Life is full of decisions. Where do I go on holidays? What job should I choose? What should I have for dinner? Which side of the bed should I get out of? Should I get out of bed at all? Making decisions is a fundamental part of being human; we can’t avoid it, and we do it all the time.
Often when we make decisions, we rely on authorities to help us. So, for example, if you were going to invest money, you’d consult various authorities: investment advisers, friends and relatives, a company prospectus, and so on. Some of those authorities will be better than others. Similarly, when Christians come to make decisions, there are various sources of authority that we can turn to. So, for example, if we want guidance about how to be a good husband/wife/ son/daughter/brother/sister, there are at least four ‘authorities’ we can turn to in our Christian walk:
- The Bible: helpful Bible passages like Ephesians 4 give us good advice about family relationships.
- Church: a Christian friend or minister can encourage and give us wisdom we may not have thought about otherwise.
- Reason: it can be useful to think about it ourselves.
- Experience: we have all learned something from our experience of good and bad family relationships!
However, there come times in our lives, and in the lives of our churches, when these various ‘authorities’ are at odds with—or can even contradict—one another. When this happens, we need to decide which authority we listen to first and foremost. This is what we mean by the phrase sola scriptura. Sola scriptura means that when different authorities contradict what the Bible says clearly on matters of faith and Christian conduct, we will go with the Bible as our authority rather than those other authorities. So, for example, if a man comes to me with an ‘experience’ of a vision from God that told him that he must divorce his wife in order to marry another woman, I would reject that ‘authority’ on the basis that the Bible says that this behaviour is wrong.
Sola scriptura is something that we need to insist on in controversial situations. It’s not an issue when the Bible, tradition, reason and experience all agree. But when there is disagreement, we need to make the hard decisions. So, for example, the current debate about homosexuality and church leadership is an area where various ‘authorities’ are vying for our attention. Take Professor Choon-Leong Seow, Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. In Homosexuality and Christian Community, he writes:
I… used to believe that homosexual acts are always wrong. Listening to gay and lesbian students and friends, however, I have had to rethink my position and reread the scriptures. Seeing how gay and lesbian people suffer discrimination, face the rejection of family and friends, risk losing their jobs, and live in fear of being humiliated and bashed,… I am persuaded that it is not a matter of choice. Seeing how some gay and lesbian couples relate to one another in loving partnerships, observing how much joy they find in one another, and seeing that some of them are better parents than most of us will ever be, I have reconsidered my views. I was wrong.
From the testimony of homosexual persons and from various reports, I have learned that there is an extraordinarily high rate of suicide among homosexual persons. …I know of many homosexual persons in the ministry who have been very effective for the cause of Jesus Christ, but they suffer tremendous guilt because they have to keep their secret from the church they love dearly… I cannot believe that we are called to perpetuate such pain and suffering in the world…1
Professor Seow has explicitly chosen to exalt the authority of experience. Yet from the Bible—from its overall teaching, as well as from individual passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11—we learn that homosexual behaviour is wrong, so it should not be practised. Of course, homosexuality is just as wrong as other sins we commit, and it can be (and has been) forgiven through Jesus’ death. Yet the public morality of Christian leaders is important, and so it would be inappropriate to have unrepentant practising homosexuals in church leadership.
Of course, sola scriptura affects the way we approach many other often controversial topics (e.g. how we use music in church, the basis of our justification before God, etc.). However, we must be committed to the principle that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority in all matters of Christian belief and conduct.
1. Choon-Leong Seow, ‘A Heterosexual Perspective’, Homosexuality and Christian Community, edited by Choon-Leong Seow, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1996, p. 25.↩