Christadelphians and independent thinking

 By Phynnodderee

The idea of independent thinking is important to Christadelphians. They pride themselves on not following the crowd, but standing apart as a community who ‘search out the truth’ for themselves. This spirit of free thinking is supposedly part of the legacy of the pioneers, and Christadelphians believe it sets them apart from both other churches and ordinary society. I grew up with the idea that other Christians uncritically accept whatever they’re told by their clergy, while people in ‘the world’ go along unthinkingly with whatever idea happens to be in vogue.

I’d like to explain why I think this idea of independent thinking is actually illusory, and what is really required of Christadelphians is conformity.


Starting a new movement: John Thomas
Christadelphians celebrate Dr. Thomas as an independent thinker who was uniquely able to break free of established theology to recover the Bible’s true message. He did this through an uncompromising commitment to independent, impartial enquiry into the Scriptures. While he was arguably a freethinker in the sense that he wasn’t afraid to disagree with the religious authorities of his day, and doggedly promoted his interpretations regardless of how many people disagreed with him, there are two important things to bear in mind before elevating Dr. Thomas too high.

Firstly, the idea of his independence of mind needs to be carefully qualified. His ideas weren’t entirely original, but influenced by the general religious climate of his times, specifically the various restorationist ideas in the United States. He wasn’t the only one challenging established Christianity in the nineteenth century; he was part of a bigger phenomenon.

Secondly, to whatever extent he deserves to be credited with independent thinking himself, he proved unwilling to tolerate it in others. He went from calling for freedom of thought to harshly criticising anyone who disagreed with him. The privilege of thinking for yourself, it would seem, did not extend to other people. In a pamphlet published in 1881, A Glance at the History and Mystery of Christadelphianism (full text available here), David King writes that Thomas was scathing about former associates who did not agree with his changing views:

“A few lines will show the kind of treatment those received who followed Dr. Thomas for some time after his re-immersion, but who did not advance with him in his more recent speculations. In this country were a few such, whom the doctor pleased to call Dowieites, and others, somewhat similar, in America, whom he named Benjamites. These parties, declining to follow him, when he made the resurrection of the saints in mortal bodies part of his gospel, were consequently handed over to Satan as deniers of the faith. Then, according to their testimony, he poured out a torrent of reviling…”

To give another example, a review of Elpis Israel said:

“The author’s contempt for other men, other churches, other sects is quite unbounded. To disagree with Dr. Thomas is to be a fool, if not worse.” (William Norrie, The Early History of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, Vol. III, p254, PDF available here)

Taking over the helm: Robert Roberts
Before Dr. Thomas’s followers in Britain became a unified body going by the official name of Christadelphians, there was a degree of diversity in their beliefs and practices. But when Robert Roberts began to whip this loosely knit community into shape, setting out the official doctrines in a statement of faith and writing the ecclesial rulebook, there emerged an official line that had to be toed. Like Thomas, Roberts didn’t care about being a crowd-pleaser; he preached out of staunch personal conviction and steadfastly promoted the new faith no matter how discouraging the results. Freethinking? Perhaps. But he also followed the same pattern as Thomas in demanding freedom for himself but not tolerating differing ideas in others. Like his mentor, he was contemptuous of anyone who disagreed with him.

Roberts was the de facto leader of the community in his day, and if he didn’t tolerate dissent, it’s hard to claim that there was any freedom for individual members to hold their own views, or at least openly express them. Some Christadelphians might claim that the pioneers needed to be this strict in order to establish a firm foundation of truth and prevent wrong ideas from creeping in and derailing the young community. But that is to assume that whatever the pioneers said was right, and to ascribe to them the kind of unquestionable authority that Christadelphians accuse other churches of vesting in their clergy.

This article published in The Fraternal Visitor in 1894 (well worth reading in its entirety) indicates how some Christadelphians around this time were unhappy about the growing authoritarianism and hostility to freedom of thought. The writer, “J.J.H.”, echoes the complaint that I’ve heard from many Christadelphians in more recent years: that among some brothers and sisters there is a tendency to treat the pioneers, the editor of The Christadelphian, or the ecclesia as infallible authorities, and to dismiss dissident views as the product of arrogance or the gripes of dissatisfied grumblers. Such people tend to assume that the truth has already been discovered in its entirety, and that there is therefore no need for further discussion. “J.J.H.” is concerned that the Christadelphians of his own time (just a few years before the death of Robert Roberts) are required to stop thinking as soon as they get baptised:

“Many – perhaps the majority – are baptised and admitted to the Ecclesia in early manhood, or early womanhood. It is required of them that they shall be for ever satisfied with the mental enquiry through which they have passed, and that instead of continuing to possess an open mind, they shall thereafter stifle all questioning, and accept the authority of "The Christadelphian Ecclesia" as being the custodian and proclaimer of all truth – "the truth in its entirety."”

