CHRISTADELPHIAN RESEARCH

An exhaustive and authoritative investigation into the Christadelphians with links from their own sources as well as insights from former members. Complete examination of their history, organisation, theology, practices, and the challenges they face.

Christadelphian History

CHAPTER 5:  Wrestling With the Need for Change

The Christadelphians in common with many restorationist groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists and members of the former Worldwide Church of God call their belief set, “The Truth.”  Historically it has defined itself by its differences to “mainstream Christianity” which was held to be an “apostasy.”  In fact “maintaining the Truth” has a lot to do with why Christadelphians have survived as a distinct community and was behind the formulation of statements of faith.

The community was also formed on the basis that it was a restoration of the true Christian gospel and that all other churches were in error.  Although in many places the boldness that all other Christians are outside the pale of salvation has diminished it is still very prevalent.  It has not only been embedded within creeds, but also by the status quo and by members maintaining an emotional detachment from the rest of the world.  This emphasis on “maintaining the Truth” has led to a community which resists change, not only in doctrine, but also in procedure and has established its own set of traditions.  This rigidity makes it hard for the community to adapt even to the changing needs of its own members and I believe research would show mental difficulties and depression are high.  Research into the Jehovah’s Witnesses which creates a similar mindset shows this.  Many members and ex-members also struggle with isolation too, particularly those who are single for whatever reason.

The problem of course with defining one’s group in a rigid way and proclaiming salvation requires the acceptance of a position or defined statement of faith has been that it makes change difficult.  How after all can saving truth change??  It also loses the reason for its establishment.  Despite these hurdles the community is now wrestling with the need to change.

Here are the major reasons why:

1.  Death by Cold Intellectualism and Institutionalisation

Christadelphian beliefs and practices are distinctly the result of a rationalist Victorian mindset.  Their influence is not first century Christianity of any kind.  First century Christians believed in being led by the Holy Spirit.  They never had the idea of the Bible alone.  They never sung Methodist style hymns or had people with suits on platforms giving formal lectures to a seated audience.  Christadelphia has resisted change for 150 years and it shows.  It has traditions.  It has structures that resist change.  It has attitudes that resist change.  It views all change with suspicion, but there is now difficulty maintaining conformity against the need to change.  The community is beginning to wrestle with this and various factors are coming into play to make it inevitable.

Its style has been a very intellectual type of Biblical exegesis.  This does not inspire generally and is very dry.  Anything more lively has tended to be viewed with great suspicion and be seen as too “happy clappy” or “evangelical” but the reality is many members have a thirst for something more than this.  Quite simply it does not meet their spiritual or emotional needs.  It satisfies their intellectual needs, but even then much is simply more doctrinal proving.  The speakers today are generally less knowledgeable in intellectual terms and more shallow than the foundational members.  This tends to be true for those who follow on from the foundational leaders of most denominations.  Any movement that tries to recreate the past or maintain it unaltered has this problem.  A living community has to live and life means change.

The intellectual nature of the Christadelphian community has always limited its appeal and that was noted from its start.  That is why periodically within the community people have looked towards the idea of the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer to create a “heart” element.  Some elements of the community see the solution as more Bible reading.  Others increasingly see that has been part of the problem and recognise that alone will always be a primarily intellectual approach.

Quite simply though conservative Christadelphia has lost the zeal, energy and life to reform itself back to some earlier state, although some individuals and small breakaway groups still see that as the solution.

2.  Impact of the Modern World

Although Christadelphians have distinguished themselves by their unique theological positions, in moral terms they have generally had mainstream Christian positions.  Today that has changed in mainstream society and many of the challenges they face are secular ones.  For instance homosexuality is widely accepted, evolution is more widely considered “proven” and traditional views on the role of women and family in society have changed.  The laws of society have altered in tandem to reflect this and whilst the community has within its own boundaries freedom of religion, it is less socially acceptable to express much of what they have historically believed outside.  In some cases it can even affect the ability to keep paid employment.

It is hard to maintain the views that Christadelphians historically have believed and on all levels that has created incongruities.  On some of these issues liberal dissenters would like change and some claim that in fact conservative values were not Biblical at all.  That the Bible for instance does not require women to be quiet in church or wear hats.  That homosexuality is allowed by the scripture.  That more tolerance should be shown to those who get divorced and remarry.  That perhaps a literal understanding of scripture has been inaccurate and evolution should be accepted and Genesis understood in a more esoteric sense.

