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.”