Many religious groups send out door-to-door missionaries to spread their message. Sometimes they just want to “plant a few seeds” or hand out literature – other times they seek on-the-spot conversion or to start an ongoing “Bible study.” Regardless of one’s ability to define and defend one’s faith, preparing for all the different groups and messages out there can be overwhelming. The good news is that there is a common factor in all religious discussions that one should be aware of and able to deal with. That issue is religious authority.
Thomas Aquinas defined Christian faith as “assent to whatever the Church teaches.” This is true, mutatis mutandis, of all established religions – at bottom, faith is trust in an authority. If the locus of authority is not in an official religious body or single person, it is with the individual (Aquinas calls this “heresy” for Christians: “If, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. . . . such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.”).
Contending over doctrinal differences is pointless if two people do not share the same religious authority – even if they do not realize it (such as when people claim to agree on some authority, but in reality disagree due to their personal interpretations / opinions concerning that authority). Until this issue is settled, progress will likely be impossible: both sides will continue to offer their religious authority’s views in response to the other authority’s views, and they will cancel each other out.
It is critical, then, when dealing with other faith traditions, to focus on their religious authority.The easiest way to identify someone’s religious authority it to keep asking “Why do you believe that?” until they reach their “religious bedrock.” Once the true authority is exposed, it can be analyzed as to its trustworthiness.
For the Catholic, the authentic religious authority is found in the revelation of God communicated by the Church through its Scripture and Tradition. If there is some question related to the interpretation of these teachings, an authoritative body exists to answer it (i.e., the Magisterium). The Catholic trusts in this authority because it is the one instituted by Jesus Christ (e.g., Mt. 16:18-19; 28:20-29; Jn. 16:13; 17:21) who promised it would never fail (e.g., Mt. 16:18-19; Eph. 3:20-21) and was to go into all the world (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8; Rom. 10:18). It was also verified by miracles. The Church can be identified by its unbroken succession of leaders from the original apostles who were set apart for the task (e.g., Acts 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:2). The Church is thus “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” – and it remains the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:16) today.
Because non-Catholic Christian sects and other “Christianish” groups must establish their religious authority in opposition to the above claims, most rely on some sort of “apostasy narrative” to explain why their group represents true Christianity despite lacking the above marks of the Church. In addition to knowing how to respond to such problematic theories in general (see link), one should also know the particular details of the authority of the group under discussion. Below are a few of these that one is likely to encounter when that knock comes at the door.
The issue of religious authority is paramount in Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The primary goal of the LDS missionary is to get potential converts to pray about the Book of Mormon and whether or not its alleged author/translator, Joseph Smith Jr., was a prophet (Moroni 10:4). If so, then the rest of the LDS faith (which the missionaries are not likely to reveal up front) is said to follow. Smith was an early 19th century farm boy who allegedly restored the true Gospel to the world after asking God which church (viz. Protestant denomination) he should join. God reportedly replied that Smith was to “join none of them, for they were all wrong; and . . . all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith History, 1:19). This was all due to the “Great Apostasy” which was supposed to have swept through the Church upon the death of the last apostle and ruined Christendom for 1,800 years – and which Smith was to restore in those “Latter Days.” Since then, the LDS have been guided by “living prophets” – successors of Joseph Smith who are the ultimate authority in Mormonism (even above their own scriptures or previous prophecy).
There are two major problems with Mormon authority. First, there simply was no Great Apostasy, and without an apostasy, there can be no restoration. Jesus promised the Church that it would not fail, and it did not. Yes, there were apostates (heretics), and false teachings – but these are identifiable precisely because the Church identified and dealt with them. Second, unlike Jesus and his apostles, Joseph Smith Jr. produced no miraculous evidence for his authority. In fact, the opposite is the case – Smith has false prophesies recorded in both Mormon “scripture” as well as secondary literature. The Bible is quite clear, then, that Smith was not a biblical prophet (Dt. 13 and 18). Thus, in the end, Mormon authority is based on the teachings of a known false prophet who had no miraculous support for his claim to be a prophet of God. No wonder, then, that Mormon missionaries rely on emotional manipulation and feelings-based standards of truth for their confirmation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Authority
The most infamous of the door-knocking missionaries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are an apocalyptic cult founded by Charles Taze Russel in 1881. Despite their briefcases full of literature they hand out, the Witnesses claim that they only follow the Bible as their authority. Their understanding of the Bible, though, is strictly filtered through “God’s Prophetic Organization” – the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society Jehovah’s Witnesses are told that people “cannot find the Scriptural guidance we need outside the ‘faithful and discreet slave’ organization,” (Watchtower, Feb. 15, 1981, p. 19). So the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ true authority is the (anonymous) group of men writing their ubiquitous materials from a building in New Jersey.
