For Protestants, does Sola Scriptura work? Is the Bible alone as an authority standard capable of promoting truth and unity among believers? One of the largest evangelical Protestant charity organizations, Worldvision, has offered a clear answer this year.
On March 24, 2014, Worldvision U.S. President Richard Stearns announced that they were making a “very narrow policy change” that would be “symbolic not of compromise but of unity.” Worldvision would maintain its policy on prohibiting extramarital sexual activity for its 1,100 American employees but would now consider any current or potential employee in a legal, same-sex “marriage” to be in a recognized union, equivalent to a male-female marriage for the purposes of employee policy.
In an interview with Christianity Today entitled “World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same-Sex Marriages”, Mr. Stearns explained,
“We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us,” said Stearns. “This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church….
“It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church,” he said. “It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”
The reason the prohibition existed in the first place? “It’s kind of a historical issue,” said Stearns. “Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that’s changed.”
“This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture,” said Stearns. “People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.’ The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are an operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.”
So, this is now an issue where the biblical view of marriage is debatable and therefore it was not within Worldvision’s jurisdiction to support a certain answer on this question. This move was to allow Worldvision to sidestep the current debate that is dividing various Protestant groups. It certainly sounded like Mr. Stearns had carefully thought through his position…so it is rather intruiging that he would actually reverse this decision two days later!
In explaining the sudden reversal, Mr. Stearns wrote that they “made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage” and that Worldvision U.S. “stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage.”
Did you catch that? There is, indeed, a “biblical view of marriage.” Scripture is clear on the issue. Two days prior, however, this view was dismissed by Mr. Stearns with the logic that the church was divided on this issue. So, which is it? How does Sola Scriptura work in this case? Mr. Stearns, for one, seems to be having trouble figuring it out!
This confusion about Christian teaching and disunity among Protestant groups is not new. In fact, seven years after posting his famous 95 Theses in 1517, Martin Luther actually condoned polygamy and said it does not contradict Scripture! (Letter to the Chancellor Gregor Brück, January 13, 1524) Such confusion is a direct result of Sola Scriptura and the personal interpretation of Scripture as an authority model. The early Lutherans and Calvinists were at odds over several issues and, after 500 years, it has resulted in thousands of Protestant communions, divided by various doctrinal points. The historical unity on the definition of marriage, as noted by Mr. Stearns, has changed.
It would appear that Protestants have no way of stopping these kinds of changes over time. Some create new, distinct communions for their particular interpretation of Scripture, which only creates further disunity. Others create “non-denominational” groups that simply avoid definitive stances on sensitive or non-essential issues… but what is considered “sensitive or non-essential” can change over time. When it does, then these groups may split as well, as is currently happening due to trends in the secular culture over the definition of marriage. We can expect what occurred with Worldvision to repeat itself many times over in coming years with various para-church organizations.
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). Scripture has not changed, but Protestant teachings have changed in many cases and disunity has resulted. Worldvision has unwittingly put the essential faultiness of the Protestant authority model on display for all to see. This cannot be our Lord’s intention for how the Church, his body, should operate. Does this sound like the “pillar and bulwark of truth?” (1 Tim 3:15)
The very issue of Sola Scriptura and the personal interpretation of Scripture was addressed more than 1,000 years before Luther and Calvin. Let us consider what St. Vincent of Lerins, shortly after the canon of Scripture was settled by councils in the 4th century, had to say on this topic in 434 A.D.:
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.