Owning Your Protestantism: We Follow Our Conscience, Not the Bible

I was recently consulting with a conservative Protestant organization that was wrestling with its policies regarding same-sex marriage. I was asked to be there to help articulate a liberal, progressive perspective to expand and enlarge their conversation.

Not surprisingly, time was spent using the adjective "biblical." As conservative Protestants the group kept coming back to the aspiration to seek the "biblical" view. Their desire was to follow the Bible.

This is a very common desire among conservative Protestants, but it misses something important, something that Protestants need to be honest about.

Here's the situation, I told the group, you have to own the fact that you are Protestants (as am I). Which means that you are never going to land on an uncontested "biblical view." Protestants have never agreed on what the Bible says. Just look at all the Protestant churches. Underneath the conversation about the "biblical view" what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.

Stretch the hermeneutical fibers too thin and the consensus snaps. People can't make the leap. The view is deemed "unbiblical." But if you keep the changes within the hermeneutical tolerances of the community the consensus holds and the view is deemed "biblical."

But let's be honest, I said, what we are discerning here is more sociological than Biblical. We are assessing the hermeneutical tolerances and capacities of a faith community because at the end of the day it's consensus you are after.

And the reason for this, I continued, is because we are Protestants. The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn't the Bible, it's the individual conscience.

Protestantism was created when Martin Luther was asked to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms, asked to submit to the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. There Luther famously declared: "To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand I can do no other."

That's Protestantism. The elevation of the individual's conscience over the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church.

To be sure the Bible is a part of all this, but at the end of the day what holds a Protestant community together is conscience, hermeneutical agreement. When conscience is violated by a hermeneutical choice Protestants schism. Yes, the Bible is in the mix but unity and schism is fundamentally about conscience and hermeneutics.

Which brings me back to the point I was making to the group I was consulting with. Own your Protestantism, I said. While the desire to be "biblical" is laudable and important what you are actually doing here is discerning if you can hold together a hermeneutical consensus to prevent a schism if you make changes. Your work here is as sociological as it is exegetical.

What is actually going on in a group on the cusp of a change during a "season of discernment" when they set out to "study an issue," which might involve inviting people like me into the discussion, is the cultivation of hermeneutical capacities and the assessment of hermeneutical tolerances. If the capacities and tolerances are there for the change you change. If not, you go back to working on capacities and tolerances. That, or you stay the course and don't change.

This is not to suggest that the Bible isn't speaking into the faith community during the process. Just that when it finally comes down to determining what the Bible says or doesn't say that will be determined by the individual consciences of the members and that leaders, generally, will go with the consensus. That, or the leaders will, because of their own consciences, make a hermeneutical move to test the tolerances and risk the possibility of schism.

To be sure, creating and maintaining a hermeneutical consensus during changing times is hard relational work. But that relational work is the price you pay for being a Protestant. Perhaps that's even the genius of the tradition, the hard relational work of binding and loosing (Matt 18.18). For there is no magisterium for you to fall back on. What you have, instead, are the individual consciences of every person within your faith community. Protestantism is a hermeneutical democracy. Each person with a vote about what they think is "biblical" or not.

Because to go against conscience is neither right or safe. We're Protestants after all.

Here we stand. We can do no other.

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