One of my oft-mentioned, favorite celebrity pastors, Ed Stetzer, shared a list of his ten most popular articles of 2017. Topping that list was a response to Hank Hanegraaff eschewing Evangelical Christianity for Eastern Orthodox. From that article:
Yet, the evangelical bent towards Western individualism has opened the door to an ‘every Bible for itself’ mentality where, combined with the digital age, rogue armchair theologians can be equipped with major influence without proper ecclesiological accountability. It’s a bit of a “me version” world of Bible translation. Lacking a central definition and protection of truth can cause (and has caused) much of evangelicalism’s problems.
Growing up Pentecostal and Baptist, I was taught that all have the ability to interpret God’s word. That the ability to read and understand scripture isn’t limited to a select few who distribute meaning and discernment to the body at large.
I still believe this to be true. All of us are drawn by God to read his word, to understand how it applies in our lives, and to better creation through His guidance.
However, a crucial part of that guidance is educated discernment and proper application. Attempting to interpret scripture’s meaning without the necessary hermeneutical analysis is asking for trouble. What was the context of a book and chapter? Who was it written to? Is the book historical? Narrative? An epistle? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, you’re not prepared to offer interpretation of the text.
Therein lies the problem with American Evangelicalism. Lacking a real authoritative council of any sort, individual churches and denominations are free to interpret scripture however they choose. We run into silly things like churches splitting over whether or not singing should be a capella.
Does this mean Evangelicalism needs a figurehead analogous to the Pope? Most certainly not. What it does need, however, is the realization that the highly-educated DMins and PhDs of theology know what they’re talking about. That educated leaders are more trustworthy on discernment than a self-proclaimed “modern-day prophet of Christ” with his guilded-edge 1611KJV, or a skinny-jeans hipster with The Message in fourteen editions.
This does not mean that only highly educated people should interpret scripture. It means that if one wishes to understand and interpret scripture, they should first receive a basic understanding of how to interpret scripture. And this is sorely lacking in the vast majority of evangelical churches in America.
Far too many Baptists, Pentecostals, and other low-church attendees feel the epitome of a strong Biblical education is reading the Bible cover-to-cover at least once a year. While that is indeed an admirable goal and worthy accomplishment, it’s nowhere near the end-all of Biblical understanding. It’s no different than reading a menu and thinking you can prepare a four-star meal.
This is where high-church, liturgical denominations are greatly out-performing their low-church counterparts. To become a leader within the Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, or Catholic branches of Christianity requires years of rigorous training and study. To become a Baptist or Pentecostal minister, you simply need a majority vote of the congregation.
This irresponsible freedom of selection has given us the hodge-podge goulash of faith and opinion we see in America today. It has given us poorly-equipped soldiers of Christ waging war with ill-fitting fatigues and no marching orders.
It is high-time that American Christians returned to their high-church roots. We must regain a faith which embraces religious vocations as something requiring years of training, not just a belief that one has a “gift.” We must return to a liturgy which guides our worship, delivered by an educated and accountable laity. Only then will Christianity stop hemorrhaging followers fed up with inconsistent, illogical teaching by ill-equipped leaders and teachers.