2. It is well to contemplate how Jesus dealt with a society of which he was a member that did not live up to the Will of God. He did not go around making loud speeches against such things, at least not often. Rather he dealt with people 1 on 1 or 12 on 12, so to speak. He sent his disciples out with instructions how to deal with people household by household, not stadium by stadium. He did not orate against societal norms, he just tried to show people one by one or few by few that the societal norms did not correspond with God’s will. He was a stealth revolutionary. He was seen dining with those regarded as evil, as part of his effort to teach them on the small scale.
    His Church should do no less, no more. That moral and ethical law that government is in the business of trying to legislate, should grow up out of that process of teaching.

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