Theological Agreement - Church v Potential Parishioner
December 8, 2017 9:15 AM   Subscribe

My beliefs are still evolving, there is no one denomination whose theology or doctrines I agree with 100%, and I'm not sure how heavily to weigh factors other than theology, either. How do I choose? How much do you have to agree with a church's theology and/or doctrine in order to legitimately be a part of it?

I come from a mixed-faith family, one half of which is non-Christian and one half of which is Catholic -- but I was raised in an atheist home as an atheist.

I have been growing closer and closer to Christianity over the past year or two, and have tried going to a few different churches, in a few different denominations. But I am still confused by a lot of things, even very basic things like Jesus Christ being the son of God (honestly, I don't think I understand what that means). So I consider myself to still be very early in my spiritual/religious journey.

That said, I have tried both Ethical Culture and UU, and while I enjoyed the Ethical Culture services quite a bit and went regularly for a few months, I'm already too religious for "non-religious" churches like that. I have come to believe that I am looking for a specifically Christian church.

I am looking for (ideally) a feeling of communion with God. Also, I am very interested in Bible study. While I have been studying a lot on my own, I would like religious guidance.

Currently, I am most attracted to the Catholic church. What appeals to me is that it's relatively works-based, very structured, I find the beauty of the liturgy very moving, and, in my region, Catholic churches tend to be much more oriented toward charity and justice work than churches of other denominations are. I am a doer, and living my faith through actions out in the real world (whether liturgical actions or actions in the community) really speaks to me. The Catholic church also has a really rigorous path toward conversion, which I prefer -- especially since I would be converting into Christianity in general, not just into Catholicism specifically, and have a TON to think about and learn.

What holds me back is that I find some Catholic doctrine to be misogynistic, inappropriately hierarchical, and even just cruel. Since I think that not treating people equally or with mercy is antithetical to Jesus's teachings, I have a theological problem with it as well as a political/social one.

(I also have some more general theological questions about the nature of Jesus, of God, what transubstantiation is, Paul's role, etc. But I figure those are questions that I will have to learn about over time, no matter the church or denomination).

I had been thinking that if I felt communion with God best and felt I would grow the most spiritually through the Catholic church, then that's the church I should join -- even if I didn't think I could ever fully agree with its theology. But when I was reading Mere Christianity, Lewis started talking about how you should choose the religion/denomination that you don't just prefer, but that you think is factually *correct* in its theology -- and that made me doubt that I was thinking this through in the right way after all.

So ultimately, my questions are: How much do you have to agree with a church's theology and/or doctrine in order to legitimately join it? Should your belief in the factual correctness of a denomination's theology be the deciding factor in determining which denomination to join? (And there is so MUCH theology -- how do you rank theological precepts against each other?). How about over time -- can your personal beliefs differ from the church's and that be legitimate, too? How different is too different?
posted by static sock to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
So ultimately, my questions are: How much do you have to agree with a church's theology and/or doctrine in order to legitimately join it?

I'm no theologian or religious scholar, but it's a question that I've given a lot of thought to myself, so I thought I'd share my opinion in case it's of any help to you.

I think you'll know it if you try to commit to and participate in something that strongly disagrees with your own set of ethics and beliefs. In a way, you're better off in this regard then someone who was raised from birth in a particular religion, because if you start to feel discomfort with something, it's more likely you'll be able to identify the source of it.

Just out of curiosity, in your survey of Christian denominations, did you look into ones that are more closely related to Catholicism than some others, such as Episcopal/Church of England?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:36 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have local access to a more traditional Episcopalian congregation? They explicitly welcome theological questions and, to a degree, variance while retaining some of the feel of a catholic liturgy. And, obviously, there's substantially less misogyny and homophobia.
posted by uberchet at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis may be somewhat helpful in that Lewis describes his own grappling with similar questions.

