by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Schism, strife, debate and chaos—hardly the words one would normally use to refer to religion. Unfortunately, such is the state of religion today. With such religious turmoil all around us, it is no wonder that the church of God internally reflects the world's problems.
For instance, on Sunday, March 13, 1994, the Church of England ordained 32 women as priests at Bristol Cathedral. Other Protestant churches have ordained women for years, but because of "bitter divisions" within the church, no Anglican women were raised to the priesthood until this year. The Vatican decried the action, saying that it would hinder ecumenical talks between Anglicans and Catholics.
Catholics themselves are torn by various movements within their church. Last summer, Pope John Paul II criticized Catholic feminists for trying to "undermine" Christianity in their push for ordination of women and certain "forms of nature worship" (Washington Post, July 4, 1993). Calling the Roman Catholic Church "the last bastion of sexism," the Women's Ordination Conference is also fighting to reword the liturgy to exclude sexist language.
The Catholic Church also has to contend with both fundamentalism and liberation theology (which combines political philosophy, usually Marxism, with a theology of salvation as liberation from injustice). The Vatican recently released a document that calls the fundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation "distorting, dangerous and possibly leading to racism" (Charlotte Observer, March 19, 1994). To be fair, this same document, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," also derides feminist and liberation theology, but saves its harshest language for fundamentalism.
Protestants and Muslims Too
Protestant churches in America, when not fighting internally over political issues such as abortion, feminism, homosexuality and education, are losing members to New Age religions, spiritism, angel worship, as well as to indifference and secularism. A recent study shows average nationwide church attendance to be only 25 percent, not the 40-50 percent previously polled (The Oregonian, September 4, 1993). One Protestant evangelist said recently, "We are in a spiritual war and we are losing."
Elsewhere, Muslim fundamentalism is wreaking havoc in the Middle East and North Africa, presaging more turmoil and terrorism around the world. Jews are split over the negotiations on Palestinian self-rule and the status of Jerusalem. Northern Ireland is really no more peaceful now than ever. The Chinese government is censoring and jailing Christian missionaries and exiling religious leaders like the Dalai Lama.
Has religion around the world ever been so divided? Is there a reason for it?
Jesus predicted this in His Olivet Prophecy. "Take heed that you not be deceived. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,' and, ‘The time has drawn near.' Therefore do not go after them" (Luke 21:8). Saviors and prophecies of the end time are not exclusive to Christianity. And when all the voices of many religions and sects and views are shouting at once, confusion—the Devil's playground—is the sad result.
This confusion has its beginnings in the lack of a firm foundation, in the absence of godly authority for beliefs. Whether it is because of tradition, political correctness or plain disbelief, man will not submit to the authority of the Word of God as the guide for their lives and beliefs. So often we read of God denouncing Israel for keeping their own versions of His laws (Isaiah 1:2-15; Amos 5:21-24), or worse, totally rejecting Him (Jeremiah 2:5 through 3:5; Ezekiel 20:1-32). Israel's example is just a representation of the actions of all nations.
Principles of Bible Study
Jude calls for returning to "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). We have a chance to do that now, and once we have submitted to the Bible's authority, we can teach it to others (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 5:12-14). But in our zeal to contend for the truth, we cannot forget a few basic principles of Bible study.
1) Here a little, there a little (Isaiah 28:9-13): God did not organize the Bible so that all information on a given subject falls in one chapter or book. The whole Bible must concur before we can truly call a theological concept "truth."
2) A positive approach (Acts 17:11-12): God left us a wonderful example of a people who sought to prove the truths of God rather than disprove them. He can work with those who have submissive minds, receptive to His revelation.
3) A desire to please God (II Timothy 2:15): Our study should be intended to merit God's approval of our lives. He is not impressed with scholarship or intelligence, but He does respect godly living and spiritual growth (Psalm 111:10; II Peter 3:18; I John 3:22).
4) No private interpretation (II Peter 1:20-21): The Word of God and the understanding of it are revealed by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:6-16). Any personal understanding or interpretation must agree in all points with the Bible, or spring without violence from its principles (cf. II Peter 3:16)—otherwise an idea is nothing more than an opinion and maybe a dangerous one.
5) Humility (I Corinthians 8:1-3): It is a good idea to remember that many others, probably wiser, have faced the same questions before us. The history of the true church of God through the centuries should be considered and the decisions of its leaders taken seriously.
6) Seek counsel (Proverbs 24:6): Not only should one bring vexing questions to the ministry, but one should also seek wise advice from brethren, both inside and outside one's normal circle of friends. After mentioning it to others, give them time to study the subject thoroughly themselves and reply before drawing any conclusions.
7) Prayer and meditation (Psalm 119:33-40, 97-99): Seeking God's will and considering the ramifications of our ideas are absolutely vital to proper Bible study. Others, weaker in the faith, may not be able to survive our "spirituality" (I Corinthians 8:9, 11-13).
If we apply these principles to our Bible study, we will go a long way toward diminishing the confusion over doctrine both within and out of the Body of Christ. And, importantly, we will be heeding the advice of our Elder Brother, "Take heed that no one deceives you" (Matthew 24:4).