A couple of decades ago, Bob Dylan announced his faith conversion with an album that famously and artistically declared, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Dylan realized there was going to be an authority in his — and everyone’s — life.
That’s something that fewer and fewer people believe.
Consider the current talk about the emergent church (or emerging conversation, or any one of now a half-dozen labels being used to describe various thinkers, writers, and leaders). Some earnest scholars have tried to figure out how emergent thinkers “fit into” Christianity as we know it, and most admit that the emergent movement itself is splintering into any number of its own factions, proving that while they may not be Presbyterian or Baptist in doctrine, they certainly are in practice. It won’t be long until we see “Reformed Second Mosaic Church of Christ,” or “First United Mars Hill Assembly of Ohio, 2015 Convention.”
At root — the root that really matters — is the issue of authority. It comes down, in a very simplistic sense, to this: Who’s going to be your boss?
For many people, the organized church, with all its traditions, is the “boss.” This would be true of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even, until somewhat recently, the Anglicans. They make their appeal to historical primacy: While Roman Catholics claim the line of Peter, the Orthodox make a persuasive claim that the true apostolic line of succession goes through them.
For many evangelicals, the “boss” is Scripture. The famous dictum sola scriptura launched a movement based on a book’s — the book’s — authority. In a different sense, many Pentecostals base their authority on experiential and subjective “leadings” of the Holy Spirit. Many of these same believers will also claim the Bible as their basis for their authority, but in practice, they are heavily dependent on subjective guidance.
A growing number of leaders, some (but by no means all) within the emergent movement, are suggesting a different authority: themselves! They say, in essence, I am the boss.
Oh, most who fall into this camp would react with abhorrence if someone suggested they base their authority in themselves, but in fact, that’s where many of their arguments and writings lead. What else can we conclude if someone so trashes the traditional church that, by their reckoning, is so much a part of the problem it can never be part of the solution? And when they talk about Scripture, they imply (or state explicitly) that it’s so unclear in so many places, and has been so buried by so many centuries’ worth of prejudiced laced interpretation, that who really knows what it means anyway?
Consider this: A popular writer/speaker has asked, “Does it really matter to me if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin?” I want to answer, “Who cares if it matters to you? What matters is if it’s true.”
I’ll tell you this: The virgin birth matters to the history of the church; it matters to biblical authority; it matters to the identity of Christ. Whether or not it matters to any one person in particular — even if that person sells a lot of books and fills churches when he speaks — is a rather egocentric way of looking at Christianity. Dismissing a cardinal doctrine because, in your opinion, it’s not that big of a deal, is really the height of arrogance. Who made you boss?
A Case Study: Gender Roles
How we view biblical (some would say “traditional”) understandings of gender roles is a case in point for the practical effect of authority. I spoke with a pastor who dutifully recounted how he had spent four months of intensive study to arrive at the conclusion that the Bible really doesn’t differentiate between men and women when it comes to issues of authority or leadership in a church or home.
He had, after all, four whole months of self-directed study to back up his claim.
Here again, is where arrogance pokes its pointy little head. “Does it not bother you,” I asked, “that your four months of self-directed study lead to a conclusion in which you are essentially saying to your congregation, ‘Sorry, but in point of fact the Christian church has been misleading you for roughly two millennia? It’s only recently, in our generation, that we’ve been able to come to an accurate understanding of what it means to be created male and female. Yes, I realize that Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, Wesley, B.B. Warfield, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Evangelical Protestantism (up until about 1975) have all weighed in with a consistent view that differs from my own — but what do they know? I’ve studied for four months!'”
Do you see the arrogance?
To be fair, some eminent scholars — much more learned and wiser than me — would agree with this pastor about gender roles. But even we lay folk have the right to ask, “What is your basis for making this assertion, and how does your opinion and conclusion weigh up against two thousand years of church history?”
As an evangelical, I base my authority on Scripture. But since Scripture isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be, I lean on consistent Christian tradition to help me rightly interpret it. I don’t need to “revisit” the Trinity, for instance. There are many Scriptures that point to this understanding of God, and Christian tradition has been strongly supportive of such a view. The deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the actual, bodily resurrection of Jesus — these have all been not just noted in the Bible, but affirmed century after century by all the major Christian expressions. Every now and then, someone claiming to be a Christian will question a key doctrine or two, but the force of previous centuries, and the weight of contemporary witness, rightly overwhelms such meager opposition.
So my boss is Scripture, as Christian history and witness help me to understand it. The debate over infant baptism versus believer’s baptism can be traced back to the early church, with both forms having historical basis and support, so in instances like that, I have to follow what seems to me the most reasonable and compelling interpretation of Scripture. Believers can intelligently disagree on this one.
But when the church has spoken with a consistent witness for centuries; when Scripture lays out numerous passages that tradition acknowledges is clear and compelling, personal opinions shouldn’t carry much weight.
Up until relatively recently (the past century or so), hardly any serious believers suggested that the numerous verses in Scripture talking about a husband’s authority at home, and the ones assuming that elders in the church are male, with Paul tracing their authority back to creation, were anything less than clear. The church has spoken, without significant exception, and with overwhelming consensus, for 1,900 years on this very topic.
How this authority was exercised, many times maliciously and without the corresponding call to male sacrifice and even martyr-like selflessness (Eph. 5:26), led us to be quite embarrassed at such an “antiquated” thought, so we have spent a generation trying to show how Scripture simply can’t mean what it seems to say, and what the church has said it says, for almost two thousand years.
In light of this, when one pastor, with three years of Bible school beneath his belt, and four months of personal study, comes to a conclusion that differs from this, perhaps you’ll understand why it doesn’t carry much weight with me.
Should it with anyone?
Have you ever asked yourself, when it comes to issues such as these, “What is my authority? What is the basis on which I am going to come to my conclusions? Am I my final authority, or will it be something or someone else?”
How you answer this question will determine much about your life and faith.
Copyright 2008 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.