C H R I S T A D E L P H I A N R E S E A R C H
A Critical Analysis of the Christadelphian Belief System
If we are to do a critical analysis of the Christadelphian belief system we need to know what we are critically assessing. The first point to note is that whilst there is widespread conformity, the community isn’t totally void of diversity. There is no official definition of what a true Christadelphian is because there is no official ruling body to make such a definition and no one has a copyright to the name, although there is a point in most congregations beyond which openly holding differing positions leads to action such as disfellowship being taken. For historical reasons the nearest to an official position rests in statements of faith and, to a lesser degree, ecclesial constitutions. Even there many have not read them or given personal assent to them. In addition they have not been translated into all areas where Christadelphians operate. Also without a central ruling body with time some digressions have occurred, there are “conservative” and “liberal” meetings and remnants from various historical divisions remain. Theologically the movement has also changed its stance on several issues, its modes of preaching, its relationship to the wider world, its increase in material goods, attitudes to remarriage, to name a few.
The historical claim of Christadelphians has been that mainstream Christianity is astray on all major doctrines to the degree that salvation cannot be found within “the churches.” These beliefs are why statements of faith were compiled at certain stages in its history and why fellowship was limited to full agreement with all points, both in the positive and the negative. They do not make any sense outside of that context, although many today would feel less certain about being dogmatic themselves that full belief is essential for salvation. They are happier to leave the final judgement to God, allow greater scope for grace to be given for error, but at the same time are still unwilling to reflect that in a wider fellowship position. The community is therefore less certain it alone has “the Truth” and is more willing to consider the possibility other Christians may also be brethren.
The majority however largely hold and maintain the position established by a creedal process that to be a Christadelphian you have to believe certain things. They may not hold the detail of statements regarding elements of the atonement in such matters as “sin in the flesh” or who will be responsible at the judgement, but would nevertheless be adamant that certain key elements at least have to be maintained. Fuller assent is generally emphasised more in some of the smaller breakaway groups which claim the mainstream community has apostatised from its original positions - largely held to be recovered in the positions established by John Thomas and Robert Roberts. The statements of faith are limited in that they do not cover every practical issue historically considered essential too - for instance the role of women or the rejection of evolution - and gaining consensus to alter the statements is functionally impossible without some central body. So as time goes on the cohesiveness of the community is weakening as there are few mechanisms to deal with changes other than division/ rejection of other congregations where differences are judged to be too big to accommodate.
The community has survived in a non hierarchical form fairly well and this can largely be attributed to its defined statements of faith, its exclusive position based on correct beliefs and maintaining that, and its concept of separation from the world, except when unavoidable due to the need to earn income. This leads to the members seeking support amongst themselves as a largely closed, exclusive community and creates a strong status quo that questions any movements to change or question anything. This US-THEM dynamic has also been maintained by the practice of endogamy, or limiting marriage only to fellow Christadelphians with those members “marrying out” disciplined or at least being reprimanded and being required to discuss and admit the sin inherent in their actions.
This section is therefore critically examining the position that is largely held and which largely came into existence through the preaching of John Thomas and the creedal process that limited membership to those who have largely maintained his doctrinal belief set. It should be noted that this is, by and large, the norm. Whilst many in private have reservations and a few more liberal congregations exist this is a minority position. In most congregations being a Christadelphian rests on maintaining certain doctrinal positions largely defined in statements of faith and also adhering to certain beliefs on other practical matters which are not defined within them. For instance speaking on “the platform” is not denied to women in the statements of faith, but few Christadelphians would accept it as allowable.
This section is therefore critically assessing the normal belief that Christadelphianism has been the recovery of the first century gospel and they alone have true Christianity. The method that has been used to “prove” this has been an appeal to the Bible, proof-quoting passages, often combined with a combatitive approach, willingness and desire to debate all comers.
Foundational Principles and their Restorationist Assumptions
So, to use Christadelphian terminology, “do Christadelphians have the Truth?” Are their beliefs essential for salvation and how can their claims be critically assessed? The whole of this site is of course examining this question by looking at how the community works in practice. This section is intended to look more deeply at the theological positions and the underlying assumptions they are built upon.
If we are to accept these claims an immediate issue emerges. It essentially means the saving truth was lost almost from the very start of Christianity until John Thomas re-established it through his search of the Bible and his preaching efforts. Since the very beginning it has been hypothesised that a remnant has always had it, but the historical detail for this has not existed. Early Christadelphains therefore spoke of John Thomas “rediscovering ” it and some attention to the theological significance of this is relevant and discussed on this site. It should be noted most Christadelphians shy away from any consideration he was a prophet or fulfilled that role, although many have spoken of God using him, raising him up or his work as a Pioneer.
