Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?

GENE ASKS:

What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Forced to pick just “one factor” among many, The Guy says fading cultural respect — for committed Christians, for Christian churches and for Christianity.

Begin with some hard data.

As Religion Q and A analyzed last Oct. 19, the collective membership of America’s moderate to liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations has gradually fallen by a third since the mid-1960s, an unprecedented slide. These churches were once at the center of the culture.

During that era the Catholic Church continued to grow (thanks substantially to immigrants) as did groups of conservative and “Evangelical” Protestants, who now outnumber “Mainliners.”

But let’s take a closer look inside those trends.

On paper, U.S. Catholicism claims 77.7 million adherents, 22 percent of the population. However, that counts all those baptized as infants, many no longer active. A 2008 Georgetown University survey found that only 55 percent of those calling themselves Catholic say they practice the faith.

The largest U.S. Protestant body, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, enjoyed years of expansion while the Mainline churches declined. But as of 2012 the S.B.C. reported its sixth straight year of slight membership decline (to 15.9 million). Worse, average worship attendance was down 3 percent in just one year (to just under 6 million). Baptisms of youths and adults declined in six of the past eight years; the 2012 total (314,956) was the lowest since 1948.

Other conservative groups still gain but that suggests future problems beyond just the S.B.C.

(Though Gene asks about churches, a 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jews showed only a third belong to a synagogue, 23 percent don’t believe in God, and 62 percent say being Jewish is mostly about ancestry and culture vs. only 15 percent who think it’s largely a matter of religious belief.)

Accumulating cultural currents deserve more attention. On Sundays, pro football commands TV devotion while local athletics and other diversions that have become socially prominent compete with worship attendance. The once-protected name of God is repeatedly uttered “in vain” (as the Ten Commandments phrase it) on radio and TV talk shows, whether conservative or liberal. Entertainment media ridicule cherished beliefs. (The Guy distinguishes that from lampooning religious figures’ follies.)

Not to be partisan, but years ago we couldn’t imagine the federal administration legally opposing employment freedom at a Lutheran school (a unanimous Supreme Court backed the Lutherans) or enforcing a healthcare funding rule that violates the conscience of Catholic agencies and some Protestants. Clearly the ground is moving.

Tobin Grant of Southern Illinois University developed an “aggregate religiosity” index that combines 60 years of data from 400 U.S. surveys on things like worship attendance, church membership, personal prayer and feelings about religion. In an essay for Religion News Service he writes in that Americans’ religiosity began to weaken starting in the 1960s, leveled off for two decades, but since 1995 has undergone a steady falloff that’s twice as severe as the earlier one. Grant calls this “The Great Decline.”

And what about Gallup?

[Read more...]

Women and men and the Bible and the church

PARK ASKS:

What are the major scriptural passages [and interpretations] relative to a complementarian and egalitarian approach to gender roles in the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is a big one.

First, about that lingo:

“Egalitarians” say the Bible teaches across-the-board equality without regard to gender. Period. Nevertheless, this supposedly “liberal” view is held by many people who are commonly called “conservatives.”

“Complementarians” — note that it’s “complement,” not “compliment” — say the Bible establishes different roles for men and women in the church and, most add, in the home. For instance, no female pastors. Obviously not a politically-correct stance but in conscience they believe the Bible is clear about this.

These two terms are used almost exclusively in the ongoing debate among U.S. Evangelical Protestants. Though some Evangelical denominations have ordained women since the 19th Century, influential theologians like the Rev. J.I. Packer, an Anglican, say the Bible rules out female clergy. Meanwhile, there’s no dispute in U.S. “Mainline” Protestant churches that began ordaining women in the 1950s through the 1970s. Of course, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have always barred women from the priesthood (with parallels among non-Christian faiths).

While other Christians rely more upon church tradition and hierarchical decrees, Protestants follow “scripture alone” in setting policy. Both of the Evangelical camps maintain they’re being faithful to the Bible and agree on the spiritual equality of both sexes as taught in Genesis 1:27 (“in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”) and Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). Egalitarians say those verses require full equality; complementarians say they don’t rule out a division of labor and gifts based on gender.

America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention with 46,000 local congregations, has officially gone complementarian. The SBC rewrote its doctrinal platform, the Baptist Faith and Message, to specify that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” and that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” (Local Baptist congregations are, of course, free to disagree.)

Per Park’s question, The Guy will look only at the church aspect, sidestepping the intriguing relationship between husbands and wives in the home.

[Read more...]

A Christmas question: Did the baby Jesus cry?

MARY (an appropriate name for this particular question) ASKS:

Did the infant Jesus cry?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Good one. A beloved Christmas carol says “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” which would have been a tiny miracle.

But the New Testament, which has the only early accounts of Jesus’ Nativity, tells us nothing about his infancy, or even his youth except for teaching in the Jerusalem Temple at age 12.

