Friday, June 15, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The Correct Church

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In 2002, Julie Staples (for the Protestant side) debated Apolonio Latar (representing Catholics under the initials ‘AL’).

At one point in their exchange Latar said this:

“Sola Scriptura leads to doctrinal anarchy, which is further reason why you need an infallible authority. Look at all of these Protestant denominations, 30,000 of them the last time I checked. How do you know you’re in the correct church?”

Now it turns out the “30,000” is vastly, wildly overstated, as others have since demonstrated. Regardless, everyone would certainly agree that there are lots of denominations and lots of different beliefs within Christendom.

Tom: So my question is, how would you personally have answered Latar? How do you, Immanuel Can, today, know you’re in the correct church?

Logical Fallacies

Immanuel Can: Well, the first thing I need to mention is a huge mistake — a type of what philosophers call logical fallacies or, in this instance, a non sequitur. Latar’s premise is that people who believe in “only scripture” (sola scriptura) lack an infallible authority. But many Protestants regard scripture as just that — both infallible and authoritative. Thus they have precisely the thing he recommends. Consequently, if he wants to know how you know you’re in the correct church, there’s a very obvious Protestant answer: if you’re in one that the infallible authority approves, then you’re in the right one. Simple.

His supposition, then, is incorrect. It’s not infallible authority he is rationalizing, it’s arbitrary authority; the kind that can crush dissent and impose conformity. In fact, to enforce conformity there’s no reason to suppose the authority in question has to be rightful, correct, truthful or even good, let alone infallible. It just has to be powerful. And the more powerful, the more complete and binding the conformity will be.

Latar’s church already knows this, Stalinists know this, and the Muslims know this. Just kill all the opposition or terrify them into submission, and voila — you’ve got a unified body — no correctness of doctrine required.

But I wouldn’t recommend those methods ...

Infallibility ... or Not

Tom: Quite so. And if we were going to be mean, we might make the point that Latar’s “infallible authority” has historically turned out to be not quite so infallible and his Catholic solidarity not particularly solid. But that’s neither here nor there, so let’s not do the name-calling thing.

But Latar makes a point that should not be ignored, even if his 30,000 number is ridiculously exaggerated. Catholicism at least gives the illusion of solidarity and monolithic consistency, if you squint a bit at history. Protestantism, on the other hand, is clearly and undeniably fragmented — spectacularly fragmented, if we are honest. Is this something scripture anticipates, or do you think it is some kind of aberration?

IC: Yes, it’s anticipated … both by scripture and by sociological observation. Scripturally, we have passages like 1 Corinthians 11:19 and Acts 20:30 that tell us to expect it. Sociologically, we can observe that wherever the individual’s conscience is treated as important, diversities of opinion naturally appear. People have different opinions. That’s just life. Not all of them are correct of course, and certainly they’re not made more correct by the fact that people have them, but diversity of opinion is just a plain fact.

Going Underground

Now, you can force people underground by denying them their conscience, but it’s not necessarily smart to do so. In fact, philosopher John Locke said it was self-defeating on two levels: firstly, that people forced to obey do not really obey from the heart, and secondly that God is not fooled by a forced performance, so it really has no value.

Tom: So while we might be inclined to believe that monolithic solidarity is precisely equivalent to truth, the fact is that the Lord is more concerned that each of us obeys him according to the dictates of our individual consciences, as Paul says in Romans. He knows that even with the help of the Holy Spirit we are currently incapable of doing anything to perfection for very long, especially when you put a bunch of us together. So his concern is primarily that we are pure in heart, rather than omniscient or omnipotent, which would be required to have genuine infallibility.

IC: Oh yes, of course. If uniformity were automatically better, the most deeply indoctrinating cults would be the best religions, wouldn’t they? After all, their followers never seem to have a non-conforming thought, so unity is never in question. But that hardly makes them a good option.

As you point out, some unavoidable imperfection in our understanding is an effect of fallen-ness, and that leads to various degrees of departing from the truth. But greater unity is always possible when we have the Spirit, whose job is to “lead us into all truth”. Submission to the Spirit always increases unity — but without coercion or forced compliance.

The “Correct” Church 

Tom: This idea of a “correct” church is a problem in itself, isn’t it? We’re admitting right at the starting gate that there IS no “correct” church. What Mr. Latar is not willing to face up to is that insisting you are correct or infallible, even over a period of centuries, does not make it so. In fact, in 1992, 36.9% of Catholics denied the doctrine of papal infallibility, and 26.2% said they “don’t know” whether the pope is infallible. That’s more people who self-identify as Catholics repudiating the doctrine than subscribing to it. So much for the monolith.

