Nigel Argall believes that adjusting your theology may just be the grown up thing to do


Here are two headline issues from recent Premier news feeds: ‘Sex is a salvation issue’ and ‘Church of England to bless gay marriage’. Anything in common? Yes! Both are examples of Christinas reading scripture but coming to radical conclusions, in may cases, challenging orthodox understanding on hugely important issues. Progress can be wonderful but change can also bring controversy and [pain. How do we get it right?

For a few years I was on the ministry board of the Free Methodist Church in the UK. I had the inestimable privilege of interviewing people who were applying for ministry roles in our churches. Although we had a fixed set of questions to work through, I would always manage to shoehorn in a personal question of my own which was, ‘How has your theology changed in the last 5 or 10 years?’ You see, I profoundly believe our theology should be changing as we grow. Yes, the basic tenets of faith don’t alter, but how we think and respond to them does. Let me give you a couple of examples. If you had found me when I was a righteous new convert aged 16, and asked me what ‘sin’ was, I’d probably have said something like ‘sin is doing bad stuff, sleeping around, taking drugs, stealing… that sort of thing.’. If you asked me the same question ten years ago, I would have related much more to the relentless brokenness of our world. When Adam took the apple, everything got broke. The relationship between the genders is malfunctioning, and laced with oppression. Our relationship with God’s creation is marred, our enjoyment of the creativity of work is forever frustrated. I wasn’t wrong at 16, but I now see sin as wider, deeper, more invasive, frankly, more terrifying. The good news is I now also have a much richer and wider appreciation of God’s mission to rescue us from all this. My 16-year-old view has not gone but is encompassed in a greater understanding. This affects how I live out my faith. I always had a theology of God as creator, and us as stewards, but now I see, for example, tackling climate change as a profoundly theological issue, not just an ethical issue that Christians might have a view one.

More recently, I have been exploring the connections between scripture and modern models and theories of leadership and management. Who knew we would find the roots of so much modern thinking in the ancient stories? The bible has not changed, but what I have discovered within it has.

This process of moral philosophising, (what we as Christians might inventively call theologising) is, I believe, a deeply human activity and indeed, something we are called to do. Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and despite our culture’s encouragement to do exactly that, I believe we are, as humans, required to constantly ask ‘what is right and wrong?’, ‘what should we believe?’ and ‘how should we live?’

For those of us doing youth and children’s work, this is at the very heart of our calling. John Westerhoff mapped the changes that faith goes through as we grow (his seminal book Will our children have Faith? is essential reading). Stage three is the point (often in the teenage years) when we recognise that our intellect has grown but we still have a simplistic, childish faith. His metaphor is of a coat that keeps us warm but doesn’t fit anymore. The only honest thing to do is to throw it off and go in search of a faith that resonates with our own thinking and experience, stereotypically something that encompasses, doubt, the recognition that things are often not as ‘black and white’ as they seemed and embraces conflict and nuance. Accompanying young people as they go on this scary journey of discovery, is one of the highest callings that we can have. Conversely, one of the saddest things is to see an intelligent adult who has never embraced this task and still operates (spiritually), in a childish manner.

We see this process of theological change unfolding throughout scripture, but especially in the New Testament. A huge part of Acts and indeed, much of St. Paul’s writing is to help people figure out incredible and challenging theological change. Think of Galatians, a church full of Christians, half of whom had a Jewish background and saw Jesus as the fulfilment of their messianic dream, and half without that background. What should they believe and how should they do life? What was essential Christian practice and what was cultural baggage that could be dispensed with?

So far, so good. Change is essential, change is part of our growth but, what happens (as indeed, did happen in many of the biblical examples), when theological change is painful and divisive?


A story

Many years ago, I was involved tangentially with a national Christian charity which amongst other things was brilliant at promoting the need for social action to demonstrate God’s love and be a tangible expression of the gospel. The organisation had a well-known and highly charismatic leader. All went well until he wrote a book which, frankly, drove a coach and horses through the side of substitutionary atonement, the belief that Jesus was somehow taking our sin upon himself as he hung dying on the cross. The book reinterpreted this event as God somehow identifying with our brokenness and humanity. The reaction to the book’s publication was both dramatic and divisive. Some people sprang to his defence, perhaps unable to quite accept that such a good bloke, and someone very much at the heart of the evangelical movement, could betray them so thoroughly. Others, (to use the word from one Theological College principal), were ‘incandescent’.

I want to come up with some ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ to help both those who may be changing their position on an issue or indeed, for those of you managing such a situation but let’s explore this in just a bit more in depth first.