These claims of a restoration of the first century gospel are not unique to Christadelphians and are a common one to many groups that are called “restorationist.” Many of these claim direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit to their founders and in this respect the Christadelphians are unique. The restoration of “the Truth” by John Thomas is usually attributed to his search of the Bible and unwillingness to be swayed by any status quo or social acceptance. This lays a huge weight as a result on his rationality, independence of mind and intellectual abilities. An emphasis on rationality and downplaying of any role of emotional intelligence are common Christadelphian features and emotionalism is often believed to be why other Christians get it wrong. Rationalism as a weakness of the intellectualising approach is less commonly acknowledged. The existence of their own social pressures and status quos to conform and the equally strong need for independence of mind this presents has to generally be done outside the community because it has its own set of barriers to this.
In the Christadelphian system true theology is something that can be rationally proven, conversion is primarily through the intellect, and our emotions can be a real source of restraint from finding the Truth. It has therefore traditionally been very intellectual in nature. The obvious objection to this is if salvation is so predicated on correct knowledge, then to some degree the Truth has been hidden behind an intellectual challenge that held back many zealous and devout people until John Thomas came along.
People who were contemporary to John Thomas raised this and it deserves some emphasis. After 150 years we need to recognise that prior to the founder, John Thomas in the nineteenth century, there is no evidence of groups of people with the same beliefs. The theory of remnants existing has now been tested and whilst there is evidence that some people had some of the beliefs, there is no evidence of groups with all the beliefs. That fact has theological significance and requires an explanation for why the
saving truth was lost and why it was recovered. In line with the historical Christadelphian position, partial recovery of essential truths is not sufficient for salvation, nor would incomplete beliefs be considered sufficient for fellowship.
It should be noted this doesn’t mean John Thomas could not have rediscovered the saving truth. It does mean if he was right individuals need emotional detachment to avoid being conformed by a powerful status quo, extremely zealous searching of the Bible and high independence of thought. It is therefore worth some considerations of these concepts and whether they do inevitably lead everyone to the same position. It should also be noted that most other Christians do not believe this, but instead believe God draws people to him through his Holy Spirit influencing them. Christadelphian theology rests considerably on a belief in rationality and independence of thought.
We also have to ask whether the community has found it workable in its own experience. Has the community needed to change from its own foundational principles? Does the community have a theological stance which is consistent with its initial principles? If not, why not? If it has changed, how does that then change explanations for its claim to the right to exist?
The claim of Christadelphians has been that we find the truth out by reading the Bible and appeal to the authority of the Bible. Yet early Christianity started prior to the Bible being completed, it was a taught faith and believers held that the Holy Spirit led people into truth. The claim of Christadelphians has been that that only applied until the New Testament was completed because at that point God’s will had been perfectly revealed. In view of the fact that many other churches do still believe in Christianity as a taught faith and most in some form of present day guidance by the Holy Spirit this area requires further thought. In addition many verses in the Bible speak of a far wider role for the Holy Spirit than simply completing the New Testament, including indwelling the believer and changing them. We also have to consider how the canon came into existence and the availability of the Bible. How, after all, could a perfect Bible maintain belief if most people could not access or afford it or have the time to read it. It requires us to consider the question of how the Bible alone could have worked prior to printing and the translation of the Bible into our common tongues. We have to wonder whether in fact its role in the Protestant
Reformation led to it being given a position that cannot be sustained by history and reason.
The obvious difficulty is that many people read the Bible and yet believe it promotes different things. However infallible the Bible may be, what is clear is that it doesn’t interpret itself. Having an authoritative Bible and reading it lots doesn’t make people or communities infallible at interpreting it. The historical reason given for the recovery of “the Truth” was the uniquely independent thinking of John Thomas. Apparently despite centuries of diligent and pious men seeking to find and understand God they lacked this quality. We have to wonder why God chose such an academic method and why such independent thinking is necessary. What do we make of verses which clearly state all who seek him will find him? Certainly we cannot take the Christadelphians on faith and in fairness they would suggest we read the Bible for ourselves and not take them on faith.
We therefore need to consider what is involved in interpreting the Bible. The major way Christadelphians seek to prove they are right is through proof quoting of Bible verses and making arguments based on the root meanings of words.