But if we scrap the concept of a “correct” church, does that mean there’s no point in trying to figure out where we ought to worship?

IC: Oh no, of course not. Just because we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean we’re stuck with awful. Nor does it suggest for a moment that we can’t be more perfect than we are right now. But if different local churches have differing degrees of theological knowledge, different levels of maturity, different quantities of obedience and varying levels of submission to the Lord, then we can expect some variance among them, can’t we? And surely we should seek out the local gathering that has the most of its ducks in a row.

Doctrinal Anarchy

Tom: Mr. Latar describes Protestantism as “doctrinal anarchy”. There are, as we have mentioned, vast divergences of opinion about how to understand certain scriptures within Protestant churches. I see two categories of differences that set evangelicals apart from one another.

The first category is made up of differences caused by adherence to principles that are firmly believed; principles held in genuine conviction — even if you or I might find that conviction ill-founded. Calvinism falls into this category for me.

The second category comprises differences resulting from compromise rather than conviction, like the concession to allow female pastors, gay pastors and so on. Differences of this second sort are usually identifiable because compromisers tend to side with political correctness and the Spirit of the Age.

But to me, neither set of differences constitutes “anarchy”. Is that really an apt term?

IC: No, of course not. He’s grossly misrepresenting his opponents there.

If diversity of opinion is equivalent to “anarchy”, then things like democracy or science would also count as anarchy, merely because each of these fields also incorporates people who hold to some diversity of view. And as you point out, he’s also grossly misrepresenting the apparent unity of his own religious group, as if their mental indoctrination and conformity, or their fear of challenging ecclesiastical authorities, automatically means the common thing they are forced to believe is the Truth. But all he’s really suggested is that in his group no diversity of opinion is tolerated — not that their opinion is better, more scriptural or more conformable to God’s truth.

Biblical Unity

But perhaps we should say something about genuine unity — what it consists of, and how it comes about.

Tom: Well, as you point out, unity is not a synonym for enforced conformity. And furthermore, even within a local gathering of believers that have come together for the most part in agreement about which the scriptures teach, there are bound to be differences in interpretation between individuals of conviction.

So you are left with two possibilities: (1) Mr. Latar’s contention that unity does not exist if there is not a core set of beliefs to which everyone either conforms or gets out; or (2) biblical unity is possible without 100% doctrinal agreement.

IC: Your phrase “individuals of conviction” is an important one, and it accounts for a major difference between Mr. Latar’s religious experience and our beliefs.

Mr. Latar’s tradition teaches that salvation is a by-product of being a certified and practicing member in his church. In contrast, we believe that it is the product of an individual having put his or her personal faith in Christ. Mere submission to ecclesiastical authority will do, according to Mr. Latar’s group. But we would place a much more central value on an individual acting under conviction to accept the divine offer of salvation, because the scriptures themselves do that.

Bearing With One Another

The forced conformity which Mr. Latar holds up as a commendable feature of his tradition actually interferes with salvation, since it bypasses the conscience; and while it can compel a kind of insincere compliance, it clearly does not require any heart-change at all.

Tom: Paul’s words to the Ephesian believers seem relevant here, because he was very much aware that they didn’t agree about everything, but he says this:
“… walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
You can’t maintain a unity that isn’t already in existence. I also think what he’s saying there is that unity doesn’t completely depend on us. We can damage it by not being humble, gentle, patient, etc. with one another. But we do not create it. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

IC: Well said. When the Lord prayed for unity among his people, he wasn’t praying to us. He was asking his Father to bring it about. Therefore, if the kind of unity he values is to be achieved, it will be brought about by the Father. It will be the kind of which you speak … the unity of the Spirit. A man-made conformity achieved by force, deception, terror or authority is no substitute.

The Church can survive diversity of opinion. What it cannot survive is the suppression of conscience.


  1. Personally, as the (probably only :-) somewhat resident Catholic on this site I could only offer my own personal perspective about this century old status quo and not a trained point of view since I am not a theologian. However, some of my research turns up material like the links below.

    Here is a somewhat humorous view of the Catholic's perspective of how you are perceived by protestants.

    Here is a link to the more technical aspects of this century old debate, again, from a Catholic perspective.