For myself, as I find that I do not 100% agree with any organization I belong to, I don't hold my church to the same standard. I find that it's kind of case by case. I left a congregation I belonged to for over 30 years because I just couldn't hack the messaging they were giving to the adolescents in the congregation (2 of which were my own sons). I thought it was doing real harm.

Theology - I think there are basics, which are often distilled into creeds and/or catechism. And the more detailed and/or inscrutable they become, the more I personally take them as "inside baseball," and refuse to seriously discuss them, except as "interesting mental exercises." If a matter has been debated among Christians for centuries, I am unlikely to change anyone's mind on it, nor do I feel I need to, nor do these kind of things seem to feel important in how I behave toward others or toward God. And I can *surely* differ from my church on these kind of complex matters.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to answer some questions that may come up again:

Just out of curiosity, in your survey of Christian denominations, did you look into ones that are more closely related to Catholicism than some others, such as Episcopal/Church of England?

Yes, I did (actually, more than one) -- but, unfortunately, they weren't right for me. In other regions it's likely different, but the ones around here are not very engaged with the community (in terms of charity, social justice, etc), and I couldn't find a priest whose sermons spoke to me at all. Basically, I felt like the CoE churches around here wouldn't offer me much opportunity to live Christ's values through participation with the church, and wouldn't satisfy my desire for spiritual growth. #notallCoE ;)

I think you'll know it if you try to commit to and participate in something that strongly disagrees with your own set of ethics and beliefs. In a way, you're better off in this regard then someone who was raised from birth in a particular religion, because if you start to feel discomfort with something, it's more likely you'll be able to identify the source of it.

There are things that Catholic churches have asked of their parishioners that I completely disagree with and refuse to participate in -- such as, I am pro-choice and will not be going to anti-abortion rallies no matter what priest tells me to. That is actually what sent me running from the church as a kid. But nowadays I wonder if I can "agree to disagree" on matters of faith like that, where my moral compass (maybe God?!) takes me in a different direction from the church, and yet still be a Catholic (because I think that the Catholic church may be best suited to bring me, personally, as close to God as I can get). Or maybe that's *not* OK and the church would consider me an apostate, I don't know.
posted by static sock at 10:00 AM on December 8, 2017

Best answer: I am a Catholic who has major disagreements with some Catholic beliefs.
There are a lot of misconceptions, even among Catholics, about Catholic beliefs. For instance, the doctrine of the Catholic church is actually very supportive of personal conscience in many ways. I can't find the quotation right now, but even Pope Benedict, who was very conservative, has made statements about how personal conscience can override papal dictates. Most US priests will all but tell parishioners that using birth control is fine, though I would not say the same for abortion. I am not trying to push you into Catholicism, but if you are drawn to it, I would strongly suggest you make an appointment to talk to a priest. If there are several Catholic churches near you, you can gauge some sense of a church by looking at its website - for instance, you may find that an individual church has groups in place to support LGBT members. If you talk to a priest, just be honest about your issues and doubts. Most priests will be happy to talk to you and will take your questions seriously.
What I would not do is trust what random strangers on the internet tell you about the Catholic church, including current or former Catholics. People think they know everything about Catholic doctrine because they've had eight years of religious education, but you wouldn't consider yourself an expert in any other field after eighth grade. Again, I am not suggesting you should become Catholic, but if that is something you are interested in, the best approach is to talk to a priest.
posted by FencingGal at 10:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

I grew up in an area that was largely Protestant. People changed denominations all the time as they moved around and chose a congregation that they preferred over others. I think visiting a few actual congregations and seeing how that feels may be more useful to you than trying to a priori pick a denomination based on principles. Based on what you've said, I would strongly encourage visiting an Episcopal church or two, and maybe a "high church" Presbyterian or Methodist congregation if such a thing exists where you live.