If pondered in terms of what Christianity has always thought there’d be every reason to assume the Babe of Bethlehem cried just like all other infants do, for the same physiological and emotional reasons. That’s a solid inference from the faith’s central and mysterious belief that Jesus was God incarnate and at the same time fully a human being (“yet without sin”). The New Testament reports that just like everyone else the adult Jesus could be tired, hungry, sorrowful and perturbed, and that he experienced pain and death.

In other words, truly human, not inhuman.

New Testament writings from the 1st Century began the process of defining Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. For instance: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

The Nicene Creed of A.D. 381, recited by multitudes each Sunday to this day, states that Jesus was “true God of true God” who “for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Many favorite Christmas carols say the same.

You get the impression that early Christianity had more trouble convincing people that Jesus was fully human than that he was fully divine. This is evident in the “pseudepigrapha” that some liberal scholars emphasize instead of focusing just on the four New Testament Gospels that the early church judged to be authentic and worthy of scriptural status. For one thing, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John originated much earlier than those non-biblical writings.

[Read more...]

Does God hear prayers from just anyone?

ROBERT ASKS: Do you think God hears, listens to, prayers of anyone?

THE GUY RESPONDS: Nobody should care what a mere journalist like The Guy thinks on matters like this beyond his spiritual pay grade that are better left to pastors or theologians. However, the topic is important so here are a few notes. This assumes we’re talking about “petitionary” prayer that asks for things, not prayers of adoration or thanksgiving.

As part of this, the questioner asks whether God hears only prayers from Christians. The Guy recalls the famous prayer fuss in 1980 when Oklahoma pastor Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made this off-the-cuff comment: “It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy.”

Predictable uproar ensued. Ronald Reagan, campaigning for his first term as U.S. president and seeking conservative Christian votes, spoke at the same event as Smith. Asked later about this remark, he disagreed: “Since both the Christian and Judaic religions are based on the same God, the God of Moses, I’m quite sure those prayers are heard.” Noted Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell said God “does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Gentiles or Jews,” but then requested a meeting with the American Jewish Committee and refined his stance to say God “loves everyone alike. He hears the heart cry of any sincere person who calls on him.”

[Read more...]

(Almost) everything you wanted to know about baptism

LINDSEY ASKS: All Protestants practice baptism by immersion — true or false?

THE GUY ANSWERS: False. Protestants are divided over many tenets and that includes baptism.

Churches that rarely or never fully immerse candidates’ bodies in water include the Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican (or Episcopal), Presbyterian, Reformed, etc.

On the opposite side, immersion is mandatory with Baptists and many others. Also, churches in the second category believe candidates must be able to profess personal faith, ruling out infant baptism which they say was not Christianity’s original practice, and often hold an infant “dedication” ceremony instead. There’s also disagreement on the theology of baptism and whether it’s a “sacrament.”

U.S. Catholic, Presbyterian and Reformed delegates recently affirmed two baptism rules dating from Christianity’s earliest doctrinal manual, the Didache (A.D. 120 or before): To be valid, baptism is performed “with flowing water” as the names of the three persons in the Trinity are pronounced. Note that the water is poured rather than “sprinkled” as these churches used to say.

The invocation of the divine Trinity is taken verbatim from Jesus’ “great commission” in the New Testament: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Surprisingly, the Catholic Church is so favorable toward immersion it sounds almost Baptist, even though it rarely practices that mode. The Orthodox Church requires immersion for infants, who account for most of its baptisms.

In Catholicism, the Catechism calls immersion “the original and full sign of” baptism and says the rite is “performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water.” However, the text adds that “from ancient times” baptism has also been “conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.” So Catholicism allows either immersion or pouring, depending on personal preference, tradition and circumstances.

A statement from the U.S. Catholic bishops says the Greek word for baptism means “immersion” or “bath” so that “immersion in water is a sign of death, and emersion out of the water means new life. To bathe is also to undergo cleansing.” The bishops further note that Jesus himself underwent immersion by John the Baptist.

[Read more...]

Those Latter-day Saints: What’s in a name?

ROYCE WONDERS: (Paraphrasing) What’s the origin of Mormonism’s official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and do those two “of” phrases mean Saints are on equal footing with Jesus, or that Jesus was Mormon, or what?

THE GUY RESPONDS: The founding Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. originally called his group “the Church of Christ.” The scriptures that Smith added to the Bible say that in an 1831 revelation God pronounced this to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30).

Thus, God revealed a new and final church name to Smith in Missouri on April 26, 1838: “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (D & C 115:4). Some historians say this combined “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” used by Smith’s flock in Ohio with “The Church of Jesus Christ” preferred by his newly acquired Missouri followers.

According to Mormon Doctrine, a widely consulted though non-official reference book by an LDS apostle, the name is all-important because the “authenticity of any church” must be determined by whether it has “some combination of the names of Christ as its name.” (With the other listed marks of authenticity, only the LDS Church qualifies.)