Before we accept proof quoting of the Bible as a valid method, we have to consider first the way it is believed to be inspired. In other words has it one consistent message? Are there progressions in theology? Were the personalities of the writers involved in any way? Early in Christadelphian history an internal examination of the question of how inspiration works was closed down after the question was raised and the statement of faith was altered to reflect that. This was known as “The Inspiration Controversy” and differing views on how inspiration works were labelled as “partial inspiration.” Even if we accept a belief in rigid inspiration, proof quotes of themselves have to be read in their immediate context. That means often whole paragraphs or chapters need to be read. In addition other churches can present opposing verses which means those chapters need to be read too. What happens if they still seem to oppose? Well this is when what Christadelphians would call balancing the Bible comes in. In some cases the explanations don’t fit well and books have been written such as Wrested Scriptures trying to iron out the difficulties and teach people how to counter them. However we look at it trying to find out whether Christadelphian theology fits what the Bible says requires a complete contextual grasp of the Bible which can take years to achieve. In fact many Christradelphians who read three passages a day have weak areas, verses they can’t explain well and some will be honest and admit privately “there are grey areas.” Yet as a community it has a position where its starting point and basis of salvation is one which can take years to achieve.
But it doesn’t end there, because Christadelphians maintain certain words aren’t translated well. They suggest the translators had bias and we need to look at the root meanings of words such as the devil and hell. The difficulty here is that to get into the word meanings we need to be accomplished at understanding the semantics of language. If we can’t even trust translators it simply creates an even greater level of academic need. We really do have to ask what the essence of Christianity is about and how Christadelphians can really be so bold as to suggest they alone have the Truth and to claim the right to disfellowship those within their ranks who dare to question anything.
The aim of this section will be to progressively explore some of the issues here more deeply, including what is actually written in the Bible. The only real personal way would be to read the Bible for yourself. This requires considerable academic study over an extended period to do so critically, to overcome the limitations of proof-quoting and to be able to explore the “balancing the Bible” concept. Once we grasp this we can understand why amassing theological knowledge and assessing scriptural claims is therefore very much involved with any association with the Christadelphians. In a way to look at Christadelphian theology is to enter a consideration of theology in general. Since huge volumes on systematic theology have been written this is evidently an involved and complex matter. The aim therefore of this site is not to do the same, but to try and tease out relevant points of consideration that can aid research. Due to the interlapping nature of any investigation and although specifically tailored to Christadelphian beliefs (or theology) it will inevitably consider a number of areas and issues of interest to other denominations which have similar origins and approaches.
The claim of individual Christadelphians is that they have “proved it to themselves” and their challenge is that this is what others should do also. I think we should also be aware not to automatically embrace the Christadelphian idea that creates this huge need to be a Biblical scholar. We can also ask, what spirit does this approach create? How well does it work in practice? What if conversion comes from any direct action by God on the heart or an experience? And what if the community has created an approach which misses the wood for the trees? What if the basics of salvation are far simpler and more about a relationship with God and repentance? What if the gospel has never revolved around the ability to be able to rationally prove everything?
Whilst all churches have their theologians and scholars, a big difference between Christadelphians and many other Christians is therefore their emphasis on all members growing spiritually through a primarily academic approach and the degree to which progress is believed to come through being a Bible scholar. It should also be noted that this emphasis and approach has also affected the tone of the community in other ways from how people relate to each other, as well as how worship and everyday religious life is conducted. In some ways it has also been rightly argued that there is an underlying atheist appeal in the idea that everything can be proven which if true would dispense any need for faith. From personal experience I know not everything fits what Christadelphian teach. To explain that would require writing a large book and being very careful which words to use in order not to be misunderstood. Many Christadelphians privately will acknowledge years in “the Truth” have made them aware everything isn’t as black-and-white as they were taught initially. You learn even well regarded Christadelphians can’t convincingly explain certain verses away and many times bits which are inconvenient are made to fit.
A practical difficulty is that it creates a system of intellectual spiritual elitism based upon knowledge and the ability to debate scripture. In general as a community reading the Bible as individual members is more exhaustive than in many other denominations. They therefore often have a knowledge of the Bible other Christians do not possess and will use this knowledge (sometimes forcefully) to suggest other Christians not only are wrong, but are not saved as they may believe. Their approach therefore often has the difficult combination for non Christadelphians (both Christian and non Christian) of being not only contentious, but highly academic and very complex for those without comprehensive Biblical knowledge to assess. It also leads to a phenomenon where interested friends can attend for years without becoming Christadelphians because there can be a very real difficulty to becoming fully convinced as a true believer.
