Grace in the Crisis of Authority

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I first encountered the Protestant crisis of authority my senior year in college. When I realized Christianity contained Baptist and not the other way around, it occurred to me that maybe the tent was wider than I initially envisioned. The crisis was agitated when I realized evolution was a thing and that “biblical” actually meant “our understanding of the Bible.” I needed to hear that much of what we called “biblical truth” was simply our interpretation, and that we were probably kind of right and we were probably kind of wrong and that was okay. The crisis peaked when I reconnected with friends who were asked to leave our circle because they had “gone astray” and I found them living like Jesus. These were the supposed heretics, the lost sheep, and the prodigals, but they smelled like saints to me.

So I did what anyone does when they start to wonder if they’ve been lied to about all of reality: I ate ice cream, ran marathons, smoked cigarettes, and went to church. I cried my questions at anyone who would listen: “Have we just made all this up to create meaning?!” And I wanted them to convince me we hadn’t, but I also knew I wouldn’t believe them if they tried. Answers, at that point, only agitated my angst because I didn’t know who to trust. So many people said such different things and they all seemed so reasonable and so Christian.

Evangelicals have always said the Bible is our ultimate authority, which is why I memorized entire books and read it cover-to-cover time and again. But when I looked to the Bible to settle serious debates, I came away feeling like it wasn’t the ultimate authority in the simple way they made it sound. I couldn’t find clear answers because, along with all humans everywhere, I’m a biased interpreter. What does it mean for the Bible to be our ultimate authority when we can support so many different ethical frameworks with the exact same text? Liberation theology and Calvinism are both based on the Bible, but they have very different consequences in real time and space where humans make choices that cause harm and bring healing.

So we turn to the church to help us answer these questions—we interpret the text in community. To which church do we turn as we seek to settle our questions though? We’re told to submit ourselves to those in leadership, and there’s wisdom in seeking guidance from elders, but we Protestants choose which church to join, which leaders to follow. A gay college student will receive very different advice from a Southern Baptist pastor than an Episcopal priest, yet both are equally devoted to God and earnest in their pursuit of truth.

You see the struggle: we follow the guidance of those in authority, but we’re left to choose which authority to listen to, which places the burden of decision back on ourselves. We humbly allow the Bible to direct us toward what is right and true, but we only see in part and we’re left to decide the text means this instead of that when equally devout theologians land in vastly different places. I don’t think this means truth is totally subjective or that we can’t land on some shared values, but the crisis of authority complicates what initially seems like such a simple faith.

Imagine how demoralizing it is when your body happens to be at the center of one of the controversies. The crisis of authority is exacerbated when your entire life is dependent upon whose advice (or which interpretation) you choose to trust when they all make so much sense.

Which is why we need a lot of grace for one another regardless of which path we take. Many Christians encourage people to explore their questions as long as that the journey leads to a particular viewpoint. What we need is to provide a safe place for people to explore what God might have in store for them as whole humans who are wired to give and receive love with their bodies–a place that remains safe even if they come to different conclusions. These are scary questions to ask in the first place, and the fears are magnified when your acceptance in a community is contingent upon you landing in very particular place.

What stabilized me through my post-college crisis was the belief that God was there, that Jesus was God, and that redemption was real. I knew that when everything fell apart someone held me together and that someone was the spirit of God. That didn’t resolve my crisis over what to believe and why, but it whispered to the fear beneath it all and said I was loved. These days I find myself dreaming of a church that safe with a love that large, and I’m encouraged by all the Christians who quietly reach out to me to say, “me too.”

20 Responses

  1. Denise Dewalt

    Julie, this is a wonderful article. Thank you for graciously articulating everything that I feel and think about. Your thoughtfulness and wisdom is beautiful. So grateful that you are writing and sharing your journey. So helpful! Thank you!!

  2. A

    Yeah… I mean pretty similar here except that I kept injuring myself trying to run the marathons and I never felt any sense of God being around… to my utter shock and lingering dismay. I trusted that my senses and feelings and experience would acquiesce to my eventually destructive determination to believe.
    And yet, I STILL hope I’m wrong.

