Authority

We sit chatting at our Sunday night happy hour open house.  She’s  leaving this week for grad studies out of state and this will perhaps be the last time I see her.  She has an impossibly beautiful smile and a keen mind overlaying troubles and doubts and fears that walk with her through the rooms  of her life.  A friend has come along tonight.  He’s visited once or twice before, roommates with her boyfriend.  He asks me a curious question – what is a change you can think of in your theology?

The question strikes me as curious immediately.  What changes in my theology?  Is theology mine?  Am I free to change it?  Or is theology something I have received, that I can build upon and expand and grow in my depth of understanding and appreciation, but which I am not free to change outside of discarding error as I uncover it in myself?  A million thoughts flash through my mind.  What is he really getting at?  What changes has his theology undergone?  And what do you want to learn or know by asking a pastor about how his theology changes?

I bring up a theological doctrine of sorts  I was introduced to in Seminary that I have grown in my fondness for, even if I can’t substantiate it in this lifetime and may never even in eternity, touching as it does on the inner workings and relationships of the Trinity.  I talked about how amazed I was the first time it was suggested that Jesus did not perform signs and wonders within his own power and authority as the Second Person of the Trinity, but rather God the Holy Spirit performed signs and wonders through him by the directing of God the Father.  Essentially similar to how the apostles and other followers of Christ have performed miracles – not on their own power or authority but through the  power and authority of the Holy Spirit.  Though of course Jesus was the perfect conduit for such power in his perfect obedience to the will of God.

She brings up almost immediately how she still struggles with the role of women in the church.  It’s not relevant, but it’s on her mind.  She flashes her smile as I respond that her issue isn’t so much with the Church perhaps as it is with Scripture.  Heretic here, remember?  I’m the heretic.  She smiles again.  I know a bit of her story, raised Christian but with experiences and doubts that haven’t been addressed or remedied.  And now recently graduated from a local Christian university where, she admits next, she was taught to be a feminist.  The smile and the heresy comment are  meant to defuse and deflect.  No need to really grapple with what might be truth in this regard because we can just dance around the heretic term as though it doesn’t really mean anything.

I believe her assessment is accurate – she arrived at this Christian university with one set of ideas and understandings, and those were altered or added to during her four years there.  In part a good university should do this.  But in the realm of theology this becomes tricky, as I suppose it is in any realm.  But the ramifications of changes or additions in the realm of theology have potentially eternal consequences – something very unique to this realm.

I ponder as the conversation eventually trails off.  Raised for the first eighteen years of her life with one set of beliefs, she has now set those aside because of things she was presented with in four years of undergraduate schooling.  Because these things were presented as the intellectual, educated position, no doubt.  Because she was challenged I’m sure, to adopt these not just for herself but for her entire gender.

And so a person’s theology changes.  But doesn’t just change, in this instance.  Changes so that the source and foundation of that theology ceases to be the revealed, sacred text it derives from and becomes something else.  Something personally dictated.  Authority switches from the Word of God expressed in human language to the personal beliefs or preferences of an individual or a larger but transitory culture.

So perhaps her response was more on topic than I first assumed.

This has over and over and over again been the point of conflict and disagreement in theological discussions on Sunday night.  What or who is your authority?  And over and over and over again it has become very clear that even for professing Christians, the Word of God is not their authority.  It is their personal emotional concerns or worries.  It is the cultural expectations they are inculcated with, expectations of how you define things like equality.  And that if the Word of God doesn’t back their definitions or ideas or even directly contradicts them, they’re more apt to discard the Word of God – or at least that particular part of it – and hold on to their own feelings and ideas.

Now, to be sure we all do this in small ways, most likely.  There are aspects of God’s Word that confuse or frighten us, that we avoid thinking about and reading.  This is sinful, of course, but it is different than outright confronting these issues and seeking to faithfully adhere to God’s Word even if it means discarding our own ideas and preferences.  This trend that I see and hear so often now is very dangerous indeed.

And others recognize this as well.

The role of the Church is to teach and reinforce the faith, as conveyed to us through the Word of God, and as made sense of in both doctrine and practice.   The Church should equip men and women with these abilities so they in turn can instill them in their children, not simply as rote memorization but in an active and alive sense so that their children grow to be men and women who, assisted and strengthened by the Church, are able and willing to pass these things down to their children.

But this process has been disrupted  in our American Christian culture – or at least parts of it.  Christians are increasingly unfamiliar with the Word of God, resistant to doctrines and practices grounded in it, and increasingly willing to discard all of this in order to cobble together a set of beliefs and practices that better support their authority – themselves.

Here is just one recent example of another article saying exactly the same thing.

Note several paragraphs down how younger people are discarding organized orthodox religion (doctrine and practice) for a smorgasbord of other  concepts and practices, often drawn together from diverse and contradictory traditions.  Not that they necessarily believe any of this, it’s a matter of convenience, of serving the purpose of reinforcing their own authority.  If they find that it no longer does that, they can discard it without any feelings of guilt or any concerns about eternal ramifications.  None of that is real, anyways, right? is the basic gist here.  If there is anything greater than us out there, it probably likes us and isn’t very interested in what we do beyond wanting us to be nice and happy.  And if there’s nothing greater than us out there, well, might as well be the me I’d like to be, right?

She  leaves this week for graduate school and starting life in a new place.  She’s bright and beautiful and has a wonderful boyfriend and likely a future together with him.  I’ll pray for her and him and them.  Not simply for their relationship but for their authority, that it would be not  simply the faith of their fathers, so to speak, but the faith as revealed in the Word of God.  Even when they don’t like it or it feels restrictive or when it clashes with societal notions.  Even when their professors (at a Christian university) won’t back it or support it but put out their own ideas and their culturally formed notions instead.

Authority matters a great deal, and you can’t claim to be Christian if you reject the authority of the Word of God, just as you can’t claim to be a good Muslim if you reject the Quran.  We can have theological discussions or debates about interpretation to some level, and this is good and helpful.  But to skip that quest and grappling for truth  in favor of just ignoring the bits we don’t like so we can do and think and be the things we prefer, that is a big problem.  For the Church, for families, for the world, and possibly for eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

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