Progress of Theology and the Bible
At the heart of Christadelphian interpretations of the Bible is a certain view of the Bible. It is the historic Protestant one that views the Bible as “the Word of God” and “the authority.” In essence every word, unless obviously metaphoric, is believed to be the literal words of God written down. This is believed to be through inspiration, but the authors are merely tools in this process. The message is believed to be unaffected in its literality by their circumstance, personality and time.
The problem here is the Bible itself. It can’t easily be fitted into such an interpretative framework. In short there are both variances and progressions within it. The Christadelphian response is a belief in “balancing the Bible,” but this has the effect of wresting certain passages from their obvious meanings, whilst ironically still holding they take it at word value. The ability to intellectually do this is known as rationalism.
The biggest progressions are found between the Old Testament and the New Testament, although there are variances in the Old Testament too. For instance, in early parts of the Bible multiple marriage is allowable and building altars was a valid religious form of expression. Few Christians would support the first or do the second today. We also have a progression in God’s methods. The first period is up to the Flood Account. If we take the genealogies literally this is about 2000 years. For this period they don’t have a defined plan to get to God, or at least we have no record of one. The earth ends up corrupt. Everyone apart from one family, Noah and his sons, are destroyed and we get the second start.
God’s plan this time works through the Jewish nation and centres around their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This time the method centres around promises to their descendants, but they also get a national code of conduct called “the Law of Moses.” This revolves around laws regarding behaviour, what foods can be eaten, animal sacrifices, the treatment of women and slaves, a national priesthood, how God should be approached and much more. It does not deal with how a person can be saved and in fact this topic gets pretty small space in the Old Testament. Hence when we get to the time of Jesus we find groups arguing over the matter.
Some books are history. Some books are their hymn books, like the Psalms. Some are very philosophic such as Ecclesiastes. A huge percentage are prophetic. The Law of Moses had made the claim that if the Jews would obey they would get blessed above all nations. The seasons would be favourable to their crops. They would be successful in battle with their enemies and so forth. On the other hand if they did not obey they would be oppressed by their neighbours, plagues and diseases would abound and eventually they would go into captivity. The prophets were folk who preached national repentance to avert the oppression coming from their more powerful neighbours, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They did bizarre stuff to try and get listened to and were persecuted and hated. They therefore predicted destruction, but with an undernote. Although the Jewish people would go into captivity, one day a remnant would return and the Jewish people would again get their land back and be powerful. Harking back to promises given to their forefathers they expected through the Jewish nation all nations to be blessed. Christadelphians focus on these prophecies as a main element of the saving gospel and see a fulfilment in the return of the Jews back to Israel in 1948.
This is the context of the New Testament from a Jewish perspective, except they weren’t looking for a fulfilment in 1948. They expected it then. There had been some aspect of return in one sense already. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recall this happening under the Persians. The temple, which was the centre of their worship and a necessary part of keeping the law of Moses had been rebuilt to a lesser degree than the first temple and a later one built under Herod, a governor. Some respect for Jewish ways had also been given by the Romans who ruled at the time of Christ. But in the biggest sense they hadn’t regained their land back and this is what they would have been looking for. Indeed this has been the foundation of the Zionist movement which worked towards the restoration of Israel in 1948 and which was achieved. We also have prophecies in the book of Ezekiel prophesying an immense temple which has never been built, with measurements, with a restoration of animal sacrifices, run by the Levitical tribes of Israel. This again is believed to be fulfilled literally, although the references to Levitical Jews were suggested by Christadelphian pioneers to be metaphoric of “a class of people.” They expected the restoration therefore to be a Jewish one based on the restoration of the Law of Moses.
We get a gap of about 300 years between the last book of the Old Testament and the New Testament and we get presented with a unique character called “John the Baptist.” He is following a practice called “baptism” and which is representative here of repentance. His mission was to prepare hearts for the Messiah who everyone was expecting. Most would have expected this person to have overcome the Romans taken in its historical context. He meets Jesus and announces he was the man and baptises him as requested by Jesus himself.
