Our society is obsessed with the freedom for an autonomous individual to make choices about his or her own life without outside influence. The modern American ideal of freedom suggests that true thriving can only happen when we eliminate as many exterior influences acting on us as possible. It is only in the removing of outside agents that we can be as happy or wealthy or beautiful as we hope to be. This is true of much of western culture, but as an American, I will only speak to my own American context.
The idea that happiness is dependent on freedom to choose is quite apparent in American Protestant churches today. For the first 1500 years of the Western Church almost all Christians were Roman Catholic. If you were a Western Christian, you showed up at the Catholic Church, did the things that Catholics did, believed the things that Catholics believed, and submitted to the papal authority. You didn’t get to argue about theology, worship style, or how good the preacher was. You just went to the church that was closest to your home.
After the Reformation the Protestant churches began to divide exponentially. Western Christians were no longer bound by the idea that being Christian was equal to being Roman Catholic. All of the sudden you could disagree about the nature of the Sacraments or Apostolic Succession and still be considered a Christian by a large body of other professing Christians. This is not to say that other Christian denominations didn’t exist before the Reformation. We can look to the entire Eastern Orthodox Church or the Syrian Nestorians for evidence of previous Christian division. However, the Protestant movement has been the source of exponential division that is unparallel in any other branch of Christendom.
The American ideal of religious freedom stands on the shoulders of the Protestant ethic that gives individuals the ability to interpret Scriptures on their own. Surely, the ability for a layperson to be able to read the Bible for themselves in their native language is a gift. However, it is also the source of a lot of our problems. We have thousands of Protestant denominations and even more unaffiliated non-denominational churches that have split because the leaders of the churches have a different method of interpreting Scripture.
Do you interpret Christian justification as by grace alone through faith alone? You can be a Lutheran.
Do you tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty as God’s primary characteristic? You can be Presbyterian.
Do you think that good works are an important part of the pursuit of holiness? We’d love to have you at the Methodist party.
Because of the Reformation’s democratization of biblical interpretation we have the ability to choose what is right for us. But, honestly, I’m a bit exhausted by the need to “choose my own theology” that fits me best. This kind of project seems so selfish. Besides, every time I find myself comfortably in a theological camp I make a new friend who wrecks my ability to stay there anyway.
I have had at least half a dozen mentors from widely different theological backgrounds make a huge impact on my life. This has caused me to find a lot of good in a lot of different traditions. It has also caused me to see that there is bad in all of them.
What is a perplexed Protestant to do? Where do I find my theological home? There are a few options available to me:
- I can pick the lesser of the evils. I can pick a tradition based on their historical tendency to not murder. I can choose based on the way that they interact with Scripture.
- I can take the typical American Protestant Christian route and just start my own church. I can’t find one that I fully agree with so I will just do my own thing that is tailored to my needs.
- I can become Catholic and just submit to the historic authority of a church that has practically been structured the same way for over a thousand years. In the Catholic Church you never have to worry about someone coming up with a new way of interpreting Scripture or whether or not something is a sin. They just tell you what to think.
- I can learn to love the church that I’m in.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different churches that were incredibly formative in unique ways… but the UMC is where I came from. To be completely honest, I couldn’t have told you much about specific UMC theological stances until about 6 months ago. However, I have decided that I am going to make the Methodist church my home.
I decided that I was going to stop trying to find the right church for me. I decided to stop trying to form church in my own image… I decided that I’m the one that needs to be formed by my church.
The United Methodist Church isn’t perfect. But the United Methodist Church is my home. I’m going to learn to love it.
My quest to find the right church fell apart because I found that looking for “the right church” is a lot like looking for the right phone. I was concerned with how my new church would fit my needs and make me happy. But the church isn’t made for me to be happy. The church is made for me to worship God.
What does church have to do with me?