Authority (or lack of)

I really like the website “Why I’m Catholic“; it’s just a collection of conversion stories from people from all walks of life and faith backgrounds. I have found that the ones from “Evangelical” or “Baptist” backgrounds particularly resonate with me; it seems like they’re writing exactly what I was thinking.

Here’s some stuff from Jason Workmaster, former Evangelical. He talks about the debates he would get into with his Protestant friends over the interpretation of Scripture, then he says,

“All of this was done under the protection of the Protestant understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which meant, in practice at least, that each of us individual Christians had virtually unlimited authority to interpret the Bible for ourselves. I felt free to question everyone else’s positions, including my pastor’s, on pretty much any doctrinal matter.”

According to Protestantism, Christians should not need to listen to any other human being to know what God wants; all they should have to do is read the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will reveal to them what the true meaning is. (Other people have pointed out that for most of Christianity, most people 1) couldn’t read, and 2) couldn’t afford a book, much less an entire Bible, so if this was how Christians were supposed to gain knowledge, then they were out of luck until sometime in the 1500s.)

“This whole system meant that folks even within a particular congregation were at liberty to disagree on any number of issues, and there was no authoritative way even of deciding which differences were important to resolve and which ones weren’t. If someone decided the difference was important enough, they’d just leave and find another pre-existing group of people that seemed to agree with them more than their old group, or they’d go rent their own building and put a sign out front with the word “church” on it. Everyone would say that they thought this system was unfortunate, but none of the congregations I was in did anything about it. We just seemed resigned to the fact that the Body of Christ had been torn into a million pieces over doctrinal issues that most of us denied had any real significance. And yet, at the same time, the main point of going to church every Sunday seemed (at least to me) to be merely to learn more and more about doctrine, both in the worship service, which revolved around the sermon, and in Sunday school, so that eventually I could get all the answers right on some divine SAT test. What tended to get lost in all this, of course, was the idea that living a virtuous life in my day-to-day existence was all that important in determining where I’d spend eternity.” (emphasis added)

The fact is that, in the Protestant tradition, there are tens of thousands of denominations who all disagree with each other to a greater or lesser extent. Some things are relatively small, but others are critical to the understanding of Jesus and what God desires of us. So even though Protestants emphasize correct doctrine as the most important thing in a Christian’s life (remember, if you’re not actually saved, then nothing else matters), they have no way of determining what the correct doctrine even is. Among Protestants claiming to follow the exact same book, you have both the Episcopal Church (who welcomes and even ordains practicing homosexuals), and the Westboro Baptist Church (who disagree with homosexuality, and who, I have to add, aren’t affiliated with any Baptist denomination; they appear to be a wacko cult, but the point is that they all are using the same Bible to reach their conclusions).

“I began to wonder, if God is good (and He is) and if He loves us (and He does), why would He leave us with a system like this where Christians can never settle any question with finality? It also prompted me to think again about how the Gospel tells us that those who heard Jesus were amazed by Him because He spoke with authority–unlike the teachers of the law. It seemed to me, though, that the Protestant system was the same system that existed prior to Jesus: no one really had the ability to say anything definitively because everyone else had the right to respond, “Well, that’s your opinion!” How could that be, though, if the Church is the Body of Christ in the world? If Christ spoke with authority, doesn’t His Church need the ability to do so as well, at least on the core of doctrine regarding faith and morals that binds Christians together? This free-for-all also seemed inconsistent with Christ’s promise that we would know (not forever guess at) the Truth and that the Truth would set us free.”

It doesn’t make sense to me that God would go to all of this trouble to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ, spend three years teaching and preaching, then just disappear and leave all of his followers with no way to know for sure what he wanted of them. Even if he just wanted everybody to follow the Bible and figure it out for themselves, the Bible as we know it didn’t come into existence for several hundred years, so until that all came together, everyone was out of luck.

The idea of the sufficiency of Scripture (also another topic for another post) and the authority of each believer to interpret the Bible for himself isn’t backed up by Scripture, history, or common sense.



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