The theory

Comedian John Cleese famously did a lot of work (and indeed, two books of writing) with his psychotherapist, Robin Skynner. Amongst all this (and you can read this in Life and how to survive it), Skynner explores how we, as humans adopt and adapt to important new thinking. Many of us will have experienced some sort of revolution in our thinking where we saw something in a new way for the first time and made a huge change in our approach. Skynner’s insight is to note that very often, although it looks and feels like a sudden transformation, the new idea or way of thinking has been bubbling along under the surface of our cognition for some time, getting stronger but being subconsciously blocked because we cannot live in two minds, and it conflicts directly with our current thinking. It is, metaphorically, as if the ground we are mentally standing on is being eroded from beneath. Eventually, the new idea can no longer be suppressed and breaks through to take over. Despite the fact that the book is not specifically Christian, they cite Paul on the Road to Damascus as a classic example. The period when the new idea is bubbling away subconsciously is often extremely uncomfortable for us and one way of coping with this is to double down and reaffirm what we think we know. I wonder if some of Paul’s zeal in persecuting Christians was fuelled by a secret worry that the Christians might just be right? As I said, who knew we could find modern psychology in scripture?



Managing change well

So, let’s imagine that either you have made some big changes in your own understanding or, you are managing a situation where someone (perhaps a significant leader in your church or youth team), seems to no longer be pulling in the same direction as you. Here are some key issues:


1. There will be a reaction

I love my church and I love my fellowship group. I feel safe there. In a world that sometimes seems almost hostile to people of faith, these are places where I am known and understood. These people think like me, and I trust them. For someone to suddenly not see things the same way, feels almost like some sort of disloyalty. Despite this, I know that we are called to integrity and intellectual honesty. If someone no longer believes what I do, I don’t want them to fake it for my benefit. One of the problems with the leader in the story above was that he seemed incapable of recognising quite what he had done and why there was such a big reaction. Note that this has nothing particularly to do with the rights or wrongs of the issue but if you work within organisations and then choose to challenge one of their fundamental values, people will react.


2. Don’t think you are better because you have embraced a change

The 16-year-old that was me, was embarrassingly certain of his views. I could still be embarrassed but I now recognise that as a phase many of us go through. Westerhoff was at pains to point out in his model of ‘stages of faith’ that none was ‘better’ than any other, it is simply what is appropriate to age and experience. Individuals who change, and then appear to be saying ‘follow me, I have been enlightened, I used to be like you but I see better now’, can be particularly offensive. You will not be the first person to have wrestled with a particular theological issue and others may not have come to the same conclusion as you.


3. When people change position, they need to take their time

Their colleagues also need time to adjust. We often completely misinterpret the story of St. Paul. Although his conversion was dramatic and there is a flurry of preaching in Damascus, Paul them largely disappears for three years. This is right and proper. Paul was a supremely intellectual and deep-thinking scholar. It must have taken some significant reflection on, and processing of, his conversion experience to completely reinterpret what he believed he knew. He does this quietly before building the momentum of his preaching and evangelism. A man I knew came to faith in his 40s after living an almost completely secular lifestyle. He didn’t read a book of fiction for ten years, wanting to assiduously absorb all he could about his new found faith. We need to be wary and suspicious of anyone who changes position and immediately starts preaching (or indeed writing) on it!


4. Don’t disown your previous thinking

This is a hugely important point in issues around, for example, human sexuality. You may have had a revolution in your thinking but the people you now perceive as wrong… that was once you. People have reasons (even erroneous), for thinking as they do. Your thinking may be change, but that does not make you an intellectual superior person. We are all weak, frail, imperfect sinners, full of insecurity. Be gracious.


5. Accommodate peoples new thinking if you can

I will tell you a secret: nearly everyone I know (even the ‘top’ Christian leaders), has at least one quirky and unconventional theological belief! See if you can live with it or at least negotiate it. I once led a schools work project that was about to do a really big, week-long mission into a large local secondary school. It was ‘all hands to the pumps’ which meant using even our board of trustees. One of these was the local Roman Catholic priest. I wasn’t sure what might come of this so eventually tackled it (him), head on. “Father Tim”, I asked, “We have a huge overlap of belief, but there are some things you believe that I don’t, (praying to Mary would be an example), how can we handle that as we get into conversations with young people next week?” Without any hesitation he said, “Nigel, 85% of what we believe is the same, I am really happy to make sure all my conversations are on that bit. The bits we differ on, I won’t go there. it does not need to be a problem”. What a gracious, and frankly, professional response.


6. Be prepared to walk away if you must (and can).

Quite recently I became a trustee of a national youth charity that did excellent work with hard-to-reach groups of young people. I knew that their approach to things was edgy and quite radical, but felt it might be a positive challenge for me as well as myself bringing something to the table. Later, interviewing a potential new team member I asked, “how has your theology changed in the last, say, 5 to 10 years?”

Well”, came the reply, “substitutionary atonement, Jesus dying for me on the cross, that’s an idea I gave up quite some time ago.” (That one again!) On relaying this to the other trustees, I was told “To be honest Nigel, a number of us on the board wouldn’t subscribe to that kind of theology.” I had an agonising two weeks. I liked the people and, still respected much of the work they did but ultimately, I just couldn’t reconcile my own, more conventional approach with what had been shared. I tried to make it work but the sense of pulling in different directions was just too much and, (amicably) we decided to part.


Theological change is the stuff of life. It can be life enhancing, motivating and deeply enriching. It can also be deeply disturbing and hurtful. Handle with care!