In recent years the LDS Church has changed its official typography to put JESUS CHRIST in larger capital letters marked off from the rest of the name in order to defend itself against the charge that Mormons are not true Christians. LDS headquarters is quite particular about use of its name and officially “discourages” the “Mormon Church” and “LDS Church” nicknames that are commonly used by Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The Guy has never really thought much about those two “of” phrases that apparently can be confusing for some. However, the are crucial to the Saints.

[Read more...]

Does help for communities justify churches’ tax exemption?

GORDON ASKS:

(Paraphrased) Secularists challenge tax exemptions for houses of worship, saying this denies valuable revenue to communities that get little or nothing in return. True?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

False, judging from new scholarly research.

Putting money aside for a moment, those knowledgeable about troubled urban neighborhoods will especially shudder to think what local conditions might be like if taxation forced financially strapped congregations to disband. Even small, struggling flocks that lack the money for professional social services provide their members (according to the members themselves) spiritual and emotional uplift and fellowship that can also enhance their neighborhoods. Numerous surveys indicate that people involved with religious faiths often gain in perceived well-being.

That said, such benefits are subjective and difficult to measure, and in any event secularists will contend that they do not make up for the property taxes cities lose when churches (or synagogues or mosques) are exempt. Secularists are less likely to protest tax exemptions enjoyed by groups that promote a secular worldview. The Guy has long assumed that in addition to personal benefits, which indeed are incalculable, it seems plausible that congregations help their areas economically, but admits his hunch has been based on mere anecdotal evidence and sentiment.

But now we have some solid data on economic impact. This year an academic journal in this field reported intriguing research by a team led by Ram A. Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. Cnaan, a prolific scholar on the societal effects of non-profit groups in the U.S. and internationally, is the school’s associate dean for research and chairs its doctoral program in social welfare. Cnaan and his colleagues boldly contend that benefits to the community can be assessed in hard dollar terms and that the totals are impressive.

In a preliminary phase of this research, Cnaan looked at 18 economic factors and estimated the rough value of a typical urban congregation’s contribution to the local economy at $476,663 per year. Applying the latest “valuation” theory, the 2013 follow-up examines in greater detail 49 factors in the operations of a dozen Philadelphia congregations, 10 Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish. The team calculates their total economic contribution at $51.85 million a year or an average of $4.32 million per congregation. The researchers assert that the actual impact is very likely greater than that. For instance, they did not estimate the value of lower crime rates and higher housing values when congregations are present; or individual advancement provided through music performance, public speaking, and leadership training; or personal help for neighbors who are not members of the congregation.

The most obvious contribution in dollar terms is a congregation’s annual spending, including building projects. Other points are the worth of religious schooling; “magnet effect” in spending by outsiders attending worship and special events; hourly value of volunteers’ work in the neighborhood; formal social services; informal aid; job training and placement; fostering of local business startups and investment; specific cases of preventing suicide, substance abuse, and spousal abuse; verifiable health benefits; teaching of pro-social values to youths; elder care; and much else.

[Read more...]

What is the moral status of sex outside of marriage?

ANNE ASKS:

Do we have to get married to have sex? What does the Bible teach?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The questioner lives outside the United States, reminding us this affects all devout Christians and Jews (also adherents of Islam and other non-biblical faiths) coping with the “new morality” promoted in entertainment media and western society more generally. The discussion typically treats “premarital sex” among teens and young adults, but Anne is a “mature woman” who believes the Bible teaches sex without marriage is sinful but asks whether that’s true.

The New Testament writers “regularly advised chastity,” writes Yale Divinity School’s Harold Attridge. A couple dozen passages denounce “porneia,” the Greek term for sexual misconduct. We know this identifies behavior apart from adultery (in which one or both partners are wed to others), because 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4 separately assail both adultery and “porneia.” The term is crucial because shunning “porneia” was one of the minimum Jewish moral laws applied to new Gentile converts by Christianity’s first policy council (circa A.D. 50, depicted in the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter 15).

In classical Greek texts, “porneia” typically refers to prostitution. However, experts on New Testament usage tell us it covers a wider range of misdeeds that they translate as “fornication” (sex between unmarried partners), “unchastity,” or simply “sexual immorality.”

Since Christians’ Jewish heritage underlies the Jerusalem Council and the many New Testament condemnations, the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, Christians’ “Old Testament”) and Jewish tradition undergird the experts’ interpretation. Whatever we make of a thorny legal passage like Deuteronomy 22:13-29, it means “consensual sexual intercourse between singles is censured,” according to Conservative Judaism’s “Etz Hayim” commentary. Notably, sex without marriage was deemed so momentous that the couple was required to wed.

The rules became stricter and more detailed in rabbis’ later applications of biblical law assembled in the Talmud.

[Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X