On any given morning nearly anywhere in America, it is usual see Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassing the neighborhood . I often see Mormon Missionaries as well. Though both of these groups are (rightly) classified as false religions they are particularly bothersome in that they view themselves as being within the stream of historic Christianity. That is they consider themselves Christian, though their teachings are actually at odds with the truth. Other groups such as the Masons find succor within the church, even though their doctrines and religion is decidedly not Christian.
So how did this happen? How can these admittedly very large groups who deny the fundamental doctrines and tenants of Christianity come to view themselves, and even to be viewed by others, as Christian?
It is a complicated question and any answer has many factors to take into account. Yet, for Roman Catholic apologist the answer is simple: it is the fault of the Reformation. For as one of them warned in some place or another “if you guys go on like this it won’t be long before everyman interprets scripture for himself and chaos will reign” and then point to the Mormons and JW ‘s and Oneness Pentecostals as proof. Their point is of course that without the Church to interpret Scripture, Scripture can mean anything.
Now admittedly the warning seems to have some merit. However it is a warning directed at a problem that was, in terms of Reformational Theology, a sort of “straw man” for no Magisterial Reformer, or anyone following in their footsteps, ever contemplated such a thing. In other words the Reformers did recognize tradition as a hermeneutical control, a point Keith Matheson has very ably made here .
So if not the Reformers, then who?
As I said at the start, the answer is complicated and includes many factors (The Enlightenment, rationalism, the devil etc.) but I think one place we can point to as a sort of cause for Mormons etc. is American style democracy and especially American individualism, as exemplified in congregational ecclesiology and the mindset behind it.
Let me illustrate by way of this short anecdote. While pastoring a church in the Mid-West I became involved in a discussion about church polity and especially the polity of our church (the one I pastored). During the course of our discussion I asked this question; does the Holy Spirit speak through the will of the congregation, or to put it another way around, can we take the outcome of a congregational vote to be the leading of The Holy Spirit? And the answer was “yes”. I pointed out to the parishioner in question that the position he was holding to was not a whole lot different than that of The Roman Catholic Church, but to no avail.
So what does all of this have to do with Mormons and JW‘s and all the rest? Well, back to the Roman Catholic caveat. For, at the end of the day they were correct, not about the Reformers, but about the danger. Moreover, while it cannot be said that the Reformers were guilty of such individualism it can be said to be so of most of American Evangelicalism, who hold not to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura but to”Solo” and so indeed, it is every man, or congregation, for him or themselves.
It is a very bad and ironic sort of situation. One that puts a large segment of American Protestants in a position from where it is really hard to see (at least logically) why there should be any problem at all with JW’s, Mormons, T.D. Jakes or any other heretic one might like to mention.
Now admittedly the above is a bit of a simplistic sketch of the problem and at the end of the day we have to also understand that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Masons and the rest are all victims of satanic deception and so are the work of the devil. Yet, the entrenchment of individualism and individual rights so basic to the American psyche has proved to be a very convenient handle for him. One that only a return to a proper (dare I suggest “catholic”) understanding of individualism, hermeneutics and the church can remove.