In material terms too the Christadelphian community has embraced ownership of the things of the world.  It’s historical claim has been that it is “in the world but not of it” but as noted on one website recently by a Christadelphian youngster it seems more often “of the world but not in it.”  Many Christadelphians show incongruity between what they believe and promote and how they actually engage in everyday life.  They talk about Jesus returning imminently, but will take on a pension plan or a big house on a 30 year mortgage.  On one level they believe what they say, but by their actions deny it.  Many early Christadelphians by contrast thought it inappropriate to even own their own meeting places.

Reformation back to early Christadelphian beliefs and practices is therefore very difficult because even the traditionalists have “compromised with the world” in certain ways.  There are few who are unspotted enough to lead such a reformation on the bases of both doctrine and worldly separation.

3.  Failure of Prophetical Expectations

Christadelphia was set up 150 years ago with a strong apocalyptic focus.  Current events were portrayed as reaching the climax of prophecy and the return of Christ.  The book of Revelation was read as a 1800 year historical timeline in symbol with only the seventh vial remaining to be opened out of a whole series of symbols fulfilled.  Dates put forward by the founder, John Thomas, expected the return of Christ by 1866 and later extended to 1906 with a seventh millennium starting in 1910.  Subsequent speculations have continued, few of which have turned out to be accurate.  Literally volumes on failed expectations and inaccurate speculations could be compiled from past Christadelphian magazines, booklets, Milestones magazines and past titles and adverts for public talks.  The messages have generally focused on aligning contemporary events to a final invasion of Israel by Russia leading to Armageddon and the soon return of Christ to set up a kingdom on the earth as the central message of the gospel.  Contemporary political events have been interpreted as “signs of the times.”  Although the interpretation of current events has had to be constantly re-interpreted as speculations have failed to prove accurate, one expectation shared by many Christian groups has occurred.  This is the return of the Jews to Israel.  It should also be noted that the broad sequence of final events does remain the same for most Christadelphians.

Most Christadelphians are unfazed by the constant failure of speculations to have been accurate or timely.  Some would suggest the Bible was written by God deliberately to create the impression for people at all times that they were in the “time of the end.”  “Soon” after all for God doesn’t mean what “soon” means to us and they would note that the Bible says that “to God a thousand years is as a day.”  The failures of interpretation of contemporary events can therefore be justified because God intended us to misinterpret both the timing and also the interpretation of events.  He also presumably didn’t mind speculations being used to create a sense of urgency to try and convict people of the Christadelphian faith.

To note these facts to some Christadelphians is thought to be to mock.  But this fails to acknowledge an important point.  The kingdom has not come as expected or when expected for 150 years now.  It doesn’t mean that inevitably the broad expectations are wrong, but what it does mean is that for 150 years members have had to live in this life.  They haven’t been removed from this world.  They have needed to earn incomes and have had to wrestle with the realities of life.  Those who have diligently believed these proclamations have sometimes lost opportunities to get partners, have forfeited careers, have sometimes suffered financial hardship, and have never received apologies from the community.  They simply bought into a reality that was not a reality - at least as promoted.  So when the Christadelphians speak of the end times and how the kingdom is going to come, we should note that based on what has been said by them in the past they really do not know.

Our modern world is fraught with problems of an unparalleled nature from peaking resources to global warming.  It has to be acknowledged the difficulties the world faces are unprecedented.  This serves to intensify apocalyptic expectations, but it should be noted that if the kingdom does not come as expected (and there are reasons to believe it won’t) then it is reality that has to be dealt with.  And the community does face some real difficulties ahead they are not prepared for.  These in general are not acknowledged because the whole focus is to simply talk about things getting worse and worse.  The ability to change anything now is minimised despite us actually having more power than that.  Any real difficulties within the movement tend to be seen as yet another sign of a “falling away” and yet more proof the end of the present system of things is at hand.

This article is therefore looking at the challenges facing the community if Christ does not return as expected or the kingdom doesn’t come in the “way” expected.  It considers the elements the community will need to deal with.  In fact the community is already having to wrestle with them.

