Sociologists have studied the impact of evolving social mores on religious bodies and demonstrated that there are patterns that may be observed in various religions. An example of this is the work of British sociologist Bryan Wilson who, among other groups, took particular interest in the Christadelphian brotherhood. His book Sects and Society (Heinemann 1961), which examined the Elim Churches, the Christadelphians, and Christian Science, is widely regarded as marking the beginning of contemporary academic study of new religious movements. Several of Wilson’s later more generic works on religion also included observations about the Christadelphians.

Christadelphians (and any other body that subscribes to the same beliefs) differ from the adherents of other religious bodies in that they have been divinely blessed by being called to an understanding of the true gospel. Members of the Christadelphian brotherhood are, nevertheless, men and women who share a common humanity with the wider community within which they live, worship and witness. It is not surprising, therefore, that social trends emanating from the wider community influence the brotherhood in much the same the same way that they influence other communities, both those that are nominally Christian and otherwise.

Christadelphians have a natural interest in the Jews because both are in certain respects “people of the Book”. A recent issue of The Economist 2 magazine included a special report written by David Landau under the heading “Judaism and the Jews” which commented on the state of the Jewish religion in the modern world, both within Israel and in the Diaspora. It concluded that “Judaism is enjoying an unexpected revival … but there are deep religious and political divisions.” Much of what Mr Landau had to say about modern Judaism resonates with trends that may be observed with the Christadelphian brotherhood.

Post-modernism

There is no consensus on the precise definition of “post-modernism”; that in itself is an illustration of the essence of the philosophy. Post-modernism adopts the position that reality is not mirrored in human understanding of it; on the contrary, it is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality. Post-modernism is opposed to explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races. Instead it claims to focus on the relative truths of each person. In the post-modern mindset, interpretation is everything. For a post-modernist, reality only exists in the context of interpretations of what the world means to each individual. Post-modernists place a strong emphasis on learning and education but their culture conforms to Paul’s warning about the “perilous times” that shall come “in the last days”; people who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).

A post-modernist mindset is by definition at odds with a Bible-based faith. Those who acceptthe Bible as the inspired and infallible word of God accept its message as timeless and unalterable: “Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deut 5:32);“remove not the ancient landmark” (Prov 22:28); “keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2). It is not possible to reconcile such clear and unambiguous provisions with a philosophy that denies absolute truths. At its heart Christianity is a religion based on denial of self (Matt 16:24) whereas post-modernism elevates self as the supreme arbitrator of reality. Paul’s warning to Timothy is an effective antidote to the perniciousness of post-modernism: “continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:14–17).

In introducing the impact of post-modernism on Judaism David Landau quotes Jerusalem-based Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal who evidently is a supporter of the philosophy: “Post-modernism has been kind to all religions. Reason was dethroned: there’s no large narrative out there any more.” This was illustrated by the observation by Landau that “hyphenated ethnicities and identities encourage people to enjoy and display their diversities instead of keeping them out of sight.” He goes on to note that “many Diaspora Jews today still drift out of Judaism or of Jewishness, or choose to leave. But many others are consciously deciding to stay in, choosing one of myriad new ways to express their commitment. Exactly what defines Jewishness remains a matter of much debate.” Landau explains that there is a continuum along which the various sects of Judaism may be plotted, which he defines as follows (in descending order of strictness):

  • Ultra-Orthodox (often referred to as haredi) – who regard Scripture as divinely inspired and immutable. They have a strong and inflexible emphasis on ritual and traditional practices.
  • Modern Orthodox – who also regard Scripture as divinely inspired but who interpret it more flexibly. They also have a strong interest in ritual and traditions but some segments are willing to explore possible changes, especially regarding the role of women.
  • Conservative – who acknowledge Scripture as inspired by God and binding on adherents, subject to interpretation by humans. Rules and practices have been significantly modernised in recent decades, in particular in relation to women and homosexuality. A non-discriminatory approach is increasingly being adopted towards ritual.
  • Reform – who also acknowledge Scripture as inspired by God but do not regard it as binding on adherents. This group was an early advocate of radical change. Curiously, in more recent years there has been renewed interest in ritual and religious practices in Reform synagogues.

These are broad-brush, generalised summaries of large groups and there are many permutations within each group. They are, however, broadly fair representations. Those who are familiar with a wide cross-section of the Christadelphian community will be able to detect similar (if less formally demarcated) groupings within the brotherhood, sometimes even within individual ecclesias, although the parallels will not be perfect.

Yearnings of the disenchanted

Samuel Heilman (City University of New York) is quoted as making the point that the Conservatives are particularly vulnerable “because they’re middleof- the-road, so they’re hit by traffic from both directions.” Having quoted Mr Heilman, David Landau observes that “some Conservatives move to reform or drop out altogether. Others move to Orthodoxy. Still others join ‘alternative minyans’ (prayer groups), unaffiliated congregations offering relaxed and novel forms of worship and study.” The report noted that many of these unaffiliated congregations are led by Conservative-trained rabbis.

Landau describes one such Jewish gathering he observed in the London suburb of Willesden where “the food was kosher, vegan and entirely delectable. Worship was relaxed, participatory and original. At one point a young man lay on his back on the floor, languidly kicking his legs in the air. He turned out to be both knowledgeable and committed, a trainee rabbi and professional educator.” One advocate of such novel and unstructured practices is Amichai Lau-Lavie. He currently lives in New York but is preparing to move to the Holy Land where he will be Israel’s first openly gay rabbi. Mr Lau Lavie is quoted as saying: “The Orthodox say Judaism’s not a buffet. Well, guess what: Judaism is a buffet. But most people are not informed enough consumers to make choices. My job as a guide is to provide a really great buffet. Then the next step is how to move from ‘I want to’ to ‘I feel obliged to’.”

