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FERGUSON: Question of authority haunts all churches

I have been following with interest the ongoing debate between Telegraph columnist Bill Cummings and some of his fellow Catholics here on the editorial pages. Cummings’ position that church law does and should change over time has stirred up vigorous protests from those who believe that certain doctrines of the church are part of an immutable canon that is timeless and sacrosanct.

It’s easy to see that this issue is an important one to Catholics and that there are strong feelings on both sides. But speaking as one who was raised Protestant, it’s something of an odd thing to witness.

I realize that for Catholics what the pope and the rest of the church’s magisterium proclaim is of great importance. They believe that, at certain times and under certain conditions, the officers of the church speak with the same authority that Protestants believe Holy Scripture carries with it. Determining where and when the modern church speaks with such authority is no small matter for them.

But from the outside looking in, I have to note that there are millions of Christians in the world who are not Catholic, and it is likely that very few of those Christians recognize the authority of the Catholic Church to speak with any authority whatsoever on what they should believe or how they should behave.

Of course, those of us with an interest in history haven’t forgotten that until quite recently (1964) it was official Catholic doctrine that Protestants couldn’t get into heaven. We’re certainly glad that particular doctrine was not immutable.

I was raised a Southern Baptist myself, so I am used to a much less structured and authoritarian church experience. The Baptist church I attended as a young man advocated a doctrine called the “priesthood of the believer,” which suggested there were no intermediaries between an individual Christian and God. There was no hierarchy of church officials who claimed to exercise any authority over one’s spiritual life, and there was no set of written doctrines to which Baptists were expected to adhere.

But around the time I was in my late teens to my early twenties, the Southern Baptists began to move away, at least a bit, from the “priesthood of the believer” philosophy toward something more authoritarian. Perhaps that was inevitable, because when you give people complete freedom of thought and expression some of them are inevitably going to think and express things that are sure to upset the majority of the group.

And so it came to pass in the 1980s and ‘90s that the leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention decided that certain members of the church (especially certain professors and administrators in SBC-affiliated universities) had strayed too far from what they perceived to be acceptable theological positions, and things began to change. Leaders of the denomination at the time ended up severing ties with some Baptist-affiliated universities that they decided were being led by people whose theological viewpoint had grown too liberal for their taste.

Some of you might recall the drama that played out locally when then-president of Mercer University R. Kirby Godsey published a book wherein he questioned the literal truth of certain events depicted in the Bible, such as the virgin birth of Christ. When Mercer administrators refused to part ways with Godsey over his “heretical” views, the Baptists decided to sever their ties with (and withdraw their financial support from) the university.

So I have experienced firsthand what it’s like to have the church you belong to go to war with itself. It’s not a pleasant thing to experience, and you can’t help but think it hurts your image in the eyes of the people outside the church who you would ideally like to reach out to.

But any time a group of people gather together for any purpose it seems like discord is likely to occur at some point. It is unfortunate, but it’s a fact of human nature that people can’t leave at the door of the sanctuary.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.