In Theory: Can we disagree, still maintain standing?

Q. A study released June 9 by the Public Religion Research Institute: “Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality, What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars.”

The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted between April 22 and May 8 among a random sample of 3,000 adults in the continental United States. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points, and higher for subgroups.

Fifty-six percent of those polled say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases and 52% say abortion is morally wrong. A majority (72%) of religious Americans believe they can disagree with the teachings of their faiths on the issue of abortion and still be a person of good standing in their faith.

The study also noted that 18-29-year-olds are considerably more likely than the older generations to support same-sex marriage, but there’s no comparable gap on the abortion debate.

Our culture’s religious beliefs seem to be evolving toward a state in which religious people feel they can disagree with the teachings of their religious faith while remaining believers in good standing in that faith. Do holy writings support this trend toward an intellectualization of religious issues? And is this new religious independence a good thing? Why, or why not?


This question assumes a lot about how we arrive at official teachings in our various religious traditions. Some traditions, like the Catholic Church, have a clergy authority figure who determines the denomination’s stance on issues of the day. Adherents are expected to follow this decision.

Other traditions, such as the United Methodist Church, hold regular conferences for clergy and lay representatives, where together we seek God’s guidance. We start with scripture and the church’s traditional beliefs about the topic in question. We then take into account our lived experiences of God in order to ask the question – has God shown us something about the sacredness of life (in the case of abortion) or love (in the case of homosexuality) that we didn’t see or understand before? Difficult questions like slavery (in the 1800s) and homosexuality can take many, many conferences to decide with finality. Some would say too many, for in the meantime, faithful Christians are asked to live in the tension of a religious tradition that does not seem compassionate toward their reality. You can actually still be a believer in good standing when you disagree with the decision and choose to keep the conversation between scripture, tradition, and experience alive.

In general, Methodist policy leans toward the pastoral rather than the doctrinaire. Our teaching on abortion is an excellent example of this. This is from our Social Principles, determined at General Conference by delegates from around the world:

“In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection…..a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

You see? We tend toward extending God’s grace (rather than judgment) to people in crisis, and we believe that God guides us to faithful decisions.

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church



The teaching of the Episcopal Church on abortion is — silence. Which is the same as its teaching on euthanasia, stem cell research, global warming and cheating in school – nothing. We have no teachings, no body of ethical authority, no top-down proclamations or even official advice on the matters of the world.

Remember, we’re the guys who broke off from the papacy because Henry VIII disagreed with its teaching on divorce (and because he wanted all the Church’s land, money and influence for himself). His daughter Elizabeth, who was really the one to shape what the Church of England would become, famously proclaimed, “I will not make windows into men’s [sic] souls” – introducing the validity of personal conscience into the structure of the church. Religious independence is not a new thing for us; it’s part of our definition to begin with.

Which is not to say that we’re not concerned with ethical decision-making. We just call it ethical decision-making, not ethical decree. We expect people to do the hard work of weighing their knowledge and making thoughtful decisions. We trust our people to be intelligent, to be faithful, to be compassionate, to have integrity, to consult scriptural sources as appropriate, to be in conversation with interested parties and disinterested observers, and to make up their own minds about what constitutes right action in a particular context.

We understand that in this anxious age of rampant fundamentalisms of all sorts, in which churches which promise to give you ‘the answers’ to all your questions are packing them in by the thousands, our stand for independent thought and the integrity of conscience is an unpopular minority view.

But we see the Episcopal Church as kindred spirits with the monastics who kept learning and literacy alive in the Dark Ages – we are keepers of a small but bright eternal flame, called intelligent faith (which we do not see as an oxymoron).

And when the world emerges from its manic need for certainty at all costs, we’ll be there waiting, in our cool mystical way, to help give birth to a new age of reason.

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George’s Episcopal Church

La Cañada


Is the issue raised really one of intellectualization of religious issues, whatever that means, or is it the ascendancy of moral relativism? I believe the latter to be the case.

The term “moral relativism” is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with the idea that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.

In that context, let me quote several religious leaders.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “As I see it, there are two possibilities. Either you affirm the existence of a God who stands for morality and makes moral demands of us, who built a law of truthfulness into his world even as he built in a law of gravity.... Or else you give everyone the right to decide what is good and what is evil by his or her own lights, balancing the voice of one's conscience against the voice of temptation and need.”

Pastor Dr. Timothy Keller asks: “What happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won't!”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the LDS Church made this practical observation: “Decrease the belief in God, and you increase the numbers of those who wish to play at being God by being society's supervisors. Such supervisors deny the existence of divine standards, but are very serious about imposing their own standards on society.”

For some faiths, moral relativism may work fine in their theological framework. While for others, such as the LDS Church, it does not work well. As to the latter, this does not mean that intellectual discussions, debates or disagreements on theological and moral issues should be curtailed. Rather, such discussions and debates can be healthy and productive, provided that God’s absolute truths are not thrown out of the equation for the sake of political expediency or correctness, or one’s own view of right and wrong.