Although John Thomas’ original aim was to move away from creeds and confessions, it wasn’t long before the movement he founded developed creeds of its own. A fixed set of doctrines developed, and disagreements over these led to disfellowshippings, schisms and bad feeling. In short, Roberts didn’t foster a community in which things could be freely discussed; instead he required conformity. Unfortunately, this intolerance seems to have become part of the culture. From an early stage, there was pressure to conform if you wanted to belong.

Nonconformist, yet conformist
Another article in the Fraternal Visitor, published later in 1894, described a common pattern in reforming movements:

“The spirit of enquiry which originates a fresh movement gradually dies away, and the community settles down into an ‘orthodoxy’ of its own, which in its turn, is quite as unwilling to change, and as averse to any suggestion of fresh light, as the ‘orthodoxy’ it parted with at its birth.”

This seems a good description of the Christadelphian community, which went from being a reforming movement to another example of dogmatic thinking defended on the basis of tradition and human authority. The statement of faith (whichever version you subscribe to) has become a creed as time-honoured and unquestionable as any other. Challenging hallowed traditional ideas is highly likely to get you criticised, cold-shouldered or threatened with disfellowshipping. To quote from the booklet Christadelphia Redivivus, written in the late 1950s:

“As with many communities and movements… the vision of the originator becomes hardened into rigid principles. To preserve the original line, freedom of thought becomes a danger and penalties must be imposed to be rid of deviationists. ‘Independence to think’ becomes associated with corruption, declension and moral odium.”

The establishment of Endeavour magazine in the UK in the early 1960s also met with strong opposition among some Christadelphians, who simply did not want any fresh discussion of traditional ideas and were very unhappy about the idea of an ‘alternative voice’ being aired in the community.

Christadelphians nominally advocate independent enquiry but in practice they are expected to adhere to a predefined set of beliefs, interpretations and attitudes. They may be nonconformists in the sense that they maintain distinct differences from mainstream Christianity, but the point is they are expected to demonstrate conformity within their own group. It may take some courage and determination to be the odd one out at school or at work (I know that from experience), but that’s more a case of staying loyal to a close-knit community and maintaining group identity within a wider society which is seen as hostile and immoral.

Unfortunately, there are also a few Christadelphians who think it their duty to police the community by scenting out and denouncing people with unorthodox views. These self-appointed guardians of truth seek to ensure uniformity of doctrine and practice by disciplining members who don’t toe the line – even if it means violating the principle of ecclesial autonomy.

Real freedom
I suggest that, with the possible exception of a few more broad-minded meetings, Christadelphia does not offer real freedom of thought, only the illusion of it. It may have started out as a rebellious, reforming movement, but like so many other movements of its kind, it quickly hardened into an orthodoxy of its own. The result is a religion where, for the most part, you are expected to accept, not question; submit, not challenge.

Today, many Christadelphians are happy to simply adopt the beliefs they were raised with and hand over responsibility for thinking to the pioneers, the ecclesia, or their preferred publication. So those who believe they are independent thinkers don’t bother to exercise the right to think for themselves – or if they do venture any ideas of their own, they are quite likely to discover that their ideas are not welcome in a community that knows it already has the Truth.

The lack of free thought in a group – as shown for example by hostility to open discussion or the suppression of alternative ideas – is a warning sign. The good news is that when you leave, you really do become free to do your own thinking. Not to follow any old selfish whim or jump on the latest bandwagon, as many Christadelphians imagine, but to approach life thoughtfully and identify your own principles and values by exercising a mind that is truly your own.

9 comments:

  1. This is the problem with, in the main, the members of the Christadelphian community that, "it 'knows' it already has the Truth." Fresh thinking and ideas are stifled at birth, and if someone goes "too far" in promoting ideas that don`t conform to established beliefs, then they stand the chance of being criticised, being classed as a troublemaker, or even disfellowshiped.

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    1. I knew one such young man who was indeed classed as a troublemaker (despite being otherwise quite upstanding) simply for daring to question the use of various pronouns in prayers. Apparently God only wants to be spoken to in 16th/17th century English. Surely this is a problem not experienced by non-English speaking Christadelphians. It wasn't very difficult to see that it wasn't God who was offended by the use of modern English, but the small-minded, precious ABs.