4.  The Internet

The survival of the community in its present state has been due to being a very closed system.  Involvement with mainstream society (called “the world”) has been discouraged and dissenters have been disfellowshipped or excluded.  It is no longer possible to use traditional means of church discipline such as disfellowship or exclusion to stop the discussion of issues or without having to justify them.  This structure is no longer as watertight as it was, particularly with the advent of the internet and the way it gives dissident voices means of expression.  The young in particular have access to critiques and points of views which previously they would not be likely to encounter.  Since Christadelphia has for a long time primarily recruited from within this is significant.  With more access to information too more people also want the freedom to discuss issues more openly which was in fact a desire the founder John Thomas required for himself when he was in another denomination.

An awareness that something is seriously wrong is growing.  The community has lost a degree of certainty it is right on all matters.  Whilst many are going through the motions and most of the community is still very conservative change is on its way.  The community is beset by liberals questioning stuff, ex members forming websites and support groups, youngsters not joining, a more challenging worldly situation, and it has no power to seemingly respond to all of this.  Meetings are increasingly aged.

5.  No Central Organisation

The community is vulnerable because it doesn’t have any form of central organisation.  Christadelphians have frequently emphasized their non-hierarchical structure as a strength and as a lay structure it has been very successful in some respects.  It doesn’t however allow more freedom of thought as commonly suggested.  It actually requires more conformity, because the structure only works on the basis of a strong status quo.  This means discussing stuff that doesn’t fit the accepted paradigm is not only controversial, but can easily threaten the stability of the community.  This means historically difficult issues that need discussing cannot be discussed openly or honestly.  Added to this, many of the members are inter-related because the community has frowned on marrying outside the community.

The community started largely in Britain and America and to a lesser extent in Canada and New Zealand.  Christadelphians can now be found in most countries.  In its historical heartlands it is in big decline with many congregations elderly and its younger members concentrated in certain congregations.  After its initial recruitment phase the community became very insular and most recruitment has come from within.  Quite simply, the children are becoming less eager to join the movement, despite the huge effort the movement puts into trying to meet their needs through activities specifically tailored for them.  This is particularly true in the many areas where congregations are few in number.  To become a Christadelphian means to accept isolation very often, it can be hard to find partners and increasingly means taking on worldviews and attitudes culturally very different to the rest of society and with all the attendant difficulties that brings.  As a community structured around lots of little congregations, there can also be a lack of emotional and physical support.  These difficulties would be portrayed generally if expressed as an unwillingness to “take up the Cross” rather than any weaknesses in community, approach or organisation.  Again, any community which believes it has all the Truth feels little need for self examination.

Approaches Being Taken

This section describes the various changes occurring.  There are an increasing amount of extra-congregational organisations as well as polarisation around online forums.  Many of these organisations have set positions and represent a movement away from ecclesial autonomy.  This is probably a response to try and deal with the various issues that have arisen.  It is out of step with the original Ecclesial Guide, but may be inevitable as the community wrestles to find ways forward for both itself and members.

Taken together the community faces unprecedented difficulties and is unlikely to survive in its historical forms.  Only a few remnants of small breakaway groups (such as the Bereans) represent that and they tend to elevate the pioneer Christadelphian founders to a status similar to that of Church Fathers in orthodox Christianity.  The community will in all likelihood decline in most areas, may divide further, some areas may just fade away, but some new strains may emerge.  There is a dearth of real leadership in almost all of Christadelphia to address the difficulties the community faces.  The parts which seek to be more traditional will probably seek to become more insular, those which are more liberal will move closer to mainstream Christianity and have more in common.  There is a chance Christianity could get more aggressive in promoting some of its historic values and even conservative Christadelphians may find it necessary to form some alliances there.  There is a chance the feeling of powerlessness could enhance a feeling of doom and some parts may get more apocalyptic.

1.  Escapism and More Insularity

This is largely the response by the conservative elements of Christadelphia which still comprises the majority of the community.  They largely control the historical inter ecclesial organisations and so can limit activity by elements that are either considered too liberal or who seek to reform in stronger ways.  They have their own websites, but have significantly failed to setup large forums which are the major medium where interaction takes place online.  The reason is heavily censored forums simply don’t interest even Christadelphians who secretly are interested in reading the heretic opinions and stuff.  They do have doubts and secret thoughts the mainstream community doesn’t allow expression to.  The internet provides a medium where different perspectives and views can and are explored often in considerable depth.  This also explains why ex Christadelphian sites are often getting higher readerships than mainstream Christadelphian ones.