  3. A

    Subtly fastwalking out of youth and young adult Bible studies to have some confused tears and jog around the neighborhood surrounding the building and then slip back in after some eye drops just in time to tell a joke and catch the last five minutes of worship and my ride home was my top coping skill.
    Please actually dont allow my comments through. I’m worried someone will recognize me.

    Thamk you for your honesty. It gives me hope.

  4. A

    There’s also this theology present in all the churches I’ve been in that anxiety is a sin we’re supposed to repent from. So that was stressful.

  5. Diana C. Pearce

    I just wanted to chime in to say “Me, too!” I have found a (gay-friendly) congregation that is practicing respect and inclusion despite disagreements. I find it important to note that during my (10 year) search for a loving church I did not in any way change my core beliefs about my relationship with God through Christ. I just changed from listening to those who claim they have the only “right” way to practice their faith. I would really like to work toward helping the church practice the inclusive love that Christ demonstrated. Julie, do you do speaking engagements?

  6. Tom Frens

    Julie: To your last sentence I want to add my “Me too!” God bless you, Jesus-sister 🙂

  7. Christine Callan

    Julie! You must come visit Durham! I would love for you to experience a welcome like one I never dreamed possible! Plus, word on the street is, you have a lot of already friends here (though we have yet to meet:)!

  8. Jess Leach

    Hi Julie, have you ever thought about the Catholic Church? Your post seems to be crying out for unity of faith, authority and grace… Like many others, I had to go on a journey before I could accept Catholicism, but I’m so grateful to God for leading me here. Thank you for loving Jesus and wishing you a blessed Christmas. Yours in Christ, Jess

  9. Brittany

    There has to be a happy medium between condemning homosexuality and accepting it as righteous before God. I believe that if Jesus were here, He would have been able to find that middle ground and He would have done it in the simplest, most graceful of ways. I am still holding onto the belief that the middle ground DOES exist, and that we just haven’t found it yet. For me that middle ground means keeping my eyes on Jesus. Questions and fuzzy, gray lines try to fight their way in all the time: “How can love be wrong?”, “How can I be happy without a life-partner?”, etc. And every time Jesus reminds me to keep my gaze upon Him, lest I sink into the waves…

  10. Kelly

    “What we need is to know that no matter what, we’re in this together”, such powerful words. We all need to know that we are not alone, that we have people standing beside who will love us not matter what direction we turn down.

    I am part of an online support group of Christians who are working through faith and same-sex attraction, and there is freedom to be completely honest. I know I can (and I have) say to the group, “I am really struggling right now. I’m falling into despair; please pray for me”. Their responses aren’t, “Don’t despair, everything is ok! Get over it!” Instead, I hear things like, “We’re all in this together”, “I’m praying for you”, and am encouraged with Scripture. When I heard, “We’re all in this together”, I burst out into tears. To know that am I loved even at my lowest moments and in moments when I am not sure of what I think of everything, is so transforming and healing.

    I know where I stand, but I can also understand why others take different stances. My hope is that we can learn from each other, pray for each other, and hope that we all grow to learn how to best glorify God in our lives. I think sometimes we think too much of ourselves. Even if I feel like I have a solid understanding of a particular aspect of faith. I am so utterly far from understanding all of who God is. There is a chance that I may change my mind a few years down the road, who knows? I now have less anxiety about finding where I stand on every single detail and aspect of faith, and am more concerned about how I am actively pursuing Jesus and making him the center of my life. When I am doing that, I have confidence that God meets me where I am and teaches me about myself, Himself, and how to bring Him glory. Being obsessed with pinning down our exact theological view of certain topics can put too much pressure on ourselves and minimizes our trust in God that He will lead us in paths of righteousness and that we He will reveal himself to us when we seek him with all of our heart.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article!

  11. Robert


    Are you not assuming that the text of Scripture does not have a fixed meaning? That all uses of the Bible are legitimate and true to its intent? Granted determining the intent of a text takes work, but I’m reading this post as “Oh well, everyone disagrees on the text so no one should be certain about what it says?” Maybe I’m misreading you, but if that is what you are basically saying, I’d like to know why I can’t interpret this post you gave as a call for us to be so dogmatic of our own position that we condemn to hell anyone who disagrees with us. Your words can be read in many different ways as well, after all.