      I've also been on the receiving end of this treatment as well, eventually becoming disfellowshipped for accepting evolution. It's pretty uncomfortable attending meetings and social gatherings knowing that if the people you're sitting with knew what you were thinking, they'd excommunicate you and cut you out of their community. That in itself is enough to strongly favour conformity, at least outwardly. But something about who I am meant that I couldn't be happy and inauthentic at the same time. I had to be true to myself, and ultimately that led to rejection from pretty much my entire community. It also feels deeply unjust to be raised without consent to be part of a highly exclusive community, instructed repeatedly since childhood to seek the truth and then evicted from that community after doing so, over something as personal as a private belief (one that didn't harm anyone). And yet not a single one of the people involved feels that they have done anything wrong. Religion poisons everything.

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  2. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/11/faith-religion-politics-british-attitudes-survey

    Apologies for the brevity. The shift discussed in the Guardian article will surely make it even more difficult for Christadelphians to impose their thinking on their offspring.

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  3. I would mostly agree with this, but I think the spirit of "searching out the truth" helped some of us. We used to joke that we had to study the scriptures independently and come to exactly the same conclusion as everyone else. And those I joked with about that are still Christadelphian, but they don't necessarily follow the party line in everything. For me, I knew without really being told that there were some questions I shouldn't ask and some answers that I couldn't come to - but the commitment to seeking out truth that I was brought up with eventually led to me asking those questions and finding those answers.

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  4. If you are determined to seek the truth, surely you should leave no stone unturned? However, most CDs are happy to let others do their thinking for them and live in blissful ignorance looking forward to their much anticipated kingdom. The speakers know they are preaching to the converted, so just play safe and spout the usual platitudes, telling whichever ecclesia they are speaking at what they want to hear.
    One only has to listen to a few recent talks online to realise the outright nonsense that is being preached as absolute fact. Unfortunately no one is brave enough to point out the emperor's lack of clothing!

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  5. Yeah, when I was involved in CD public Bible study every time I questioned some of their teachings such as Russia being Rosh, Pope being ante Christ, all Christian religions being wrong, CD's were right because " they knew " many times we were involved in heated exchange on theology, I could not comprehend how one lot knew so much, yet time after time their prediction of end time fell apart, even Duncan Heaster said " that he was wrong " I was a well meaning false prophet" about return of Christ he said. CD's being met by Christ on Mt. Sinai for judgment, those good ones to receive Eternal life to rule with Jesus in the Kingdom, many discussions about Ezekiel's Temple, according to CD's prince entering from the east gate is JC and will perform burnt offerings, because H.Sully wrote a book on that and he had it all worked out. I found that H.Whittaker and G. Booker both CD's refuted H.Sully's views, but no them and mainstream Christians ideology was all wrong, only CD's who follow Sully's interpretation are right. Sadly very difficult bunch to deal with.

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    1. Yeah I once began a project to create a 3D computer model of Ezekiel's temple, and read through the various chapters in Ezekiel to get the dimensions etc, fully anticipating that I'd end up with something that resembled Sully's temple drawings that were so ubiquitous among Christadelphians. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the text made no mention of the inner part being circular, and that none of the other non-CD renditions online looked anything like Sully's either (and yet they were following the same text). That's when I realised the amount of artistic license employed in all of them, and I quietly abandoned the project as unattainable. I also discovered that most Christadelphians had never read those chapters enough to realise how much of Sully's drawings were imagined/invented, rather than being directly derived from the text. Most Christadelphians don't study the Bible anywhere near as much as they claim to.

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    2. I wasn't from a part of the denomination that venerated Sulley's temple (I mean, some ecclesias had pictures of it on their walls. Sounds a bit like idolatry ;) ). However, reading Harry Whittaker's work on it led me to also reject the concept of animal sacrifice in the kingdom.

      I also remember an elderly brother's amusement when he came to the line "Let our minds not be sullied by visions of grandeur" in one of HAW's works.

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  6. "The lack of free thought in a group – as shown for example by hostility to open discussion or the suppression of alternative ideas – is a warning sign. The good news is that when you leave, you really do become free to do your own thinking. Not to follow any old selfish whim or jump on the latest bandwagon, as many Christadelphians imagine, but to approach life thoughtfully and identify your own principles and values by exercising a mind that is truly your own."

    I wholeheartedly agree. It wasn't until a few years after leaving the Christadelphians that I began to feel at peace, and eventually pretty happy with life. There can be many psychological hurdles to overcome when leaving such a controlling religion but the rewards are enormous.

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