There are striking parallels in the above with trends observable among Christadelphians who have become disenchanted with the ecclesial world and who have sought to find alternative ways to express their spirituality. In several cases brothers and sisters have left mainstream ecclesias and established small congregations which experiment with novel forms of worship and adopt more flexible and participatory approaches in terms of membership, fellowship and communion. Often the leaders of these groups are brothers and sisters who previously were members of traditional Christadelphian ecclesias and whose families have had a long association with the brotherhood. Some of these new groups abandon the use of the name Christadelphian to describe their meetings while at the same time seeking to remain nominally within the wider brotherhood. Others have moved further away from the mainstream and describe themselves as post-Christadelphians. A few have become harsh critics of the Christadelphian community.

In the United Kingdom over the past 30 years the radical wing of Judaism has conducted a range of seminars called Limmud (literally “learning”) which range from one day, to a weekend to a week. At these events up to 3,000 pay to attend a range of sessions covering subjects such as art, theatre, music and Yiddish literature. There appears to be little overt study of the Scripture at these events. The leaders of the Conservative synagogues are not supportive of these events because of the unorthodox nature of much of what is present.

A phenomenon similar to Limmud may be detected on the fringes of the Christadelphian body. Many of the brothers and sisters who find ‘alternative’ groups attractive also are attracted to combined gatherings which are not held under the auspices of mainstream ecclesias and at which the material presented varies widely in variety and style. Some of these fit the description of Paul who wrote of a time when “they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim 4:3-4).

Some brothers and sisters who have dabbled in extremely liberal views or interpretations have subsequently reviewed their position and moved back closer to the mainstream. This same trend can be seen in Judaism. Mr Landau notes that the Reform community originally favoured the abandonment of most aspects of “halacha” (Jewish religious law). For instance, many Reform congregations moved the Sabbath to Sunday to conform to the Christian world within which they operated. They also turned their back on many of the traditional forms and practices of Judaism. In both cases there has in recent years been a trend to restore some of these traditional practices.

Reform Jews also tended to downplay Biblical references to Zion, preferring to see Zion as attainable wherever believers lived, but in recent years there has been renewed support for a more Biblical appreciation of Zion. In the Christadelphian community there are examples of brothers and sisters who also have lessened their emphasis on the imminent overthrow of the kingdom of men and the coming kingdom of God and replaced it with a focus on religious fulfilment in the here and now. Some of these have come to realise that this is a shallow and bankrupt position and that the joys of Christ’s service in the present age are but a portent of the greater joys of the age to come.

Education

Oppression of Jews in many parts of the world ensured that many remained poor and prevented many from pursuing formal education. Emancipation of Jews (and other minorities) over the past few centuries saw a rapid rise in overall living standards and educational attainments, especially in the western world. But a rise in the general level of learning among Jews has not been reflected in an increased appreciation of Judaism.As Landau says: “there is huge disparity between the sophistication of so many American Jews in so many disciplines and their ignorance of Judaism.

” Similarly, the Christadelphian brotherhood, which 100 years ago was predominately a working class community, has in more recent times become more middle class. More than 50 years ago Bryan Wilson observed that:

“Christadelphianism typifies the religious expression of the poor, and the poor were drawn to this gospel of a transformed world in which they would be the rulers. The revolutionary element in Christadelphian teaching was more evident then than today, and undoubtedly accounted for some of the movement’s success.”

Wilson hinted at a change in social standing which he explains in more detail later in the book:

“First-generation Christadelphians have usually been drawn from the poor, but among subsequent generations some social mobility has occurred, and the initial emphasis of the movement fits much less well with the aspirations of this group.”

This trend has accelerated, at least in the affluent western world, in the half century since Wilson penned this assessment. Some have lamented, however, that although the brotherhood has never had so many well educated members (in terms offormal academic and professional qualifications), little of this enhanced level of education seems evident in the expositional material presented within many modern ecclesias.

An emphasis on education and material success among Jews in the prosperous western world has been accompanied by an increase in the number of Jews who marry Gentiles. Statistics show Jews with mixed marriages are much less likely to become engaged in synagogue-linked activities and their children are far less likely to embrace Judaism or even to adopt a Jewish lifestyle. While no formal statistics are available, anecdotal evidence suggests that, particularly within certain sectors of the brotherhood and among those who are well-educated (in a secular sense), an increasing number of young Christadelphians are marrying non-Christadelphians, often with devastating consequences for the individual brother or sister and for their children.

Conclusion

Paul warned Timothy “that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Tim 3:1). While we often have applied this to the wider community, it is clear from the context that was warning of developments that would be observable within the ecclesia in the last days. It should come as no surprise that the social forces which create challenges for the Christadelphian community in the twenty-first century also have an impact on other religious communities. Larger groups, of course, attract more attention from scholars and commentators. We are wise, therefore, to take advantage of lessons arising from other groups where these may have messages for ourselves.

As a community we do well to challenge ourselves to ensure that our practices and processes are both Biblically sound and effective. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21) was Paul’s advice in the first century and it remains relevant in the twenty-first. There will be times when practices and processes need to change, but we must never embrace change for change’s sake. Novelty alone is not a sufficient reason to change, We will not meet the challenge of a postmodern world by closing our eyes to the pressures it brings to bear on the brotherhood. We have to meet that challenge with positive messages about the sure and certain hope of the gospel. We need to heed Paul’s advice to the young man Timothy:

“keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen” (1 Tim 6:20–21).