I just stumbled onto an article from the Christian Science Monitor that scares me a little bit. It appears that most Americans define their own theology.
According to a recent Barna survey, 71% of Americans are more likely to form their own religious beliefs rather than follow an established tradition. The number rises to 82% for those under the age of 25. These “cafeteria Christians” pick and choose beliefs from among various denominations, and even from non-Christian religions.
Some might argue that this isn’t bad. Many Catholics, and even some Protestants, would see this as the natural outgrowth of sola scriptura–without the authority of the Church, everyone is free to create their own doctrine. This, however, is a corruption of sola scriptura. The corruption of something good should never be confused with the thing itself.
Why is this a scary thing? Look at what people believe: half don’t believe in Satan, a third believe that Jesus sinned, and two-fifths don’t see an obligation to share their faith. These things are clearly contradicted by Scripture. Satan is an established fact, as is Jesus’ sinlessness, and the Great Commission from Jesus himself makes sharing our faith obligatory.
In a point of irony, more Americans believe that right beliefs lead to eternal life than right behavior. Ironic becuase there is no check or balance on what people are believing these days.
But should we expect that to be the case? After all, let’s look at the leading Christians of today. Joel Osteen preaches the centrality of man. T.D. Jakes preaches the prosperity gospel. Look at the Emergent Church leaders and their desire to redefine every doctrine of Christianity for a modern audience. None of these men place any emphasis on the proper discipleship of new Christians, leaving them free to decide what is right for them rather than what is true.
Divorcing Scripture from the tradition used to interpret it is dangerous. How many people are going to read Scripture carefully, and read the history behind it, consult commentaries and set aside the daily study time and devote a large portion of their lives to getting their doctrines right? Few, if any, I’m sure. Instead, they are going to find what makes sense to them and run with it, without ever finding out the history or philosophy behind each doctrine. Few people are going to develop their theology that carefully.
The problem inherent in a concept like sola scriptura is that it puts too many cooks into the kitchen. This isn’t what sola scriptura was ever meant to be.
Biblically speaking, not everyone is called to be a teacher. But we are all called to be disciples of Christ. Like the Bereans, we should search the Scriptures daily to see if what our teachers tell us is true. But we should hesitate to become our own teachers, lending instead some credence to those who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures and history of the church, those who understand sound doctrine and teach it. Everyone becoming their own teachers, as is the trend, fosters spiritual anarchy.