Church changes began in the early years of Christianity


Something that frustrates Catholic conservatives is church changes. How can even popes change what Jesus left us, let alone activist priests, sisters and parishioners? Fifty years after the close of Vatican II, that eruption of change, this remains a provoking point. It helps to start by noting a basic, unspoken assumption on their part: that everything is locked in concrete. Church history shows us why the opposite has long been true.

We have repeatedly changed, so much so that even conservatives can list changes that they like. What traditionalist resents that he or she may now attend the wedding or funeral of a Protestant friend in a Protestant church? Can he or she rebel that suicides may now be buried in church? How about altar girls no longer being barred by the no longer present altar rail? This latter change channels a much earlier one: deaconesses once enjoyed an honorable place in church ministry for centuries. Today some want to see them restored. They might see it.

But if there unquestionably has been so much change in two millennia, how did it get this way? Since the church does not have a constitution to tell us, the way the American Constitution lays out what is basic, we go by Scripture and tradition. But the New Testament was not written to be a constitution if only because near the end of the first century, when it was written, Christians were sure that the world would soon end. If so, why arrange a detailed constitution of what is Christian? There would be no future generations to use it.

So the earliest Christians, all Jews, recurred to the Old Testament and its 613 laws, rules and regulations of the Torah. And you thought there were only 10 commandments! This was a good start, but some of the legislation was meant for only that time, not later.  Take perhaps the biggest, most controversial change of all. It came in the first century, when progressive Christians like Saint Paul decided to set aside the strong, repeated and severe laws forbidding religious contact with gentiles, or non-Jews. So that the Jews would not swerve into idolatry, the Torah prohibited outreach to these outsiders, when there was little value seen in bringing them in as converts to Judaism. It remains like that today with Jews since Judaism is hereditary.

Saint Paul, who grew up outside Israel, like most Jews of his time, took it upon himself to take the incredible news about Jesus dying but then rising from the dead outward to fellow Jews living around the Mediterranean. Clusters of Jews living in gentile territory were his audience since the apostles and their coworkers evangelized at-home Jews in Israel. But shortly, gentiles began to hear about and ask about this amazing Jesus of Nazareth. They wanted in, but the conservatives would not allow it because of their loyalty to the Torah. Scholars say that if the church had not reconciled this great rift, it would not have made it into the second century. Strong arguments on both sides raged, but the progressive liberals said that it seemed to be the will of God that belief in Jesus and not hereditary Jewish membership qualified one to be a Christian. We had our first major change.

The same mindset has governed our efforts to be loyal to what is basic and unchangeable: find biblical precedent and apply it. But what complicates this is separating what is meant for all eternity (e.g., the fourth-century doctrine about the Trinity) and what might have been meant only for the local time and place. For instance, adult circumcision was absolutely required for any male convert to Judaism. So should it be as well for converts to Christianity, which started out entirely within Judaism?

I have not heard modern conservatives want to conserve that requirement.

A rabbi friend and I discussed the Torah demand that rebellious teenagers be buried alive for disobedience. Father of several children, he noted that the rule was made for catechetical purposes, not legislative. Yet zealous conservatives are flustered when progressives ask them whether they would obey the letter of that law or its spirit. Family order in Israel called for a strong father figure who worked a job to support his family and for a caring mother who maintained the home. But some traditionalists today do not admit that family order today allows and sometimes necessitates a Mr. Mom and a Mrs. Dad.

Just how flexible are we?