All that said, I was raised Presbyterian and except for a few years UCC (Congregationalist) have always been Presbyterian. I do not believe in every bit of doctrine, and there are some things that most Presbyterians would say is important to our faith that I don't even find interesting. The main thing that keeps me Presbyterian is not our dogma, but our polity: I believe in our democratic, lay leadership model over more hierarchical episcopal models (with bishops). The main thing that keeps me with my particular congregation is our focus on social justice, particularly our direct service to people experiencing homelessness. Those things keep me coming back even on days when doctrine frustrates me.

On preview, Presbyterianism is not really a denomination that focuses on kicking out or discommunicating people who don't agree with doctrine. I know that Catholics are still refused communion if they don't follow certain rules (i.e., in the US, politicians who support abortion rights have been denied communion).
posted by hydropsyche at 10:05 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Interesting question. I'll speak from my experience a bit and hope that there is something that speaks to you and your faith journey.

I consider myself to be a very liberal Christian, and have recently joined the United Church of Canada. I have attended other churches before, but this the first institution I have formally joined as a voting member. It took a very long time to find a church community that I was comfortable joining, due to my objections and ethics about LGBTQ issues, the environment, and the exclusivity of more conservative denominations. I was raised Catholic but in a nominal way and have similar issues with the Catholic Church (although I quite like the current pope).

Prior to attending my current family community, I attended a fairly conservative Christian congregation with my spouse that didn't go very well (we had no options to move churches at the time).

What I realized attending that church is that I wanted to find place that shared the values I believed to be important, and the theology of a place wasnt as important. For example, women were not allowed to be senior pastors at that church and I firmly believe in women and men having equality.

I would think about what you believe to be your core must have values that are important to you in theology or faith structure, and go look for institutions that align with them. You won't find a perfect match, and it's a personal decision what you are willing to deal with as conflict to your values. For me, the theology (agree that there is so much!) wasnt as important as loving others, social justice, and feeling God working in the faith community. I wasn't willing to consider a church that didn't line up on a couple things (affirming church, social justice program, and welcoming to all).
posted by snowysoul at 10:07 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi. I am a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor. I am not your Lutheran pastor. I am also based in Northern New Jersey and context is, well, everything.

Here in Northern New Jersey, Roman Catholic parishes vary. Within 10 miles of me, there are parishes that have no problem participating in interfaith weddings and others where the sermon will be about how 1 tattoo means you are going to hell. There are priests who will share communion with me and others who will not. Different parishes and different priests will create and hold a different atmosphere that all fall under the umbrella of RCC. For example, I've known priests who wish the RCC would just go ahead and ordain women already and others that believe I'm going to spend quite a bit of time in hell. Basically, the RCC is a pretty big church that can hold a lot of different things. If you are feeling called towards exploring the RCC, I would advise exploring individual parishes and talking to individual priests.

Now, about your wider question, theology informs every part of a community's values. And as a Lutheran, I lean heavily on theology because that's one structure that holds the entire community together. Theology isn't just the minutia of faith. When you are in worship, you are experiencing theology. When you are at work, you will end up living out your theology. To me, theology is trying to articulate a living faith. And once that faith is articulated, that articulation then interacts with that living faith to grow, change, challenge, etc et. Basically, a life of faith is a life where theology is breathed in, breathed out, and then lived-out-loud. It is totally possible to belong to one part of the body of Christ, disagree with some bits that are being preached or shared or expressed, and still have a fulfilling faith life. I know there are people in my own congregation who disagree with some of the theological nuances and points I articulate. We're also a community filled with people who are RCC (and always will be) but have attended our church for decades. I wonder if the community (i.e. the specific parish) is going to be the defining feature for you. There's something about feeling loved, cared for, and that you belong that will help you overlook specific points of view. It's also awesome to be part of a community that recognizes your gifts and encourages you to use them in new and compelling ways. But it's also perfectly okay to get to the point (even years later) where a certain aspect of your faith is just too much to reconcile with the wider organization. And that's okay. I honestly believe that the Holy Spirit can, and does, bring us to the communities we're supposed to be a part of. That sometimes happens in a moment but can sometimes be a process that takes years. Keep praying, ask for the Spirit to guide you, and see what happens.
posted by Stynxno at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2017 [16 favorites]