The message that Jesus proclaims is “the kingdom is at hand” and the kingdom from an Old Testament perspective was “the kingdom of Israel.” It was the territory roughly where Israel is today. However he also calls it by a new name, “the kingdom of heaven.” Christadelphians are often at pains to suggest this doesn’t mean the kingdom is “in” heaven, it only “pertains” to heaven. Nevertheless it is a new emphasis and means something. In any case, the disciples go out with this message throughout Israel and Christ also tells parables (stories with deeper meanings) starting with “the kingdom of God is like unto.” He heals people, raises the dead and teaches. These teachings are extreme in nature, but not in a violent sense. A person should give to anyone who asks, turn the other cheek if they are hit, forgive an unlimited number of times and if they are really serious give all their worldly resources to the poor to get blessings in heaven. These are known as “the hard sayings” because we find his disciples querying him whether anyone can therefore be saved. Christ says yes, it’s impossible for men, but possible for God and he is portrayed as living the impossible life himself, having “no place to lay his head.”
He gets extreme opposition from Jewish leaders who question his authority. He quotes passages that apply to God in the Old Testament and applies them to himself. He is the shepherd of Isaiah. We have to note here one of the main groups of leaders were known as the Pharisees. The word means “separatist” and they held the view that they had gone into captivity as a result of disobedience to the law. They therefore believed they should follow it to the letter and were very legalistic about doing so. The law was fairly brief on certain aspects. You weren’t, for instance, allowed to work on the Sabbath (the Saturday or 7th day), but work wasn’t defined. You could put away your wife for uncleanness, but that wasn’t defined, so they had a tradition of interpreting these matters. Jesus portrayed them as lacking love and mercy and saw their attempts as detracted from more important matters. The common folk agreed and his straight talking, common person approach was unlike the technical, intellectual stuff they had from the leaders. Jesus explained their theology as burdensome and his as releasing. His theology suggested a deeper level than the letter of the law, that of the heart. From their perspective this was often a negation of the law and they saw it also as a challenge to their own authority. Jesus said for instance “ye have heard it said eye for eye and tooth for tooth, but I say unto you.” This wasn’t some abstract hearing he referred to. It is actually a quote from the Law of Moses.
The end result we read is that he was crucified and then brought back to life. It seems that no one expected this to happen. The leaders of the Jews did not, but it was equally surprising to his disciples too. We read how he told his disciples prior to the event it had to happen, but they "didn’t understand the saying", apparently thinking it to be another mystical saying of his. After all, on another occasion he had said they had to eat his body and drink his blood. We read that they only understood when he “opened the book” to them after rising from the dead. He explained in other words how it fitted into the Old Testament. The reason why this was so difficult for them to see is because it was an esoteric way of interpreting the Old Testament and this method can be seen throughout the New Testament. (this needs its own study). It wasn’t clearly spelled out in everyday language.
After this we read he spoke for 40 days to his disciples and then ascended to heaven. Angels appear and promise he would come back in the same way. Little detail is given of what he said, except that they had to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. This came at a Jewish festival called Pentecost and this is the point at which the Christian gospel about the death and resurrection of Christ starts to be preached and “the church” starts. The disciples gain boldness to preach, are able to do miraculous stuff and they promise the Holy Spirit would be given to everyone afterwards. This was portrayed as Christ himself being with them. They immediately share all their possessions, meet every day and go into active preaching mode. The idea that Jesus - who had been put to death - had been raised alarms the authorities and they try and stop the disciples activities. It eventually leads to them leaving Jerusalem in substantial numbers and going through the Roman Empire with the message.
They don’t have a written Bible, but they do believe God is leading and guiding them and what they wrote is in the New Testament. In fact much is written by one particular disciple, Paul. He wrote about the law being perfect for its purpose, that being, not the slaughter of animals and obedience to codes of conduct. Rather it had a deeper purpose which lay within its symbolism. On some level a person had to grasp that and thereby come to Christ. Again it is all very esoteric. It is even spoken of as “hidden” in the New Testament and their belief was in the Holy Spirit. God and Jesus through this drew people to repentance and Christ, they became “new creations” and changed people in a way the law could not. Quotes about this are profuse, but are generally denied by Christadelphians. This is because they impose an Old Testament view onto the New Testament and they also believe the Holy Spirit was primarily about special powers (which they see no evidence for) and which they believe the creation of the canon negated any need for.
Please appreciate writing this section is involved, so this is a preliminary start and more details will be added with time.
VIEW THE MIND MAP
PAGE VISITS FROM 16/09/13
THE TRINITY HURDLE
NOVEL: HOLY BIBLE
You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.
(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted
by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)
The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…
(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in
The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)
(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,
quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)
Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.
(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)
Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!
(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)