    Where, from my point of view, there seems to exist an incorrect stereotypical viewpoint on part of Protestants is, that the Catholic, being part of a more hierarchical structure, lacks freedom concerning their own initiative and ability to follow their own conscience. From my personal experience, that is quite inaccurate. It is as much a dictum in the Catholic church as in the Protestant that your conscience will guide your decisions (that's why Catholics often do practice birth control) and our priest acquaintances have always been respectful of such a personal decision. The Catholic may have it more difficult because of his/her obligation to maintain a clear conscience via confession to a priest, something that can be perceived as quite unpleasant by a Catholic (but ultimately also as beneficial).

    My primary interests in this kind of debate and these topics is to figure out, for myself, how and why this vast spectrum of seeming irreconcilables within human society comes into existence in the first place. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't actually necessary, because, if things were based on my own temperament, drive, and ambition alone we would still be riding in horse and buggy. I would have (and still do) find it somewhat insane to step into a piece of metal and then expect it to lift up into the air and travel near the speed of sound. So, it takes all kinds, and woe to the world if the 'all kinds' were too limited in scope. At the same time, I know that this 'all kinds' cannot exist in the moral sphere with regard to human conduct. This is of course why Christ came, namely, to get rid of that notion, by defining a difficult and narrow as opposed to an all expansive and ever diverging path.

    Thus, woe to the world also if we do not accept that Christ is humanity's center of mass in the moral sphere and we form our own center of mass instead. It is then inevitable that we will become separated and spin aimlessly into the void around that useless center of mass, as we have seen numerous times in history and as it is being done again right now in 2014 AD.

    1. This is my experience too, Qman, which is why I reject any notion that Catholicism is this absolutely top-down, consistent thing to which everyone who calls themselves Catholic subscribes without exception. I am friends with enough Catholics to recognize that most, if not all, follow your consciences (and thank goodness for that). I'm sure there are people who would LIKE Catholic teaching to be recognized as 100% authoritative and universally followed, but as IC has pointed out, once you introduce the conscience and people actually have respect for it, all bets are off.

    2. Yes, my experience is like Tom's in that, Qman. I do not find my Catholic friends are all of a single vanilla type.

      Our post is really not intended to suggest that they are. Rather, it responds to Mr. Latar's allegation that without what he calls "infallible authority" the result must be anarchy. If his view were accurate, then Catholicism would surely be quite "anarchistic" itself, since as you say, it evidently does not produce the quashing of conscience.

      Moreover if what you're saying is correct, (and I have no reason to doubt your honesty) then it is not true that in Catholicism there is the idealized unity that Mr. Latar seems to want us to think there is. Likewise, it is evident that in Protestantism there is not the chaos he assures us there is.

      So his argument is really nonsense on two sides.

  2. All I can say is that if you join an organization, then someone will be in charge. If you live in a free country and you don't like members of the organization or the way it is being run, then you are certainly free to leave and start your own organization if you wish. Christ clearly stated that scandal is unavoidable in this world and he did not exclude any echelon of society or type of organization, including the Catholic (or any) church. The argument in the Catholic church is that the church, even though susceptible to human scandal must, as original and divinely instituted, also have an unalterable kernel of truth to it, i.e., MUST be protected by divine providence for the safety of the believer (which I consider to be an extremely logical argument). The interpretation of such divine truths, mostly passed on in the scriptures, are then naturally vested in church leadership (note that the pope gets elected by the synod of bishops) and cannot arbitrarily be left by default to potentially billions of differing interpretations and viewpoints. Please note that I do not mean to imply by this that the reader of scripture (the bible) is unable to understand the reading for their own benefit, but that, just as would be the case with statutes and laws and bylaws for an organization, the final word and interpretation belongs to (voluntarily elected and appointed) management (with the first appointer and appointees being Christ and the apostles). Now, in my opinion, the Catholic church has actually been quite modest in this matter in that papal infallibility is rarely invoked and then only in significant circumstances of interpretation. It seems to me to be unfair to ignore the internal logic of these arguments in favor of personal freedom and likes and dislikes and make our conscience, with often limited understanding and shaped by our own internal and often limited moral and intellectual capacity, always the final winning arbiter. Conscience can be malformed as well due to circumstances and faulty reasoning, it is not necessarily an absolute and must be informed by the reasoning of others as well.

    Regardless, I am accepting the world for what it is and will, like most people, try to make the best of circumstances in an ecumenical manner. I have the confidence and calmness knowing that God has the complete picture and that he brings about good from poor circumstances if he wishes to do so.