I’ve often cited one of the benefits of ‘being Baptist’, (or any kind of free church) as the idea of freedom of conscience – the ability to think for ourselves and hold different / dissenting opinions on various issues. There is no central ‘rule’ in Baptist churches and no one person who calls the shots. The ‘church’ doesn’t tell us what to think or do and if they try to we usually get gnarly about it. For example, our church (QBC) has no official stance on same sex marriage. The upside of this is a decrease in the level of control exerted over people – a lessened call to conformity. No one gets shoved around or forced to comply with a theological position they don’t hold.
I have always felt for Catholics whose church makes decisions and decrees and then expects it’s members to toe the line.
But this week I was reflecting on the weaknesses in our own system. When no one gets to call the shots then everyone gets to frame truth their own way. When there is no recognised authority then in an increasingly individualised world we often find that authority in ourselves. We become our own reference point – our own best guide. You have to admit that is a bit scary…
While I am attracted to the freedom of this perspective I’ve also become disturbed by the conclusions it allows people to reach and it has prompted me to consider the value of the ‘Catholic’ model – placing authority in the church – being willing to submit to the church’s authority. That’s a big call I know…
Our approach assumes people read scripture, listen to God and discern his mind on issues, and when we come together we practice communal discernment. It’s a great idea…
The truth is we are more often driven primarily by the winds of culture and sometimes – not that often – by what we see the Bible saying – if we can read it diligently enough and coherently enough to make sense of it. Honestly – I don’t think more than 20% of people do this – and I’m being generous.
The Catholic way assumes that some people are able to read the Bible much more capably than others and that they are then able to discern a) what God is saying b) what is best for the church. It assumes that on our own we will likely veer into a ditch of misinterpretation and misapplication. It then expects it’s members to accept the statements the church makes. In our current climate the Catholic Church is clear on its stance on same sex marriage – but if you’re a catholic I’m guessing no one sought your opinion or input!
The problem with the Catholic way is that when the bloke/s at the top (because it’s not gonna be the women) gets it wrong then everyone gets it wrong for a very loooong time! There is minimal opportunity for grass roots questioning and dissent. And history has shown that we do get doctrine wrong sometimes.
Ok so there is no perfect method but lately I’ve found myself veering somewhat back towards a church that is willing to take a stand and call it’s constituents to fall in line. Why? Not because I want to retard individual thought but rather because I sense we have lost the ability to submit – to think communally and to allow someone we disagree with to speak for us.
In an increasingly individualised world I sense we are going to splinter theologically into thousands of pieces unless we are willing to allow ‘the church’ to speak for us in some way. I’m not sure how that plays out – and I honestly I don’t like the thought of having my own freedom impinged upon – but I can’t help but wondering if we are going to end up tripping over our own autonomy and finish up in a place of mass confusion.