A correspondent whom I shall call Peter writes:
I have seen a multitude of different opinions (non descript) on what one so-called bible alone churches. Why is that?
I asked Peter for clarification of what a “Bible alone” church is:
Wow! That was one heck of a quick response! Normally it takes 3-4 days from other sites. I was talking with my sister in law. She is “church shopping” to see what church or pastor lines up with her way of thinking as she interprets the bible. Why does she, and other “bible alone” churches not agree on the proper interpretation of scripture. All this results in the “church shopping thing.” I know this is very non-descript. I’m just trying to understand the madness. (I have re-written this a little to make it more clear — Ed.)
I’m referring to most of protestant denominations which use the bible as the sole authority.
What Peter is hitting on here is a good question, and points to differences within denominations, and different interpretation of the Bible. Following is my attempt at replying to Peter.
You have asked a good question. I too have wrestled with the same question as differences of belief and lack of church unity have frustrated me (they still do btw, but to a lesser extent).
First, I have spent the last decade working within academia. During this time I have discovered that to disagree is human — e.g. people disagree over almost everything. As they say, “two Jews, three opinions…” Disagreements go further than Bible interpretation — they extend to politics, interpretation of scientific or historical data, religion, darwinism, morality, and even interpretation of conversations I had with my wife or children 5 minutes ago.
So what is one of the major contributing factors to these disagreements?
I think one major contributing factor is ignorance. For example: does a person who is new to a subject agree in all cases with a veteran scholar? Of course not, and generally the scholar sees things much more clearly because they are better read and better thought out in the relevant area. Likewise, a new Christian will not understand the Bible as well as a Bible scholar who has been studying for many years, largely because of her ignorance (or put another way, her lack of learning).
Second, arguments are generally only as good as the starting points, or presuppositions. Take biological evolution for example — this field in academia is a mess, in large part because it is hard to test the claims being made, and speculation is rife. But on a bigger scale, atheist Darwinists and Intelligent Design advocates disagree largely because they begin from different (and irreconcilable) starting platforms. For example, atheist Darwinists reject (without evidence) the existence of God, therefore they can only conclude that everything in nature (including apparent design) is a result of natural-only processes. Yes — they have to believe that something came from nothing, and that order came from disorder, for there are no other options. In essence, their presuppositions dictate their range of possible answers. Indeed, if God did did create the universe, then the atheist Darwinists will never be able to reach that true conclusion however much study they do — because of their presuppositions. They are thus forced to tick the wrong answer because of prior belief commitments.
Third, when it comes to the Bible, I think the stakes are higher because Jesus of Nazareth claims that the Holy Spirit will guide believers into all truth. Yet we know from church history that Christians have disagreed with each other for around 2000 years. Why then the apparent contradiction? Did Jesus lie?
I think the answer is that all true Christians do agree on a certain core of truth claims made in the Bible, and these truth claims are simple and sufficient for us to find salvation in Jesus. Put simply, Jesus claims that we must follow Him and put our faith and trust in Him entirely, and in the work He did as our substitute on the cross. This means that He was punished in our place so that we do not have to experience God’s eternal and holy wrath in hell. If we believe Jesus’ truth claims, we are for all intents and purposes “born again” and the subjective experience of many (including myself) is that Jesus is suddenly very real and personal. I don’t know of any professing Christians of any stripe that have reached this point and disagree on this core truth. Indeed, Jesus has led us into all truth at this point, and that truth is Himself. (“I am the way, the truth….. and the life.”)
Fourth, what about the remainder of Christian doctrines? These are non-core beliefs, and are the places where differences arise. Speaking in tongues, faith and works, modes of baptism etc…
I think it about in this way: When we come to Christ and are born again, and we enter through a door into a long narrow room. Glancing to the left we see the room extend far into the distance with a sign and arrow saying “Old Testament”. Looking to the right we see the same room extending in the other direction with a sign and arrow saying “New Testament”. Right in front of me are the four gospels, the life of Jesus, and perhaps the apostle Paul and the disciples. One thing is clear that this point — the life of Jesus is close by and clearly seen. Genesis and Revelation by contrast are more distant and difficult to focus upon. So I enter the room and begin with the essentials, and then, as the years move on, move toward exploring the non-essentials.
In the essentials — unity.
In the non-essentials — liberty.
In all things — charity.
Fifth, in the New Testament times, Christians disagreed with each other — even those who knew Jesus personally. I think of Peter saying that some of Paul’s writings are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), or Paul writing that on this side of the grave we see through a glass, darkly (1 Cor 13:12) but on the other side we will see clearly, face to face. Even after spending several years with Jesus, the disciples were still slow to understand what He was claiming (Luke 24:25-49).
Sixth, the church is full of unbelievers who care little for the Bible as God’s revelation. As Jesus said, the wheat and the tares must grow up together (Matt 13:24). Yes, as plants they look the same, until the harvest, but at that time the weeds are removed and cast into the fire. Is it any wonder therefore that some teaching inside churches differs when many in the churches have little interest in the Holy Scriptures?
Seventh, on a more philosophical note, epistemologies (or how do we know that we know something) have changed radically over the course of history. The world is now awash in different epistemologies and it is often hard to discern between them. These form presuppositions that we cannot easily escape from, even if we can recognize them (e.g. if you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish…). If the Bible is “true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it, then begin there, and there alone. For all true Christians, the foundation of our understanding of the world is the Bible, and it is sufficient and trustworthy even in 2011.
Finally, on a personal note, it was a great joy for me when I discovered great Bible teaching. Believe it or not, solid Bible teaching is very uncommon in most churches. But there is a widespread agreement on most things among scholarly followers of Christ. Look for example at John MacArthur (www.gty.org), John Piper (www.desiringGod.org), Mark Driscoll (www.marshillchurch.org), Arnold Fruchtenbaum (www.ariel.org), James White (www.aomin.org) and so on. I suggest to your sister-in-law that see seeks a church where Bible teaching is highly valued and is of a high standard. We cannot afford to be fed on scraps when there is a feast awaiting us.