When I last wrote about my story Scott and I were starting to really have doubts about the doctrine of sola scriptura. However, in my typical stubborn fashion I wasn’t ready to admit this to my parents. Nor was I fully ready to let go of this belief. So, in our “friendly” Sunday dinner debates we challenged them with questions about what Catholics believed about baptism and salvation and other issues. Privately we kept studying sola scripture and the issue of “authority” when it comes to interpretation of scripture.
Meanwhile we were visiting Protestant churches and looking for a new church home. As I look back on it now, it seemed almost pointless because we had so many theological questions running through our heads at this point. How could we find a church until these questions were answered?
On one particular Sunday we drove 50 minutes to attend a Calvary Chapel fellowship (Calvary Chapel is a “non-denominational” church founded by Chuck Smith in California during the period of the “Jesus Movement.”) Interestingly, two things happened on that day that convinced us that we could not choose a church until we not only knew “what” we believed but also “why” we accepted it to be the truth.
During our drive to this church we listened to a series of debates between some leaders of the founding Calvary Chapel fellowship in California and some lay Catholics who were converts to the church. As we listened we found ourselves challenged by the Catholic interpretation of scripture. Neither of us had ever met a Catholic who could defend and explain their beliefs like these men. To be quite honest, I’d never met a Catholic who really knew scripture much less one who could defend their beliefs with Biblical support. But these Catholic men were different. They not only knew scripture, they offered intepretations of scripture that were more than reasonable; in fact their interpretations of scripture cast reasonable doubt upon the anti-catholic arguments put forth by the Calvary Chapel leaders. Some of those anti-catholic arguments were ones that Scott and I had been taught and willingly accepted as truth. Of course, we were far from agreeing with the Catholic position but before getting out of the car I remember looking at Scott and saying, “wherever we end up it has to be a church that has clearly defined and consistent teaching of its theology.”
As we arrived we were greeted by some close friends who attended this church. We settled into our seats to hear the sermon after a time of musical prasie and worship. One of the things we really enjoyed and still enjoy about Calvary Chapel is its use of contemporary worship music and the emphasis they put on entering into praise and worship in song. To be honest, this was one of the things that drew us to the Calvary Chapel fellowship.
The sermon on this day was given by a pastor visiting from another Calvary Chapel fellowship. At one point during the sermon this pastor made a statement about salvation that contradicted the position of the Calvary Chapel leaders we’d just listened to on the way to church. While I don’t remember all the particulars of the subject I do remember thinking “this doesn’t seem right, what exactly does this church believe and teach?” After the service Scott mentioned the contradiction to our friend and asked him what the church teaches and believes on this matter. Our friend didn’t really have a concrete answer. Apparently, while these fellowships are associated, the doctrines of this association of fellowships are not clearly spelled out. Each fellowship is led by a pastor and that pastor does the teaching and interpretation of scripture for their church. One Calvary Chapel fellowship website puts it this way,
“…many Christians have asked exactly what Calvary Chapel believes, what are its distinctives, what sets it apart from other Christian groups. At Calvary Chapel, we have always been hesitant to try and answer those questions, not because we are unsure of our beliefs, but because we are cautious to avoid division within the Body of Christ.
We long for unity among God’s people of all persuasions, and we allow for a great deal of flexibility even within our own ranks. Calvary Chapel pastors are not clones who all believe exactly the same thing. Still, there are distinctives that make Calvary Chapel unique and which define our mission.”
It was no coincidence that we listened to these debates and heard these contradictions in doctrinal teaching on the same day. We were seeing the consequences of the doctrine of sola scriptura first hand, up close and personal. Neither of these pastors from Calvary Chapel taught the same thing on salvation and yet they both taught as if their interpretations of scripture were truth. The strange thing to us was that this contradiction in teaching and “truth” was acceptable within this denomination. We couldn’t help but wonder how, if this was acceptable, church members could be “sure” of the beliefs of the church and sure they were being taught the truth? It was obvious to us that this contradiction was the direct result of subscribing to the doctrine of sola scriptura. With no binding authority, the interpretation of scripture is left up to each individual and what they believe the Holy Spirit is telling them it means. As a result, we saw competing doctrinal teachings within the same “denomination.” “Truth” was relative and dependent upon one’s own private interpretation of scripture. This didn’t sit well with us. While for some people, doctrine doesn’t seem to matter, Scott and I had a hard time accepting that God intended for his church to be teaching conflicting doctrines.
I think it’s important to say that there are many good things happening in the lives of Christians who attend Calvary Chapel fellowships. My sharing this is not meant to criticize these fellowships or their members. We could have easily had this experience at any number of protestant church denominations or “non-denominations.” And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that although the Catholic Church does have a binding teaching magesterium, sadly there are priests, bishops and lay leaders in the Catholic Church who do not always keep their teachings in line with the official teachings of the church. God just happened to use this experience in this Calvary Chapel fellowship to confirm what he’d already been speaking to our hearts; the doctrine of sola scriptura doesn’t work.
It was now time for us to determine what we believe and why we are willing to accept it as truth. It was time to start asking “by what authority” is this person or church speaking or teaching? Why should we accept this interpretation of scripture as “truth?” For that matter, “why do I accept my own personal interpretations of scripture as truth?”
These questions would drive us as we began to go deeper in our study of specific doctrines and as we continued in our efforts to try and talk my parents out of becoming Catholic.