Episcopal churches vary wildly in terms of ceremony, intensity, and evangelicalism, as well as community involvement. A "high Anglican" church might be more your speed, versus a more laid-back "low church".
posted by ApathyGirl at 10:46 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I took the RCIA within the Catholic Church and chose not to convert so I feel you. People who are already Catholic and I agree(d) on a whole lot but when I came down it I could not as a fully formed (and bi) adult put my name to the roster. My beliefs have shifted since but a Catholic mass still feels like home.

I can’t help you find a church, and I haven’t, but I would say if you haven’t taken the RCIA yet, it might well be worth your time and clarify some things for you. You could do that and still look for alternatives. To share my actual RCIA experience, I thought I would continue to fall in love with the theology of the Church and instead it went the other way...but that was the information I needed, that the actual on the ground discussion was not for me.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:01 AM on December 8, 2017

People changed denominations all the time as they moved around and chose a congregation that they preferred over others.

That was my experience growing up; Mom is a member of the United Methodist Church, but we attended several Baptist churches when the local Methodist congregation didn't feel right to her.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:13 AM on December 8, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, for your incredibly thoughtful answers. I marked as "best answer" the ones that gave the steps that I'm planning to follow through on, regarding where to go next with these questions. But I appreciate hearing everyone's experiences and thoughts, and have been thinking about your answers all day.

Theology isn't just the minutia of faith. When you are in worship, you are experiencing theology. When you are at work, you will end up living out your theology. To me, theology is trying to articulate a living faith. And once that faith is articulated, that articulation then interacts with that living faith to grow, change, challenge, etc et. Basically, a life of faith is a life where theology is breathed in, breathed out, and then lived-out-loud.

So is theology how you act out your spiritual beliefs within the community/world? And the rest of church administration is doctrine? And a mismatch in theology is a potentially big problem, but a mismatch in doctrine isn't so much? Or is that completely wrongheaded...
posted by static sock at 12:35 PM on December 8, 2017

These are some standards I have personally worked out for myself when choosing a religious community.

Bare minimum: if my secular, capitalist, establishment workplace consistently does a better job of giving back to the community and countering racism, sexism, etc in its midst, I don't need to waste my time in that religious community.

Bare minimum: the religious community must state in plain English on its website that it welcomes LGBTQ people, or "regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity" or similar. "All are welcome" or religious jargon that is supposed to get that message across, but in reality most people don't know what it means? Doesn't count.

Beyond that, I have expectations of myself: that I will give time, effort, and monetary donations. And if I feel any kind of conflict of conscience about what I'm supporting when I do that, I either need to be able to have a voice, like being a voting member casting a dissenting vote, or be able to find a niche where I do feel unconflicted about supporting that piece of it.

After seeing your update:

If you're in a denomination that baptizes babies, then as long as you understand theology as well as a baby does, you should be OK to join. I'm serious.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 12:46 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

You listen to yourself and you try on different feelings until you find something that feels right. I don't mean "feels good" necessarily because that is not what church and what religion are for, but that feels right.

Right can be uncomfortable at times, because one of the good things about religion is that it asks one (or it should ask one) to contemplate a moral universe and one's own place in it, and that contemplation is, and should be, at least a little threatening to one's self. But! That's not the same as saying that you have to feel uncomfortable all the time or in significant ways.

I feel like this bit from the blue the other day kind of gets at what I mean: maybe self-care, maybe avoidance: who's to say? The same is kind of true here: only you (and God) can know whether you are being challenged by a theology that is urging you to grow into a newer and better person, and whether you are being stunted by a set of rules that is holding you back in someone else's idea of what you should be.

As far as not believing everything that the Church teaches: you have that in common with literally every practicing Catholic who ever breathed.

