Protestantism’s Authority Problem

By Graham Glover

Protestants have a problem. It’s a problem that’s not going away. Protestants try to explain it, they try to finesse it into something understandable, at times they even ignore it – wishing it weren’t as big an issue as it is. But it’s still here. It still lingers.

This problem affects Protestants of every variety: Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc., to include every stripe of non-denominational adherent and all those in-between. There’s no escaping it. It’s a problem that will plague Protestantism forever.

The problem is one of authority. Specifically, who, or rather, what, is authoritative for the Christian faith?

Protestants like to give the Children’s Sermon answer when asked this question: Jesus. Jesus is the only authority we need, Protestants gleefully exclaim. Sometimes they give the stereotypical Protestant answer to every theological question or dilemma: The Holy Scriptures. The Bible is the answer to all our doctrinal conundrums, they say. On one hand, these answers are correct. Jesus is the ultimate authority for Christendom. As Christians around the world celebrated His Resurrection this past Sunday, there is no doubt that the Risen Savior, Jesus Christ, is the focus of the Christian faith. Likewise, the Bible is an eternal and inerrant authority on questions pertaining to Christianity. But on their own, these answers, Jesus and the Bible, are not and never will be enough.

Now before you take that last sentence entirely out of context, understand what I’m saying: to simply suggest that Jesus or the Bible is the only authority Christians need misses the question of interpretation – it misses the question of whose Jesus or whose Bible, or to put it another way, whose understanding of Jesus or whose understanding of the Bible, is correct. It misses the bigger question of who, or rather, what, decides what is authoritative when talking about Jesus and the Bible, and how they are to be interpreted. It misses the question of who, or what, is right?

And on that question, Protestants do not have an answer.

Again, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting our faith is not focused on Jesus. It is. Nor am I suggesting that something or someone can teach things that are contrary to the Holy Scriptures. They can’t. Jesus is and always will be Christianity’s focus and the dictates of its faith can never contradict the Bible. But what are Christians to do when there is disagreement on who Jesus is, what He did, what He continues to do, and what He has yet to do? How are we to reconcile the countless number of interpretations of the Bible that exist in Protestant circles? When Christians are confronted with questions about our faith, whose answers are right? Who, or what, is authoritative?

All Protestants worship Jesus. They all cite the Bible. But they do so is widely different ways – oftentimes, contradictory ways. So, whose interpretation is right? Whose doctrines are truly authoritative? For the Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational answers can’t all be correct. They can’t all be authoritative.

It’s not a question of whether Jesus or the Bible is authoritative. It’s a question of whose interpretation is. It’s a question of what to do when people attempt to reform the Christian faith when they believe that faith is being perverted. Without something else – without some other means of deciding whose interpretation is correct, the issue of authority will never be resolved. It will forever remain a problem.

Which leads me wonder, is Protestantism’s problem one of authority, or is it one of who, or rather, what constitutes the Church?