Historically the community started as an aggressively vocal community preaching for other churches to re-examine their doctrines, but after having a series of schisms it became very inward looking.  It therefore adopts a lot of escapism.  It does not feel bold enough to preach repentance or challenge the world on its values openly.  That has never been its emphasis anyway.  Morality has always been based more on following rules of behaviour, rather than developing a sense of inner change.  Having become very insular it also has a fear of the world.  Christadelphians are generally very peaceful folk and with a high belief in the evil of the world and with multiple challenges it isn’t surprising they want to hide away even further.  This is true for other very closed groups such as the Amish and the Hutterites.  They also have too much to lose and in its present form (albeit considered very strange) they are tolerated by society and have gained acceptance as a church denomination.  To put it simply members have by and large accepted all the material benefits that developed societies enjoy.  The conservative members largely want a comfortable cocoon with an occasional tokenary preaching effort or leaflet drop to convince themselves they are preaching.

They don’t want to rock the boat.  They don’t want to challenge society on its values too openly or strongly because they are accommodated to the comforts of the world and won’t risk persecution.  Many of their members live in the better areas, are well educated, intelligent and have the self satisfaction of believing they have “the Truth” whilst contributing little to the wider society.  To a large degree the attitude has become that of “preserving what remains”.  This means the brunt of the problems are faced by the young.  Whilst the older members can enjoy the comforts of defending doctrinal certainties after enjoying the benefits of modern society they leave a younger generation to struggle with the problems of making their way in a more adverse world.  It is therefore no surprise to find the young more reluctant to commit to a faith which increasingly seems irrelevant and archaic.

It is therefore a community which often feels in a position of powerlessness to trends in society.  It wants to act on the surface as though it is part of society and show its reasonableness.  In its early days it exhibited an aggressiveness and contentious approach which was mostly directed towards other forms of Christianity, but society in general was more accommodated to its moral values.  It has therefore softened its approach to mainstream society and sometimes uses an altered approach which historically would have been considered as an “appeal to the flesh.”  For instance, it holds talks stressing the professional qualifications of its members, seeks to influence impressions more through advertising, and tries to attract indirectly through educational events such as seminars.  It is also far more likely to advertise as “Christian,” a label which historically it sought to detach itself from because of its association with beliefs it was opposed to.

One trend (as is the case in other Christian communities too) is an increasing movement towards homeschooling and even establishing their own schools in certain areas which have a high Christadelphian population.  Managing their own schools started in Australia which has the highest proportion of Christadelphians in the world with Heritage College, but may also happen in Birmingham in the UK.  The major reason to do this is to stop the “influence of the world” reaching their children and increase the chances they later become Christadelphians.  They are usually promoted to the wider society on the basis of being a “Christian” school with “Christian” values just like other “Christian” schools and the virtues of honesty, integrity and so forth are emphasised heavily.  This emphasis on being just like other Christians is a notable change of terminology, because the historic position was to emphasise differences and not similarities and some of it is to control perceptions.  The big question that emerges from this is the very real culture shock that can come from being educated away from other members of society and especially for those who don’t embrace the Christadelphian faith.  This is a real concern and can be amplified from the experience of former Christadelphians and ex-members of other similar denominations.  Rules requiring some outside pupils and involvement may limit this in the UK and may lead to some positive changes in approach too.

This element is likely to persist and its membership continue to age, but already is and will continue to decline.

2.  Very Liberal Meetings

Not all of the Christadelphian movement has sought to become more insular and whilst some congregations have become more “conservative” and closed, a very small minority have become more liberal and questioning.  In fact some members are questioning well accepted Christadelphian positions and the internet has opened wider discussion in particular.  This has resulted in some disfellowships of both individuals and entire congregations.  In general the face of the community online is far more liberal than it is in the offline world.

The problem with going in the liberal direction is that not only can it lead to a lack of acceptance with other parts of the Christadelphian community, but there are no boundaries over how far the liberalism can go.  If it leads to a greater cooperation with other churches for instance it starts to lose its Christadelphian distinctiveness.  In addition a changed view of the role of women, the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer or how far an appreciation of grace as the basis of salvation should supplant defined statements of faith may lead to positions even some liberals may feel uncomfortable with.  For instance whether homosexuality should be accepted as valid.  This is a valid objection by the conservative elements, although in practice in more respects than they will readily concede they have changed too from many of the historical positions.