Background: I was raised Evangelical fundamentalist protestant, spent (depending how I figure it) between 8-12 years explicitly not a Christian in any sense, and converted to Catholic nine years ago and consider the Church my home, and a fixer-upper at times.
posted by gauche at 12:53 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I wonder what your definition of "joining" a church is. For instance, you can usually sit through services, join Bible Studies and volunteer groups, attend Christmas parties, etc, as a guest. Some churches will let you attend in that capacity for years. Only more special privileges, such as being a voting member or attending certain ceremonies, require some more concrete commitment from you like a baptism. I suggest that if you're not sure, then you should attend your current favorite church in the more superficial capacity, ask a lot of these type of questions at Bible Study, and in a few years have the clarity to make a more firm commitment (or not).
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 2:09 PM on December 8, 2017

Best answer: The Christians I've known who choose to live their faith in the way you're describing (charity and justice work) are Methodists and Unitarians. If they were ever undecided, they sometimes appreciate the beauty and pageantry of the Catholic Mass by attending services around the holidays now, after they stopped trying to reconcile their personal beliefs (civil rights, equality, women clergy, etc.) with Catholic doctrine.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2017

I am a Pagan, and we get a lot of people looking for "the tradition that's right for me." The best advice I can come up with is: Find the people who are right for you. Religions are not made of doctrines and hymns and holiday schedules; they're carried within people, and the other parts are the external framework used to describe and shape the shared experiences they have.

The core experience of a religion is internal. The externalities exist to support that, not the other way around. Find the people who are living the kind of spiritual life you aspire to - the ones who make you think, "I wanna be like THAT when I grow up!" - and let them guide and inspire you.

Of course, you want a church with doctrines that don't make you cringe. But a church whose doctrines make you cringe, is not going to be full of people who feel like your spiritual family.

(Unitarian Universalist doctrine makes me cringe - it sounds like new-agey feelgood pablum - but every UU minister and most UU attendees I've ever met have been delightful, compassionate, deeply thoughtful people. If I were looking for a new spiritual community, I'd start there.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:08 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Committing to a church began with learning to reframe my approach. Instead of starting my journey with the question "How do I pick a church where the theology aligns with what I currently believe?", I opened myself up to the possibility that it was my own deep-seated beliefs and perspectives of morality that merited closer examination. As I see it, to seek God is to seek His full Truth (not just versions or cherry-picked fragments of it), which is bound to be uncomfortable and humbling because the process demands acknowledging the limits of our understanding, learning everything we think we know all over again, and seeing ourselves from His point of view.

I chose the Catholic Church after doing lots of research and readings (the Bible, C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O'Connor, writings of the early Church Fathers, etc.), constantly praying for wisdom and guidance, and starting a theology discussion group in my community where I regularly meet and converse with people of different faiths.

I'm at peace with my decision and my difficulties with certain aspects of the doctrine (i.e. the Catholic position on contraception) have more to do with my own personal struggle to be obedient, less to do with not agreeing with them. I find solace in G.K. Chesterton's observation: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

All the best to you.
posted by tackypink at 6:09 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Mennonite church, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers are all relatively “low church” liturgically, but focused on living out their Christian faith in visible ways. These are the three historical peace churches. If you’re looking for Christians actively working for a better world, you’ll find people like that in these congregations.
posted by epj at 7:43 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am a "cradle" Catholic with 16 years Catholic schooling plus extensive reading and retreat/conference attendance (but still just a lay man). There is so much good stuff above, I would just add a few things that I find valuable, especially in the sense that they are skewed or non-orthodox views that I still find valuable (to your question about whether conformity is a requisite):
  1. the book Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
  2. the story of Father John Tauler in chapter 3 of "Uniformity with God's Will" by St. Alphonsus Ligouri
  3. the priceless (IMO) "reverse" view of the Rapture by Peter Rollins
  4. I really think there is a lot of spiritual wisdom (and bad language) in the Kevin Smith movie "Dogma"
As you probably realize, humans attempt to exert power in all their activities, and did so against Christ himself, unto his torture and death. Therefore I (for what it's worth) take it as my sacred duty to try to do what seems right (though I do a terrible job), even if the Catholic Church happens to disagree on details.

