During interviews with church leaders in England and Canada, Dr Sam Reimer uncovered a number of “softening strategies”, used by Christians to try and bridge the gap between traditional church teaching, and an increasingly liberal culture


Source: Brett Jordan

The idea of ‘following your heart’ is one of the most important sociological changes in Western society over the past century. But I think it’s extrememly bad for our Christian faith

The shift from an external locus of authority (marked by deference to religious, political and parental authority) to an internal locus of authority – has huge implications.

If what we believe is based primarily on whether it resonates with our own inner feelings, we should expect beliefs to deviate from the traditional creeds or doctrines. And they do, even among committed evangelicals.

As sociologist Abby Day argues, beliefs are less about agreeing to doctrinal propositions and more about statements of belonging and identity within a community. Today, beliefs are less likely to be stable, inner convictions and instead, they are increasingly likely to be ways of identifying with peers. 

If beliefs are in fact relational, they will be more pliable and emotive, since they are attached to changing relational networks. And people believe they must follow their heart to ‘find’ themselves, their beliefs will reflect that identity-creating quest.

Created in community

Evangelicals are not necessarily rejecting orthodoxy, but they have employed a variety of softening strategies that make their unpopular beliefs more palatable to non-evangelicals.

These are often related to exclusive claims (eg Jesus is the only way to heaven) and sexual ethics (eg same-sex marriage is wrong).

If the Church is silent, the beliefs of Christians will conform to the cultural script

In my research, the difference in interview responses was stark in this area: hot-button beliefs (abortion, premarital sex, same-sex marriage, egalitarianism) received long-qualified answers from clergy and church members (“Yes, we are pro-life, but…”), whereas doctrinal beliefs (the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the Bible) received short answers without elaborate qualification. Here are some strategies, with illustrative quotes from the interviews:

My views should not apply to all: [On premarital sex] “I am passionately committed to chastity…I don’t expect people who aren’t trying to follow Jesus to hold to that, but I expect people who are following Jesus should.” (Young woman, Canadian Vineyard Church)

We don’t talk about it: [On same sex marriage] ”We [the pastors] realised we were all on a conservative page on that issue, but what was important was that we were all saying that we’ve not talked about it …” (Male pastor, independent church in Manchester)

Distinguishing between theological belief and pastoral practice: [On gender and sexuality] “And the whole gay, transgender thing, it’s very different pastorally to theologically…” (Female pastor, independent church in London).

Limited scope

These, and other strategies, allow evangelicals to hold to conservative beliefs and yet package them in a much softer way, so as to make them more tolerable to outsiders.

We see ‘limited scope’ strategies, where respondents limit their beliefs to “me personally” or to other Christians only. Or they avoid talking about these issues publicly, because they turn people off Christianity or make them look bigoted.

Beliefs are less about doctrinal propositions and more about statements of belonging and identity

Not surprisingly, evangelicals want their faith to be attractive, so they rarely make dogmatic statements from the pulpit. Instead, discussions about unpopular views are handled pastorally, in private.

It was also clear that Christians saw no problem with disagreeing with doctrinal and ethical positions of their church. The ultimate authority to decide their beliefs belonged to them as individuals, and they would try to find biblical justification for their views.

For clergy, the strategy of not talking about controversial issues assumes that the culture is neutral on these issues. The result is that the beliefs of most Christians will normally conform to the cultural script if the Church is silent, or even ambiguous about it. Submission to an external authority (God or the Bible) is a tough sell in our culture, but that is the call to Christian discipleship.