Groups like this are likely to keep cropping up for dissenters, but will not maintain distinctiveness and will struggle to convert anyone because they have a too confused position to explain.

3.  The Evolutionary Christadelphians

There is what at first glance would seem to be a very strange mix.  Christadelphians who are traditional in most of their beliefs, but would like the community to embrace the theory of evolution.  They would suggest they have a lot in common with early Christadelphians who also believed in an old earth.  There is a very small element of truth to that.  The founder John Thomas adopted a minority speculation of his day there was a pre-Adamic creation.  That’s as far as it goes.  He was not an evolutionist and he believed in a re-creation about 6000 years ago.

This is largely inhabited by very highly educated intellectuals in Christadelphia, although many liberals would be open to the idea.  It is a very small segment of Christadelphia and unlikely to ever be significant.  It largely uses the internet to promote its views and its audience is existing Christadelphians.  It’s real connection with Christadelphia is that underlying Christadelphia from its origins is rationalism.  The lack of supernatural beliefs of Christadelphia can be explained by that and are read back into the New Testament in particular.  This was recognised by contemporary critics of John Thomas.  It has to be done more radically to fit evolution in because the theology of sin and a saviour is based on a literal reading of Genesis.  In seeking to do this the evolutionary Christadelphians cannot avoid their obvious non literal readings and are very good at noting how historical Christadelphia has wrested the Genesis account anyway as well as references to demons.

Their movement in fact is away from faith and with an increasing embrace of rationalism most will probably end up as atheists.

It will be too complex and intellectual to explain to outsiders or preach and will not grow.

4.  Duncan Heaster and Carelinks

An interesting anomaly overseas in particular is a new strain of the movement which still holds to conventional beliefs, but has adopted an approach which focuses more on the social situations of adherents.  This has often been opposed by the conservative and historical areas, but has been particularly relevant to the third world where they do get fierce persecution for embracing any form of Christianity and where there are huge material difficulties.  This element of Christadelphia is flourishing, but it is questionable whether it could be transferred to the first world.  This has been headed largely by the efforts of Duncan Heaster and Carelinks Ministries and they are very active preaching in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Third World and the Middle East.  There have been some questions regarding the amount of preparation of converts and their adhesion to doctrines as well as questions about whether fellowship is as restricted as it is believed it should be.  Sometimes baptisms they have conducted have not been recognised elsewhere and in some cases converts have even been required to be rebaptised.

This has managed to start to some degree due to its disconnection geographically from the rest of Christadelphia.  This has meant it hasn’t been held back by much of the traditional approaches which stultify preaching efforts and discourage those who visit.  Despite the hostility mainstream Christadelphia has shown this strain of itself, it may even overtake the mainstream in numbers, although it would be away from its traditional English speaking base.

It enjoys considerable support from liberal elements, but in fact has not departed significantly from mainstream Christadelphian doctrines.

It will continue to grow, but it’s weakness is probably its dependence on the energy and personality of Duncan Heaster, although in his account (link below) some very strong preachers and leaders have emerged.

Further Research

  • Read A Special Article by The Christadelphian magazine.
  • Read Where are we Headed? - a personal perspective by a Christadelphian.
  • Read A History of The Christadelphians in Eastern Europe - by Duncan Heaster.  Duncan is a Christadelphian who has had large preaching success as a result of a more dynamic approach.  At the same time he has attracted fears over the degree to which he has maintained traditional and institutionalised beliefs and practices.  Due to conflict between traditional elements it is possible a new denomination could emerge which could eclipse the historical forms due to their archaism.  For some reason access to this informative article has been now hidden.
  • Read The Decline and Fall of Christadelphian Exegesis - by Dave Burke.  He is correct in his assertion that the community is less knowedgeable and he brings out some other relevant observations.  He notes the community has often had a belief in God having a 7000 year plan with the world and has often been dumbed down by a slavish adherence to word studies and verse-by-verse approaches to understanding the Bible.  It should also be noted that “Brother Thirtle” did not remain a Christadelphian, but gained recognition as a scholar in the wider Christian world.  What’s pretty hard to see, though, is Christadelphia achieving the academic excellence he elevates or the difficulties explaining why God requires everyone to be up to that level.  This dumbing down is also accompanied by the advent of cheap entertainment and online distractions which the community also saw as dangers, but failed to be able to resist.

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