Rick Callister

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Cañada


As one who generally pastors autonomous congregations with only voluntary affiliation to denominational bodies, I can say that there’s a long history of people who believed they could dissent from religious hierarchy and still be in fine standing with the faith their denominations were supposed to uphold. The reason is that when denominations begin to reflect society’s mores rather than stand for God’s, it behooves the folks in the pew to march out and find more faithful climes.

These days we're seeing centralized denominations lose their spiritual bearing and begin to exult in the societal sins that they previously condemned. Then they start excommunicating and evicting godly congregations from church properties over which they exert control. So concerning “good standing,” what are we talking about; the one with God, in the faith that is genuinely his, or that of a “faith” that has become an altogether different thing through denominational corruption or even traditions?

To me, the question today is really asking if it’s okay to dissent with God and still remain in the true faith. There are people in every congregation having different views from those of their denomination, their church, and even their pastor, yet their spiritual communities are flexible or strong enough to contain them. But if core articles of belief that define the particular faith are disavowed, then one wonders why such a person would wish to remain in “good standing.” For example, the Bible forbids both murder and homosexuality. Neither the murderer, nor the homosexual inherits the kingdom of God (1Corinthians 6:9; Revelation 21:8). So if Millennials start thinking these things are acceptable, then they may retain good standing in a corrupt religion, but they won’t feel comfortable in churches that put God’s word, the Bible, first. If I were to preach from my pulpit that homosexuality was something for which to repent and be forgiven, how would a Millennial hear that, as condemnation or grace? It depends on which they believe is more correct; their own feelings, or God. It’s not about intellectualism, I think it’s the opposite, and it includes rebellion.

The Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church



This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday in my denomination, and I assume throughout Christendom. Do you believe in the Trinity, and what does believing in the Trinity mean, anyway? I know for a fact that there are members in my church right here in La Cañada, as well as ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ, who have trouble with the Doctrine of the Trinity — and yet each of these persons regards herself/himself as a faithful believer, and so do I.

So in the Church there are those who have trouble with some of the historical doctrines, so those young people polled who thought they could disagree with some of their religions' beliefs are continuing a fine tradition. I believe it's a good thing that people of any age feel free to question what their religions tell them.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Jesus said to love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind (Matthew 22: 37). What that says to me is to use God's great gift of our minds, and don't become hemmed in by a doctrine or an interpretation which may have been just fine for previous generations.

The Pilgrim Hymnal contains a marvelous hymn that is based on what the minister John Robinson told the Pilgrims as they left Europe before they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The hymn's title is, “We Limit Not the Truth of God.” What Robinson told those believers was, “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his word.” I absolutely love that hymn because it recognizes implicitly God's sovereignty to do what God darn well wants to do, regardless of what God has done in the past and regardless of what our holy writings (Bible) or holy community (church) say God must do. A living God is like that: does absolutely what he/she wishes.

So I'm encouraged by the results of that poll. Keep thinking, young people, and make use of those marvelous minds given to you by the ever-living God.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church

La Cañada


Since its inception, Judaism has encouraged independent thinking and rigorous study, which has led to a plethora of detailed Biblical commentary and much vigorous debate. As a rabbi who discusses issues of faith with people of all backgrounds, my approach is to avoid a sweeping, “take-it-all-or-leave-it” attitude.

I believe that an individual who accepts even a partial measure of something good is better off than one who accepts nothing at all. Spirituality adds a sense of purpose and provides moral guidance for our lives. Once a person takes upon themselves a bit of religious tradition and practice, my hope is that they will sense its value and eventually accept more.

It is often difficult for the uninitiated to embrace all the tenets of a religion, but adopting some of the core principles can make life infinitely more meaningful. For example, I often encourage people of the Jewish faith to honor the Sabbath by joining in services even though they do not observe Judaism’s kosher dietary laws. If at some point they decide to start eating kosher, that’s great— but even if they don't, participating in weekly services adds significant depth and spiritual energy to their week, and makes them better people.

As far as abortion is concerned, Judaism takes a middle-of-the road stance. Our teachings hold that abortion should be legal in order to allow the procedure under certain life-threatening circumstances. An unborn fetus is definitely a form of life, yet it does not possess the status of a fully born person. Therefore, if the development of a fetus threatens the health of its mother — physically or even mentally—then an abortion would be mandatory. Barring these situations, all forms of life — including a fetus —must be respected and protected from harm.

There is no question that the ongoing abortion debate is difficult and emotionally charged. My hope is that people on all sides of this issue can maintain civility in their dialogue. I also believe that we should carefully avoid a cavalier attitude toward abortion, since its abuse can pose a serious challenge to the moral status of our society.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center


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