  12. Meg Baatz

    Julie, this is a difficult place to be. Thank you for inviting people to consider what God has put on your mind and heart. Thank you for not giving up on the Bride. Thank you for fighting through bitterness and sincerely listening to anybody and everybody. You are not only welcomed; you are needed.

  13. Jennie

    Thank you so much for this, Julie. I’m straight, so I have far less bound up in terms of implications for me on interpreting the bible, and its authority over my body, but the starting step to walking away from my strictly evangelical faith and church was when I started to become aware of the depth and breadth of the oppression and prejudice and hurtful behaviour to the LGBT community, and was no longer prepared to just accept it as “well, that’s what scripture says”. That pushed me to question scriptural authority, explore hermeneutics, and acknowledge the immense privielge I have as a white cishet educated western woman. I’m still at my equivalent to the smoking and marathon running, and there’s only infrequent church going, as I’m not entirely sure I believe anything anymore, but I’m trying to embrace living in the tension, rather than walking away entirely. Reading your posts helps with that, so thank you!

  14. Sheri Dan

    Julie, are you aware that many, many people who identify as gay have very different stories from yours? The “gay stories” which appear on your site all have the same familiar ring: “I was born this way, I AM gay, I cannot change”. These “stories” comprise what scientists call “convenience samples,” or “self-selecting samples”. Samples of this type tend to be weighted more toward outliers rather than the mean (average) or the full range exhibited by a total population. For this reason, scientists have an antipathy to such samples. You and your readers may find it helpful to view, and interact with, an academic point of view such as that presented by lesbian psychologist Dr. Lisa Diamond, who, based on numerous studies (with large, random, representative samples), has arrived at the conclusion that all humans, including those identifying as “gay,” have a potential for “sexual fluidity,” or attraction to both male and female. See her video recorded at Cornell University:

    Perhaps you could also interact with Rosaria Butterfield’s comments on “gay Christian” identity. She says, “And like others of my ilk, I know that sexual orientation is an invented category of personhood. Indeed, even from the old feminist perspective that I sported back in the day, I knew that sexual orientation as an identity was a category mistake…The concept of sexual orientation was first used by Sigmund Freud…Freud was–intentionally or not–suppressing the biblical category of being made in God’s image male and female, and replacing it with an invented category, that of sexual identity… As believers, we must be clear: personal identity based on sexual orientation defines self-hood as the sum total of our FALLEN human desires.” (my emphasis) Rosaria explains in another article, “While she affirms celibate gay Christians, she says they should not use ‘gay’ as a descriptive adjective. ‘The job of the adjective is to change the noun’.” Aren’t we all to be simply “Christians” ? See and

  15. Tom

    I agree that it’s hard being Protestant. But it sounds like it’s still messy being Catholic. Apparently a lot of Catholics follow the “practical” morality of each other, rather than the official teaching of the Holy See.

    But if we are going to regard the various views of various types of sincere Christians as equally respectable or perhaps even equally valid, then are we being arbitrary in not treating non-christian religion the same way? Are we being arbitrary in not treating the sincere beliefs of atheists as equally valid? I dont think sincerity of belief is a strong reason to regard a belief as being valid. There are many people who sincerely believe all sorts of things, but in at least some cases, experience shows that those sincere beliefs are invalid. EG non-religious beliefs which actually can be disproven, such as a belief that the earth is flat.

    I would hope that most Christians have reasons why they think they are following the one true God (IE why they believe other gods are invalid). And likewise, I would hope that most Christians would have reasons why they believe their interpretation of Scripture is valid. I would hope also, that most Christians do not simply accept everything their denomination or their pastor teaches, but rather they weigh up their particular beliefs compared to the beliefs of others. Because at the end of the day, not all beliefs and not all interpretations of Scripture are equally sensible, reasonable, logical or aligned with what the early Christians believed.

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