In the section on church authority we show that the Bible alone, (although claimed) is not the sole basis of authority within the community, but that a system of rules, guidelines, traditions and statements of faith exist which set boundaries to the independent following of scripture by the individual. This can be shown to have occurred not only within the Christadelphian community, but is part of an established pattern within Christianity. This was recognised by the founder of the Christadelphians, John Thomas, who initially promoted independence of thought.
Putting aside the issue of church authority within the Christadelphian community there are some questions about the concept of the Bible alone that are worth consideration. Accepted as a “faith position” alone it leads to a denial of history on a couple of counts. The first is that accepted without a consideration of history it doesn’t matter how the Bible has historically been understood … any individual can interpret it using any methodology and can claim equal weight to any other person’s methodology. This is why the lack of any other group holding the same positions requires an answer to the lack of credibility. It is also incidentally why those promoting views inconsistent with the history of Christianity and using the Bible alone such as those promoting homosexuality also have a case to prove.
The Bible alone without any need to have a historical basis opens the way for anyone to set up a denomination based upon individual interpretation and then for it to subsequently evolve into a denomination with a system of church authority based upon that churches claim to have restored first century Christianity. It also raises the question that if other people claiming scripture alone may be influenced by tradition and be subject to reading in their own interpretations, is it not possible Christadelphians could do the same? On what basis can they claim the right of church authority over others who interpret it any differently? The obvious question that can then be raised, as did John Thomas and Robert Roberts, is whether the questioning or restoration went far enough.
It may help to start with a very basic consideration when we consider the whole topic of “the authority of the Bible?” Is this what the early Christians promoted and did they believe in the idea that the the Bible alone was the sole source of knowledge about God? Was it a system of individual reading and understanding of the Bible that they promoted? Did they set up elaborate creeds and systems of church authority and did Christ? Was this the spirit of early Christianity?
Strange though it may seem Christ never left any instructions on how to organise a church. His last instructions in the book of Acts were for his followers to wait for “power from above” which came at Pentecost with the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament we read of that being attested with power and the early Christians believing they were led by the Holy Spirit and that this was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. We find they were faced with a huge number of issues and questions, experimented with different arrangements and had early church councils. Initially it centred around the Jewish people in Jerusalem and later spread primarily amongst non Jews (or Gentiles).
Issues which were wrestled with included sharing in common, the role of the Jews, whether any of the law should be kept and a big, big problem with legalism. In other words those who wanted to impose conditions of salvation in contrast to grace.
In considering this further we have to realise that the early Christians never had the New Testament. It was yet to be written and compiled into the form that we find it today. The “scriptures” they therefore referred to were the Old Testament books and when they spoke of the “word of God” and Jesus they did not always mean the Bible, but were usually referring to the message they preached. There is a concept in the New Testament of a “living word” where God spoke through people.
The assumption of the idea of sola scriptura is that by the end of the time the Bible was finally compiled the answers and questions were resolved. This position moderates the value of the experience of the Christian church and the countless church councils, disputes, divisions and issues that history records. In fact Protestant history itself with its elevation of the written scriptures and divisions itself is part of our cumulative learning curve seen this way. Is it any wonder that far from being a replica of the first century church, the Christadelphian community with its own creeds, divisions and so forth in fact is following in the steps of the Catholic church and the history of all church systems.
I would suggest we can’t reinstate first century Christianity because it was always a dynamic system, a living church, a church learning from experience. This is also why the Christadelphian community cannot reinstate a position established by John Thomas or Robert Roberts. It is where it is today precisely because there have still been lessons to learn.