By Ed Rybarczyk
“Why do the different kinds of churches have different doctrines? After all, they’re all supposedly reading the same Bible. Why are there so many arguments inside the Church, among Christians? Don’t they read the same book? It makes me wonder, why are there so many churches?”
While a college theology professor, I commonly heard those questions, questions that were typically driven by lament. Especially in our pluralistic and pluralizing Western society those are fitting questions. Shouldn’t the church be on the same exact page about everything?
One of my own graduate profs put it this way, “There is no naked reading of the Bible.” (Now that I have your attention, let’s see what that really means!) No one reads the Bible in a vacuum. We all bring our own historic era, culture, language, traditions, values, and understandings about truth to the biblical text. We also bring our own pre-existing beliefs about goodness, beauty, and love to the text. And we should be honest: there’s just no way to read the Bible apart from all that we ourselves are and all that we bring to the biblical text. We necessarily read through the “lenses,” the perceptional field of vision, that we already use, or better the “lenses” that we already are.
So what normally happens in Bible reading? We individuals read a chapter or passage as though the author’s reality was a one-for-one with our reality, or as though Jesus or Paul or King David were then feeling precisely what we ourselves are now feeling when he said what he said or did what he did. We assume we know exactly what the author is saying even though he lived in a historical-cultural setting vastly different from our own. And as each of us reads the text – indwelling our own respective frame of reference – we come up with interpretations that evenly-fit our immediate personal picture.
Albert Schweitzer (d. 1965) put it like this: each theologian (we could say each believer) walks over to the well of history and peers down inside. Each one is hoping to see the “real” Jesus inside the deep hole. But what always happens? As the theologian (or Bible reader) looks down into the dark cavern he finally discerns the surface of the water on the bottom. And what does he see? His own face looking back up at him! In short? When each of us goes looking for Jesus’s identity in the Bible, the common tendency is to see Him through our own grid, to assume that his historical-cultural reality was a one-for-one with our own reality. What a happy coincidence that Jesus’s identity corresponds directly to our own! That’s what happens at the personal level. Let’s move to the communal level.
Why are there so many different kinds of churches? Shouldn’t there just be one? Or, even with the expansive Catholic Church, why is there so much variety among their local churches? Don’t they focus together on the same things? Here’s the best answer I’ve encountered: different communities inside different cultures approach God and the Christian way from their respective vantage points. (This also stems from the freedom of being in Christ, a topic that deserves its own article.)
Living in the medieval era, Christians in Europe wondered whether God was in control of everything, even things like plagues and famines. So it is no wonder that their theology, their Bible reading, emphasized the books and passages that touched on God’s sovereignty, God’s rule, His control; and their own emphases developed into their doctrinal codes. Back earlier in Roman history, the Christian religion was taking root in a polytheistic and multi-formed culture. So we’re not surprised that the earliest church emphasized the biblical passages that touched on being together, being a united body, standing together as one, getting in line behind a single leader; and their emphases informed and shaped their doctrinal codes. Much later, Christians in Europe and America wondered aloud, “How can I know that I am truly saved?” And so their churches – immersed in a culture of enormous change and uncertainty – emphasized biblical passages that landed on the surety of our salvation and God’s unchanging character; and their emphases informed and shaped their doctrinal codes.
Out of all these different cultural configurations, various churches arose. Answering the questions, concerns, needs, and worries of each era, different denominations took root and blossomed. And thus far I have put it in the benign and positive. We aren’t even touching here on the arguments and power-struggles that occurred in and around different churches and denominations, which led to still more variety, still more denominations.
So what to do? Melt into a puddle and tolerate “anything goes”? That hardly seems reasonable, and we know God wants us to bring our minds to Him. Or maybe we should cave in and agree that “all truth claims are mere constructions”? Well, not only is that adage itself a construction, it does not at all square with what the Bible itself teaches: God is a holy and truthful God, God is a pure being of integrity who commands us to be like Him. No, we who love Jesus don’t cave into our own post-Christian era’s dominant culture which says there is no such thing as truth.
But we can extend the benefit of the doubt. I have learned to make space for those who claim to follow Christ Jesus. And that is the core of what it is to be Christian, right? Jesus Christ is the ground, the foundation, the cornerstone of our identity as Christians. Maybe you don’t agree that “once saved always saved” is final, but can you make the space in your heart that those who so believe still love Jesus? Maybe you don’t like liturgical forms of worship, but can you make the space in your heart to agree that those who do worship in formal ways still love and serve Jesus? Maybe you’re uncomfortable in more-emotional churches, communities where they shout and raise their hands when they praise God. But can you see that down in their hearts they mean to honor Christ?
Me? A trained theologian? I don’t agree with every doctrine interspersed across the churches. But I don’t question that they love the only one ever to have been crucified and resurrected: Jesus, God’s only eternal Son!
Ed Rybarczyk, PhD, is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at [email protected].