Q. I have a question about contrasting interpretations. Since we do not accept a Magisterium [an official, authoritative teaching], believers like me and you and many others seem to have no way to convince another about what Scripture teaches, if the other simply does not agree. This means we end up with the challenge of having many denominations, let alone many believers, each believing many different things, including things that are mentioned in Hebrews as being “milk” doctrines, things that are to be taught to new believers, yet even with these items, some teachers teach things that are incompatible with what others teach, so they cannot all be true; for example, either infant baptism or believer’s baptism. As far as I can see, we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet. Do you have any wisdom about this state of affairs?
I think you’re right that in the absence of a Magisterium (that is, a recognized authoritative teaching office such as there is in the Roman Catholic church), the principle of sola Scriptura—appealing to Scripture alone as our authority—does not bring about agreement among believers. I think the main reason for this is that people approach the Bible with different interpretive presuppositions, so that they can look objectively and honestly at the same data and come to opposite conclusions.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of how this works comes from my seminary days at Gordon-Conwell. Dr. Gordon G. Fee, who was then on the faculty, agreed to do an event on the topic of women’s ministry together with a professor whose name I unfortunately no longer remember, who was from a Presbyterian seminary. Dr. Fee didn’t feel it would be respectful to women to have a “debate” about them, so he suggested, and the other professor agreed, that the two of them should instead explain what they felt had led them to their positions on the issue, and allow the other person to ask questions about this. They met and prayed together beforehand.
Dr. Fee went first and explained that he’d grown up in the Assemblies of God denomination, where he’d seen many women pastors minister very effectively with the gifts God had given them. He felt he’d seen God bless their work and give it much fruit. And so, he said, to be honest, that was likely a significant factor why he wasn’t persuaded by arguments, even from the Bible, that said God didn’t want women to be in these roles.
The other professor then explained (and I really appreciated his honesty) that he’d grown up in a Presbyterian denomination that taught predestination, and it seemed to him that if God had chosen one group (the elect) to be saved, and another group (the reprobate) not to be saved, then certainly God might also have chosen one group (men) to be in certain roles in the church, and another group (women) not to be in those roles—that was a smaller thing.
I think this illustrates that while Protestants don’t have an official Magisterium, all of us who are Protestant probably do walk around with an unofficial Magisterium in our heads, consisting of the teachings, precedents, experiences, approaches to the Bible, etc. that we’ve been exposed to in the past. This whole constellation of things probably changes over time, but very slowly, as new things are added and others are dropped or come to be regarded as less authoritative. But it is this unofficial Magisterium that you need to move in order to persuade someone, from Scripture, of a viewpoint different from the one they currently hold. That’s unlikely to happen as the result of one conversation or online exchange, though they might budge things slightly.
So I guess I am granting that “we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet.” How should we respond to this reality?
I think Dr. Fee and his conversation partner provide a further good example here. While they were on opposite sides of an issue that inflames great passions, they spoke to and about one another very charitably. Dr. Fee said of the other professor that he was “welcoming him to our campus as a brother.” They didn’t move an inch closer to one another’s positions during the conversation, and afterwards they both went back to communities that had different and mutually exclusive practices. But nevertheless I think something very positive was accomplished. They demonstrated that they had “unity in the faith” in another sense, that while they didn’t agree, they were still part of one body and united by the love of Christ.
I think this is the most we can hope for in this world, but I think it’s actually something very positive and powerful. We often say that Christians are free to disagree on minor, non-essential points, so long as they agree on the major, essential ones. But then we discover intractable disagreements on things that seem pretty foundational, such as baptism (as you mention), and we realize how few “essential” beliefs there are that Christians really all do agree on (such as the divinity of Christ).
So failing that kind of agreement, I think instead we should first strive to be “fully convinced in our own minds,” as Paul writes in Romans about some issues that must have seemed pretty crucial for belief and practice in his day (keeping the Sabbath, and whether one could eat and drink certain things). The more settled our minds are, the more calmly and graciously we will be able to engage others. I think most of the damage is done not by the fact of disagreement itself, but by people vilifying those who differ, impugning their character and questioning their good faith. A gracious, Christ-like attitude is probably the best evidence we could ever offer someone for the possibility that we could be right about something we believe that they currently don’t.
Let me close by telling a story about baptism, which I agree is a good example of a “milk” or foundational doctrine that you’d think Christians should be able to agree about. My example once again comes from my seminary days.
One evening my wife and I hosted several friends for dinner and the topic turned to baptism. Those who baptize infants and those who baptize believers at least agree that a given person should only be baptized once. Churches either baptize infants and confirm believers, or else dedicate infants and baptize believers. But it turned out that in our dinner party of eight, my wife was the only person who’d been baptized just once. Everyone else had been baptized at least twice.
And it wasn’t just that several of us who’d been baptized as infants later felt that, with all due respect to our parents and home churches, we wanted to be baptized as believers. One woman had been baptized by immersion as a believer at age 12. She sincerely believed in Jesus at the time, but this was on the basis of what her parents and church had taught her. Later, as a young adult, her faith became more first-hand, through the ministry of a Methodist church she was then attending. Their help had been so meaningful to her that she wanted to be baptized as an adult, as her own personal expression of faith, “in the Methodist way”—by sprinkling. And another guest had been baptized once as an infant, again as a believer, and a third time, for good measure, in the Jordan River while on a tour of Israel.
So the fact that various churches held different positions on the issue of baptism had allowed us to move back and forth between them and so have experiences (double and triple baptisms) that nobody was teaching were normative. For me this is something of a parable: maybe what matters most is not that all of these differences be resolved, even though they seem to be about very important things, but that people genuinely grow and learn and deepen their faith and commitment to God as they are exposed to these various understandings. Because it’s entirely possible that some of the truths of our faith are so profound that no one perspective entirely does justice to them. Maybe in some cases it’s the sum of the understandings resident in the community of faith that’s closest to the truth that will enable us to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”