Early on in my life as a Christian, I was told, "Find yourself a good, Bible-believing church."
In my mind's eye, this presented a fairly simple paint-by-numbers landscape. There were, in fact, only two sections to paint. The first stood for those people who believed the Bible. They believed, for example, that Christ's resurrection actually took place in history. The second section stood for folks who avoided such an "overly literal" approach, preferring to see the resurrection as a wonderful mythic symbol, etc.
My inclination was to find a church in section 1. I soon discovered, however, that things were a little more complicated.
A wide variety of churches out there described themselves as "Bible-believing" congregations. Not such a bad thing, except for the reason behind the variety: these churches, though they all clung to the Bible as the word of God, did not all interpret the holy book the same way. The result: I wasn't simply deciding between "red church" and "blue church," or "church one mile away" and "church twenty miles away but with great preaching." No. This was a choice between "that church over there teaches one thing" and "this other church, across the street, teaches the opposite."
Don't get me wrong: their method of interpretation was basically the same. As I sampled Bible-believing culture from church to church, the clear impression was "We interpret the Bible for ourselves, as individual believers. No church authorities or tradition need apply." Across the board, it was taken for granted God had designed Scripture to be interpreted in just this manner. Of the truths in Scripture it was said, "the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things." Right interpretation, then, was a natural consequence, the most likely result, of reading the Scripture.
And yet, here stood two churches, figuratively speaking, across the street from each other, divided by significant differences in belief. Our method sometimes referred to as "private interpretation" might be the same, but the results of our interpretive efforts were vastly different. Baptism, the Lord's Supper, worship, the ordination of ministers, marriage, sexuality, divorce all were controversial. Jesus Christ himself, fortunately, remained central. But with such a variety of interpretations, how could one obey Christ's command that we follow his teachings? What did he mean when he said so-and-so and such-and-such?
Each church was cheerfully confident they had it right. Meanwhile, the church across the street cheerfully disagreed.
As a new Christian, I shrugged and took all this in stride. For the next ten years, I hopped from Methodist college ministry, to prison outreach, to charismatic meetings in a former liquor store, to Presbyterian church and/or Great Books discussion group, to Baptist suburban megachurch. All the while, a part of me watched and waited, collecting information, trusting that the mystery of which church is "truer" eventually would clear up.
Along the way, I asked other believers what they thought of the situation.
Some, with cheery self-satisfaction, flatly ignored the actual schism and turmoil which had created so many denominations. Instead, they saw the rabbit-like multiplication of churches as God's way of providing "something for every taste." A cafeteria-style religion, so to speak. Frankly, I felt this cheapened the entire Gospel. It was simply relativism Christian-style, in which we do not embrace what is true (repent, that is), but bend the truth to fit our own tastes.
Other people assumed the problem of "many Christians, many interpretations" stemmed from one denomination being "less open to the Spirit" than another. Experience in various denominations told me otherwise. Certainly, each group probably had its peculiar share of institutional hardheadedness. Yet, in every church, I found people who loved the Lord, who earnestly studied the Scriptures, who honestly asked God to reveal the truth and who persisted in reaching very different conclusions.
At some point, it began to feel like enough was enough. Tired of wandering, I was left to consider the following:
1) God didn't care. (I threw this out fairly quickly.)
2) God cared,
but could not bridge the communication gap. Thus, as we groped
after truth, we were permitted a lot misinterpretation along
4) The Bible was never meant to be read in this demanding, overly literal way. God was too complex, too deep for our little formulations.
Did this mystery begin to clear up? Please go to Chapter 2: "I figured out the Trinity!" for more.