A STRUGGLE FOR UNDERSTANDING
It was not long after my conversion to Christianity that I found myself getting swept up in the tide of religious sectarianism, in which Christians would part ways over one issue after another. It seemed, for instance, that there were as many opinions on the Second Coming as there were people in the discussion. So we’d all appeal to the Scriptures. “I believe in the Bible. If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it,” became my war cry. What I did not realize was that everyone else was saying the same thing! It was not the Bible, but each one’s private interpretation of it, that became our ultimate authority. In an age which highly exalts independence of thought and self-reliance, I was becoming my own pope! The guidelines I used in interpreting Scripture seemed simple enough: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I believed that those who were truly faithful and honest in following this principle would achieve Christian unity. To my surprise, this “common sense” approach led not to increased Christian clarity and unity, but rather to a spiritual free-for-all! Those who most strongly adhered to believing “only the Bible” tended to become the, most factious, divisive, and combative of Christians-perhaps unintentionally. In fact, it seemed to me that the more one held to the Bible as the only source of spiritual authority, the more factious and sectarian one became. We would even argue heatedly over verses on love! Within my circle of Bible-believing friends, I witnessed a mini-explosion of sects and schismatic movements, each claiming to be “true to the Bible” and each in bitter conflict with the others. Serious conflict arose over every issue imaginable: charismatic gifts, interpretation of prophecy, the proper way to worship, communion, Church government, discipleship, discipline in the Church, morality, accountability, evangelism, social action, the relationship of faith and works, the role of women, and ecumenism. The list is endless. In fact any issue at all could-and often did-cause Christians to part ways. The fruit of this sectarian spirit has been the creation of literally thousands of independent churches and denominations. As I myself became increasingly sectarian, my radicalism intensified, and I came to believe that all churches were unbiblical: to become a member of any church was to compromise the Faith. For me, “church” meant “the Bible, God, and me.” This hostility towards the churches fit in well with my Jewish background. I naturally distrusted all churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ by having participated in or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews throughout history. But the more sectarian I became-to the point of being obnoxious and antisocial-the more I began to realize that something was seriously wrong with my approach to Christianity. My spiritual life wasn’t working. Clearly, my privately held beliefs in the Bible and what it taught were leading me away from love and community with my fellow Christians, and therefore away from Christ. As Saint John the Evangelist wrote, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). This division and hostility were not what had drawn me to Christ. And I knew the answer was not to deny the Faith or reject the Scriptures. Something had to change. Maybe it was me. I turned to a study of the history of the Church and the New Testament, hoping to shed some light on what my attitude toward the Church and the Bible should be. The results were not at all what I expected.
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