Informed dissent: Study shows Christians often disagree with church teaching

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Despite criticism that Christianity is authoritarian, a recent study shows that significant numbers of believers disagree with their churches’ teachings on controversial social issues.
A survey released June 9 by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 72 percent of religious Americans believe it’s OK to disagree with church teaching on abortion, and 63 percent believe the same about homosexuality.
Those numbers reflect the difficult task many churches face in trying to maintain an authoritative voice in an ever-shifting culture.
According to some people of faith around Northeast Mississippi, the study also expresses the tension between authority and conscience, and shows there’s a place, among even the most committed Christians, for informed dissent.

Informed conscience
The Roman Catholic Church is widely considered the most authoritarian of all Christian denominations. The church teaches that abortion is a grave sin, and some bishops have openly criticized Catholic politicians running on pro-choice platforms.
The Public Religion survey showed, however, that 60 percent of Catholics disapprove of bishops chastising pro-choice politicians, who in some cases have threatened to withhold communion, even though it’s within their authority to do so.
“Jesus said we are to admonish sinners, but not publicly judge them,” said Leonard Bowen, a lay ecclesial minister at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New Albany.
Although he believes abortion is wrong, Bowen acknowledges that it’s a complex issue. Like many social questions, Bowen said, abortion has ceased to be a black and white issue for many Catholics, and he believes they’re increasingly willing to grant the same ideological latitude to those running for public office.
On the other hand it’s not surprising, according to another local minister, that people of faith would disagree with their church’s position on such a controversial topic, given the diverging opinions to which people today are exposed.
“It’s not that people are necessarily smarter, it’s just that they have access to so many conflicting ideas,” said the Rev. Ricky Young, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Tupelo. “It only takes about four mouse clicks to find somebody who agrees with you, regardless of how right or wrong you are,” said Young.
According to the survey, two-thirds of evangelicals believe they can disagree with their church’s teaching on abortion and yet remain a member in good standing. Forty-seven percent said the same about homosexuality.
Lee Oswalt is encouraged that the marketplace of competing religious ideas is robust, even if some of those ideas are deeply flawed.
Respectful disagreement can serve to reaffirm orthodoxy, Oswalt said, adding that when committed people of faith have the courage to dissent good things can result.
“The church really teaches two things,” said Oswalt, who is Catholic. One is that the church as a whole cannot err on issues of faith and morals. The other, Oswalt said, “is that the faithful should follow an informed conscience.”
An informed conscience, she explained, means that a person has thoroughly examined an issue and has made a sincere attempt to embrace the church’s teaching. If somebody meets those criteria and still can’t assent to the church’s position, Oswalt said, one might conclude that “the greater sin is to act against your conscience.”
According to the Public Religion survey, Catholics are more liberal than the general public, including evangelicals, on the issue of homosexuality. Oswalt, for example, disagrees with the church’s teaching that being gay is intrinsically disordered.

Different contexts
Authority means different things within different ecclesiastical contexts.
Most Protestants prefer to talk about the authority of scripture rather than the authority of the church, and according to the Public Religion survey, the way someone reads the Bible is a good indicator of where they stand on social issues.
The survey showed that 60 percent of those who interpret scripture literally are strongly opposed to abortion and homosexuality.
That rang true to Les Riley, a member of Christ Community Church, a reformed congregation in the Calvinist tradition in New Albany.
“I believe a person should read the Bible for what it says, rather than trying to impose their own agenda,” said Riley, whose grassroots initiative “Personhood Mississippi” has succeeded in getting an item on the November ballot which would amend the state’s constitution to say that life begins at fertilization.
Whereas Catholics ultimately look to the College of Bishops and Rome for guidance, evangelicals and many mainline Protestants rely more on local leadership.
According to Young, a document called “The Baptist Faith and Message” is the closest thing Southern Baptists have to a universal creed. Based partly on that document, he said, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a group of deacons to confront a church member who publicly disregarded church teaching.
According to Will Rambo, whether or not one feels empowered to disagree with the church usually depends on how closely one identifies with the prevailing ethos of the local leadership or the overall posture of the denomination.
“Particularly among evangelicals, so much identity is bound up in the local church,” said Rambo, associate pastor at The Orchard in Tupelo. The Orchard is a United Methodist congregation and therefore it’s technically a mainline Protestant church, but in many ways it looks like an evangelical community.
Members of The Orchard are proudly Methodist, but their identity as part of the denomination doesn’t exclusively define them. They’re not ashamed of their denomination, Rambo said, but Orchard members realize how blind allegiance to a denomination can stifle openness to the Spirit.
“When churches make decisions based on what’s best for the denomination, rather than what’s best for the kingdom of God, it makes me nervous,” said Rambo.
There’s a tendency, said Bowen of St. Francis in New Albany, especially among American Christians, to think that their faith ought to function as a democracy. That isn’t necessarily so, he said, adding that the majority isn’t always right when it comes to deciding controversial issues.
Bowen is encouraged, however, by what he called a renewed emphasis on adult learning in the Catholic Church, a conviction that being well informed isn’t just a matter of learning the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in elementary Sunday school.
“The goal, I suppose, is to be mature and knowledgeable, even when we find ourselves in disagreement with the church,” said Bowen, laughing. “On the other hand, we’ve gotten so individualistic. We’re all on our little adventures.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com.