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Home > 2013 > September Web Exclusives > Authority Issues

There is an awful lot of talk these days about why so many people are leaving the church. One of the things we are not discussing as much is why some people are staying. I would like to explore one aspect of that Christian retention.

My friend Derek is a lifelong churchgoer. He is smart, articulate, and has an inquisitive mind. He was raised in a conservative church and spent his college years as an active member of a famous parachurch organization. He even spent a few years in seminary, though he never completed his degree. Derek spent all the way up into his 30s in the loving arms of evangelicalism. Their relationship was not always one of romantic bliss but his conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ always managed to overshadow his existential angst.

Where did his angst come from? Well, truth be told, that is a complicated topic, but one of his most poignant issues was his loss of assurance. When I say assurance, I am not primarily talking about the popular evangelical phrase "assurance of salvation," though I am sure that also comes into play. What I am talking about is assurance in a more ultimate sense. Derek couldn't figure out what was ultimately true. The resulting chaotic assurance-void left was more than Derek could bear.

Desperate for answers

For smart guys like Derek, the evangelical church (at least the particular subculture in which he was raised) had left him with an untenable paradigm for authority. This paradigm had been delivered to him through multiple channels.

At first, the tension was mostly anecdotal. He became exhausted by the intellectually insulting positions that so many people in religious circles take. Derek wanted to slap people who passionately espoused that there are no intellectual quagmires in the Bible. (He wasn't saying that the Bible was false or flawed, he just wanted authorities to stop treating the Bible like a Pollyanna script.) He was annoyed by absolutist beliefs in a 6,000-year-old earth or that Jesus never drank wine, only grape juice. There were also more fundamental quibbles. How could the meaning of the cross be limited to humanity's heavenly destination, when the Bible contains literally thousands of passages about injustice and the poor?

Part of Derek's epistemological crisis was caused by the epistemology of his religious authorities. Citing the reformation-based belief in Sola Scriptura, his leaders taught that he didn't need any external authority to know ultimate truth. Truth was found in the Bible alone with no need for tradition or history. This, coupled a theological individualism, left the center of authority ultimately in, well, Derek. Derek knew "I think therefore I am" and his church told him that all answers could be discovered by any person, if only they obtained the tools to study. (Let's just set aside the fact that these beliefs make God's truth more accessible to the educated elite.)

Ultimately Derek was left to trust himself to logically discern God's truth. Derek is smart, but he knew he wasn't that smart.

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Tony Kriz is a writer and church leader from Portland, Oregon, and Author in Residence at Warner Pacific College.

Related Topics:AuthorityFormationSoul
Posted: September 23, 2013

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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Rick Dalbey

October 03, 2013  5:40pm

There is never a recognition of the real presence of God in this article. Paul heard the voice of Jesus. The “Holy Spirit said”. Peter had visions and trances. The disciples interacted with angels. Philip who bussed tables in a retirement home layed hands on the sick and healed them. Philip cast out demons. His four daughters were prophets. We're not simply left here with a book and some traditions. The Bible should draw us into experience with the living God. Paul’s world is our world and if it is not, we simply have a belief system which is easily overturned. I grew up in the grape juice drinking, 6000 year old creation, keep studying the Bible church, too. That church has now added social justice and good deeds to its To-Do list. Keeps them busy. I rejected it as a teen. Unless God is really there, unless I can know and interact with His personality, unless I TOO can experience the Charisma of the New Testament, I didn't want it. Thank God I met the living Savior and Holy Spirit.

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mark tropeano

October 03, 2013  12:38pm

I am completely confused by this article. Derek is not smart enough to understand what to believe? He now has a peace because he attends an authoritarian church that dogmatically preaches a theology which leaves no questions. Are you kidding me? This kind of thinking is lazy and cowardly. Tyndale, Hus and Wycliffe died in the flames so we could read the Bible in our native tongue so we would not have to commit intellectual suicide. Yes, Luther knew he had a dangerous idea but the alternative is insanity.

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Wesley Dunbar

September 25, 2013  10:59am

When I was I kid in So. Cal. I used to love going to Pacific Ocean Park (P-O-P) and walking through the hall of mirrors; always bumping into myself and wondering about the way through to safety. Such is the case of American Evangelicalism. There is no way through and we are mostly intent at looking at ourselves. Since fundamentalism has hijacked thoughtful conversation we have ignored the wisdom of Classical Protestantism. It is no wonder we find many wandering back to the ancients. Remembering that the Word of God is written, preached and incarnate, might help us find a proper authority and ditch the paper pope idolatry.

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Wayne Detzler

September 24, 2013  1:57pm

This is a fascinating opinion piece, and experience as a 40+ year seminary/university prof confirms Tony's perceptions. For several years I was a dean and professor at a small evangelical seminary. We noted that several star students converted to the Catholic Church upon graduation. One adjunct professor even became Catholic. My experience coincides with Tony's discovery that it was an authority issue, which overrode ecclesiological and soteriological matters completely.

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September 24, 2013  1:25pm

So what church did he end up in? It doesn't say.

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