Moving from the conservative south to the liberal east coast sent me into a spiritual panic attack. I had discovered this beautiful, historical Episcopal church and decided I would attend there for my first plunge into worshipping on Sunday. The second time I went the priest gave a sermon on unity because he had just voted in a practicing homosexual as bishop and he knew it was going to cause a schism in the church. I came unglued and as the church was emptying onto the outside entryway where the priest was greeting everyone at the door, I began shaking as I heard affirmation after affirmation of the priest’s decision by elderly--supposedly full of wisdom by that age--parishioners.
Just as I was about to slip out of line and run for my car, I was pushed forward towards the priest who stuck out his hand to shake mine. I burst into tears and told him that his vote was horrible and against God. You should have seen the look on his face and those around him. Then I dashed off to my car, sobbing in confusion.
On my way home, I spotted a Lutheran church still having services and pulled into the parking lot. I needed a good dose of real Christianity, so I slipped into the back during the sermon and stayed afterward to speak to the pastor. Very sweetly, he sat down with me to discuss the reason for my renewed tears. When I poured forth what the Episcopal priest had just said and lamented about the liberalization of Christianity, I was expecting some sympathetic support. He looked at me, wide eyed and told me he was a homosexual. I cocked my head to the side and stared at him catatonically. Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.
I found my way back to my car, almost fainting. Is this what Christianity had come to? Maybe I should find my way back into Adventism. NO! I shall not retreat back into error because other denominations have error.
Over the next few years I encountered pastor after pastor who used the original Greek texts to prove that God did not condemn homosexuality, only promiscuity. One heterosexual pastor who had been married for three decades wrote his dissertation on the subject and was utterly convinced that Christians had mistranslated the original passages and had spread homophobia where the authentic scriptures had never condemned same-sex marriage.
I asked myself, “Who do you believe? What if scripture had been mistranslated into English? How was I to know?” I became very discouraged.
Every single church I attended was utterly, sincerely praying for the Spirit to reveal truth and live righteously. The kindest, most loving and generous Christians were often in the most outlandishly liberal churches--churches that preached that the Bible was dangerously anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and corrupted through the years of copying. (After all, we have no original manuscripts and the copies we have are copies of copies of copies... for two thousand years. They, practically speaking, could not be perfect anymore, let’s be reasonable, they insisted.)
It seemed many of the churches (or at least the members themselves) had accepted the inevitability of Christian Relativism. They shrugged off the idea of absolute truth as unimportant. What mattered was the experience we had, doctrine was passé. Find a belief and church that works for you, where you feel inspired--forget the rest, they advised. I didn’t buy it. I had read the German philosophers (existentialists, nihilists, anarchists ). I had read Francis Schaeffer. I read the Bible. I seized and clutched firmly to my breast the worldview that there was an absolute truth and we could know it!
So I began the quest--not of figuring out what it was (not yet) but the idea of how one knows absolute truth--an epistemological quest. It must be discernible to the human reason, perception and spirit--but it also must come from a truly objective source. The idea that we receive direct infallible revelation from the Holy Spirit to us as individuals, in reality had turned Christianity into theological chaos. When we all get to decide truth, to personalize truth, then there cannot be absolute truth.
The mayhem of Christian relativism stirred up many other questions that no one was able to answer:
1. The Bible seems to be full of admonishing God’s people to stay unified. Does scripture actually tell us point blank that correct theology is more important that unity or that unity is more important than theology? No one could answer that with a prooftext.
2. Does scripture support the idea of 30,000 different denominations? No prooftext.
3. Why do the Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants all have a different Bible and how do we know which one is the correct one? What about all the different translations? Which one is the most correct and how do we know? Does the Bible tell us what books were to be placed in it? Again, no prooftext.
4. I had been challenged by my Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran friends to pray about the real presence in the Eucharist, because the Bible could be interpreted to mean that the communion bread was really a sacrament or really a symbol. I had prayed about the subject and had had a very dramatic revelation about it. So what do I do about that? Can I trust my revelation? Pastors would drop their jaw at that one and just produce textual evidence that supported their side and insist their interpretation was the only logical, God-breathed one. And of course they all disagreed with each other.
One day while reading some esoteric philosophy about dualism in Greek thought, something popped out at me. The author pointed out that western enlightenment had reintroduced the idea that man was the judge of all truth through his perceptions. It was a Greek philosopher who claimed that “man was the measure of all things.” He mocked that during the Dark Ages man actually believed that God had absolute truth. The neanderthals sought truth outside themselves and their own reason, gullibly convinced that truth must be taught. Of course, scholars now know, modern man is born with the innate ability and right to make all moral judgements themselves.
A thought dawned upon me, maybe, just maybe I have been accepting a secular worldview. Is it possible that man’s perceptions are good for taking in and assessing facts, but because of sin our vision of truth is clouded. Maybe God’s absolute truth is revealed by an outside source and the Holy Spirit uses our faith to “recognize” the truth. Is is possible that the complete truth is not downloaded into my mind’s hard drive by the Holy Spirit as I assumed. I began pondering that one.
A brilliant friend of mine, who had been with me through most of my intense pursuit of truth, seemed frustrated at my discouragement. He offered me some advice that changed my life, “Maybe, Teresa, you should forget about finding truth. Maybe you will never find it looking for it. Maybe you should look for who God put in charge, who is God’ authority for protecting and preserving and teaching the truth.”
At first I dismissed the comments. But the wisdom of them began to grow. Did the Bible actually say who God put in charge of truth? Who to go for when you wanted to find out what He meant when He said something? Humm. Intriguing. So I began to search the scriptures.
During this time I had pulled my dear friend Pastor Steve Cobb aside after a Wednesday evening service and asked him about the interpretation of a certain scriptural passage. I told him my interpretation of it. He corrected me with the “accurate” interpretation. I know he had his Ph.D. but why should his interpretation be better than mine, I asked? He explained that the correct interpretation wasn’t about his personal opinion, but that I couldn’t just make up a new interpretation going against all Christian history and tradition. That was presumptuous and prideful.
I felt a numb icy shock fill my body. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from him. He was telling me that my interpretation needed to stay within the boundaries of Christian history and tradition. He said the “T” word! My next question was too controversial and terrifying to ask. “Which tradition?--the Fundamentalists, the one written in the book, Systematic Theology, the five hundred-year-old Calvinist tradition? Lutheran’s tradition? Oh no--Catholic? That is the oldest right?
Used as a source for early thought on the Sabbath in our book, It’s Okay NOT to be a Seventh-day Adventist, in my living room sat the 10 volume set of Ante-Nicene Fathers’ Writings. Some of these writings were from the bishops who knew and studied under the Apostle’s themselves. These men were anointed by the hands of the Apostles and commissioned to leadership of the church’s the Apostle’s had started. These guys’ opinions would have enormous gravitas. If anyone’s interpretation of scripture could be trusted it would be these guys.
With trepidation I opened the first volume up and began reading the first-century and early second-century writings of the bishop of Rome, Clement and the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp and the Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius. These guys were taught by Peter, Paul and John. This was going to be good....