As an active Protestant in my mid-twenties I began to feel that I might have a vocation to become a minister. The trouble was that while I had quite definite convictions about the things that most Christians have traditionally held in common—the sort of thing C.S. Lewis termed "mere Christianity."
I had had some firsthand experience with several denominations (Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) and was far from certain as to which of them (if any) had an overall advantage over the others. So I began to think, study, search, and pray. Was there a true Church? If so, how was one to decide which?
The more I studied, the more perplexed I became. At one stage my elder sister, a very committed evangelical with somewhat flexible denominational affiliations, chided me with becoming "obsessed" with trying to find a "true Church." "Does it really matter?" she would ask. Well, yes it did. It was all very well for a lay Protestant to relegate the denominational issue to a fairly low priority amongst religious questions: lay people can go to one Protestant Church one week and another the next week and nobody really worries too much. But an ordained minister obviously cannot do that. He must make a very serious commitment to a definite Church community, and under normal circumstances that commitment will be expected to last a lifetime. So clearly that choice had to be made with a deep sense of responsibility; and the time to make it was before, not after, ordination...
...As I groped and prayed my way towards a decision, I came close to despair and agnosticism at times, as I contemplated the mountains of erudition, the vast labyrinth of conflicting interpretations of Christianity (not to mention other faiths) which lined the shelves of religious bookshops and libraries. If all the "experts" on Truth—the great theologians, historians, philosophers—disagreed interminably with each other, then how did God, if He was really there, expect me, an ordinary Joe Blow, to work out what was true?
The more I became enmeshed in specific questions of Biblical interpretation—of who had the right understanding of justification, of the Eucharist, Baptism, grace, Christology, Church government and discipline, and so on—the more I came to feel that this whole-line of approach was a hopeless quest, a blind alley. These were all questions that required a great deal of erudition, learning, competence in Biblical exegesis, patristics, history, metaphysics, ancient languages—in short, scholarly research. But was it really credible (I began to ask myself) that God, if He were to reveal the truth about these disputed questions at all, would make this truth so inaccessible that only a small scholarly elite had even the faintest chance of reaching it? Wasn’t that a kind of gnosticism? Where did it leave the nonscholarly bulk of the human race? It didn’t seem to make sense. If, as they say, war is too important to be left to the generals, then revealed truth seemed too important to be left to the Biblical scholars. It was no use saying that perhaps God simply expected the non-scholars to trust the scholars. How were they to know which scholars to trust, given that the scholars all contradicted each other?
The bolded portion sums up my basic problem. As I survey the landscape, I see all these different takes on the various doctrines and other issues of great importance. And it seems that my own approach thus far is sort of a cafeteria-style Christianity. I'm rather Calvinist in soteriology. I lean toward a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist (though that's not fully developed...suffice it to say that I definitely see it as more than just a symbolic gesture.) I see baptism as an obedience issue rather than an actual part of the salvation process. I'm suspicious of grand hierarchical authority structures. I appreciate and even long for tradition and elements of liturgy, yet I'm loathe to switch from my more contemporary and relaxed worship style for fear of dead ritual and rote recitations. Bottom line: I pick and choose the various doctrines that seem right to me. I don't do it arbitrarily. I give it a lot of thought and prayer. I go to the Scriptures. I try to examine my motives and as best I can, remove the tendency to favor one doctrine over another simply because it gives me warm fuzzies.
But this can't be the right way to do this. There are millions of others just like me who do the same thing but come to very different conclusions. What seems as plain as the nose on my face to me confoundingly escapes others. And they are similarly baffled that I've come to the conclusions I have. No wonder we have thousands of Protestant denominations running around, each with some slightly different take on the sacraments, salvation, Bible interpretation and so on. And even the ones that adhere to a certain denomination's take on all this fare no better. They line up their learned scholars to put forth the case for their view on these important matters against the learned scholars from another denomination yet no one moves an inch. They still argue over baptism as a means of grace necessary to salvation versus a mere sign and act of obedience that nonetheless is not salvific and dozens of other similar issues. What should we do, take the side with the highest cumulative IQ?
So what to do? How do you handle this? Do you just chalk it up to "we'll never know until we all get to heaven?" Do you find this troubling at all? And how do you know this? Do you think this is how God intended His church to be or do you think we are supposed to actually know the answers to these questions here on earth? Give me your thoughts.