Protestants group themselves into distinct denominations. These denominations put forth official statements of faith and profess a belief in certain doctrines and creeds, all of which define their theology as opposed to other denominations. But at the individual level, among the men and women in the pew, one is likely to find a variety of conflicting beliefs held by members of the same group. This is because Protestantism rejects the Church as the final authority for settling doctrine, and this naturally causes Protestants to question the authority of even their own denominational church on matters of doctrine.
And so, adding to what we have already seen in Parts I, II, and III of this series, Sola Scriptura not only causes division and confusion between denominations, but also within the denominations themselves. Each man and woman becomes his or her own final authority on biblical interpretation. If the “Bible Alone” is to be their guide, then each man and woman is left alone to interpret the Bible as they see fit. If Martin Luther can defy his own Church and claim private interpretation as his rule of faith, then so too can very man and woman in the pew.
A Protestant friend of mine once visited a large Evangelical church for Sunday worship at the invitation of a family member. At first he felt as though he shared a common faith with the people around him. He felt as though they were all worshipping the same God, and believing essentially the same things about that God. And so they were worshipping as one. That is until they came to the Communion service. As they each took a little cube of bread and a tiny paper cup filled with grape juice, he noticed that each person received these elements with a different attitude. Some had a sense of reverence and solemnity that was visible on their face and in their mannerisms. Others were casual in their approach, chewing the bread as though it were no more than a snack they bought at a movie theater, and slamming back the juice like shots in a bar. Some prayed afterwards, some turned to chat with their neighbors. Everyone seemed to have a different sense of what was taking place.
[I might add here that the practice of shot-glass communion and trays of bread-cubes or crackers passed around on platters adds a certain symbolic individualism to Communion as well. No one is asked to come forward to receive. You can “stay where you are” and communion will be dispensed to you in neat little packages. Just as they are not required to physically leave their seats or drink from the same cup, these same Christians feel no need to move from their theological positions or to drink from the church’s wisdom when they are in disagreement with the church or with one another. They “stay where they are” and drink their own cup. This practice has become very popular among many Protestant denominations. And I think it shows an indirect link to the individualism of their faith.]
After this experience, my friend began to notice the same sort of things in his own Methodist church. Eventually he asked his minister about the official Methodist teaching on certain doctrines. But the answers that he received only revealed to him that his own beliefs were at a variance with the official Methodist teaching. And conversations he had with fellow Methodists revealed further disagreements. These issues gnawed at him until his death a few years later. He struggled with how a church can be a “church” when its members fail to see eye-to-eye on so many doctrines.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Bible-only Protestants this crisis of faith, as experienced by my friend, never enters their mind. They either float through their faith unaware of these doctrinal differences, or they justify it as I have been told during online debates: “If my preacher teaches something that I think is unbiblical, then obviously he is wrong and the Bible is right. I have no problem disagreeing with him or anyone else in my church, because I don’t need a church to spoon-feed me my faith.”
Or to put it more succinctly: Personal interpretation trumps the Church’s authority to teach doctrine.
In Part V we will explore this idea further.