Also, since you have read C.S.Lewis you probably saw his comment that "parish" churches have the advantage that they draw into the liturgy participants from a local area who are bound to be a hodgepodge of jerks, saints, misfits, traumatized, etc. Whereas churches that draw people based mainly on shared theology can end up being homogeneous and/or isolationist.

And, for what it's worth, I am certain God will meet you more than half way in your journey.
posted by forthright at 8:14 PM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a practicing Orthodox Christian woman who teaches Sunday school and is on the church council at my local church, and have been attending regularly for about 13 years now. I'm also pro-choice, feminist, queer and going through a divorce. These are conflicts with some practices and teachings, but they aren't fundamental conflicts with the core of my faith.

When I was in the process of joining the Orthodox Church, in the pastoral lessons with my priest, going over all my doubts about theology, he basically said 'Look, the Nicene Creed, is there anything in there that you cannot say with your whole heart?' and I realised nope, I was caught on the branches, not the trunk.

The rest of my questions and arguments were exactly that, side arguments that the church with its many many mothers and fathers has been having across the centuries and is still figuring out.

We all get to be part of that conversation because the Orthodox Church is a pastoral church, more than a hierarchal church - what applies for one person, may not apply for another person, and there are seven large churches, and innumerable parishes, so really, it's an enormous unity to come to any agreement but when an agreement does come, it's been talked through to complete understanding from below, not handed down from above. Priests are chosen only if a congregation approves. One dissenting voice rules them out. Ditto for saints. It's a slow and disorderly process, but it's a conversation of centuries - history and humanity.

For example, the arguments about women priests - I don't expect it to be resolved this century. But I also have faith, thanks to Mary Magdalene, Tabitha, Dorcas and the other women who followed Jesus, that some day, the question will be met and answered with a yes by the whole church. And I can be a voice now that says yes within my church.

The other reason is that I know that I'm not going to church to be accepted and agreed with by people. I'm going because it's home in some way. A home I feel angry with and argue with, and where some people drive me crazy and I argue with them or wish they'd just stay on their side and not talk to me, but it's always open and home. At times I can resent how much the place requires, and the dragging my butt there. But it's always somehow better afterwards, even if I leave miserable and annoyed at people, the ground is still firmer under my feet, my heart stronger.

I really recommend Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. She talks about looking for different churches, and why people choose certain branches, and her own faith and search (she ended up High Escopalian I think). I liked the audiobook version. She explains some of the meaning behind the rituals of the Christian churches, and why different branches practice different ways but also what people are looking for and what our searching can mean. Her story of looking for a 'perfect' church and accepting imperfect deliberately will help I think.

I second Dogma as a surprisingly good movie about faith.

If you like the Catholic Church, you might like the Orthodox Church. We're the original one, after all :-)
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:28 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Episcopalian here. In trying to decide among the denominations, you might do well to read up on the origin stories of the various churches. Some characteristics persist for centuries.

To start with the Roman Catholic Church is very hierarchical (the Pope, after all), and stresses loyalty and obedience to the Church as an institution. In contrast, ...The Congregational Church of early New England was the the opposite of hierarchical: control was local to the congregation. This continues today as the United Church of Christ.

The Lutheran Church puts great stress on the scholarship of it's clergy. It's named after a University professor. The newer Protestant churches put less stress on scholarship, and more on leadership.

The Episcopal Church was founded by some of the Founding Fathers. It has retained an image, if not the reality, as the church of the patrician class. OTOH, around where I live, we have a heavy sprinkling of people from the British Empire, e.g.India and Jamaica.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:06 PM on December 9, 2017

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