There are two major problems with this. First, like the Mormons, their “prophet” has no miracles to back up its claim. In fact, the false prophecies of the Watchtower organization are the things of legend. The Watchtower clearly considers itself a prophet, yet its track record for false prophecy is astounding. For example, the Watchtower predicted the end of the world in 1914, 1915, 1925 and 1975, and their damage control was rather blatant historical revision. Second, the Watchtower publishes and promotes the use of a distorted Bible translation known as the New World Translation. The NWT is a misleading and inconsistent translation whose purpose is clearly to support the Watchtower’s false teachings (especially those regarding the deity of Jesus). Thus, even if a Jehovah’s Witness was to attempt to have only the Bible as his authority, to the degree that he could not see through its sectarian translation, he would remain under the interpretive authority of the Watchtower.
Seventh-day Adventist Authority
Less well-known (and less heretical) than the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventists are yet another 19th century apocalyptic sect started by a purported prophet – or in this case, prophetess. After so-called “Great Disappointment” of Baptist preacher William Miller’s failed rapture predictions in the 1840’s, several of his followers started their own offshoot groups. One of them, Ellen G. White, became a leading “prophet” in the Adventist movement which gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventists (so named for their belief that Sunday worship is the mark of the beast – The Great Controversy, 605). White was (and in many Adventist circles continues to be) considered inspired by God and manifested the gift of prophecy (an “identifying mark of the remnant church”). Her writings are the foundation for much Seventh-day Adventist teachings, although they are officially considered to be secondary to the Bible.
Again we can find major problems. First, the doctrines of Seventh-day Adventism are based on White’s authoritative teachings – teachings she clearly considered to be on par with Scripture (e.g., “I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision.” – (Review and Herald, 9.6.1906) In The Great Controversy, White declared that, “It is those who by faith follow Jesus in the great work of atonement, who receive the benefits of His mediation in their behalf, while those who reject the light which brings to view this work of ministration, are not benefited thereby.” This “rejection of the light” was White’s own teaching. The early Adventists treated her writings as the paradigm by which the Bible was to be understood, and today her false teachings (a bizarre mix of Old Testament legalism, anti-Catholicism, innovative soteriology, and end-time prophecy) are still followed today (even if they are no longer given official prophetic status).Second, White was a false prophet. White saw in a vision that Jesus would return between 1843 and 1844. “In 1842 I constantly attended the second advent meetings in Portland, Maine, and fully believed that the Lord was coming.” (Early Writings, 11). When Jesus did not come in 1844, she maintained that “the 1843 chart was directed by the hand of the Lord and that it should not be altered, that the figures were as He wanted them, that his hand was over and hid a mistake in some of the figures so that none could see it, until His hand was removed” (Early Writings, 74). This did not stop her prophesying of Jesus’ soon return. Later, in 1851, White wrote, “But now time is almost finished, and what we have been years learning, they will have to learn in a few months.” (Early Writings, 67). [More more on Ellen G. White here.]
Evangelicalism is not a heretical cult (even if some quarters are, Evangelicalism itself is more of a “movement” – one that is notoriously difficult to pin down); however, it is often anti-Catholic (and anti-tradition in general). To support their anti-traditionalism, Evangelicals typically claim to be following the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura – that the Bible alone is their source of religious authority (more nuanced claim is that the Bible is the only ultimate source of authority). However, this claim runs into similar problems as it does with the above groups, even if it is less obvious on the surface.
First, although Evangelicals eschew the authoritative claims of the traditional Church, they are indirectly beholden to it because the Bible itself is a product of the Church. Jesus did not leave behind authoritative writings, he left behind a Holy Sprit led Church authorities, and they wrote the New Testament. The Christian Church, then, existed before the Christian scriptures did. Further, it was the Church who, centuries later, determined the biblical canon. Thus, trusting in the religious authority of any given New Testament book is ultimately trust in the authority of the Church that included it. Second, Evangelicals are just as vulnerable to biblical misinterpretation as anyone else. Given the dizzying array of theological options available to the Evangelical, it seems clear that the influence of a given group is a major feature in one member’s understanding of the Bible. This gives a given group / pastor the same kind of indirect interpretive authority as the Watchtower organization or the Mormon prophet. The question, then, is how to adjudicate between the thousands of groups, pastors, and teachings all going under the banner of “Evangelicalism” without begging the question (i.e., “X is biblically correct because X teaches the Bible correctly”), or relying on non-biblical standards (which would violate sola scriptura).
It is advisable to know what you believe and why you believe it (1 Pet. 3:15). When it comes to door-to-door missions, though, there is often little time to deal with the big questions of theology, epistemology, metaphysics, or ethics. These subjects, then, are often best left for personal conversations that can reach the depths of knowledge that both sides need to make any real headway. Any challenge to one’s faith, however, is a challenge to one’s religious authority – and is thus a profitable subject to focus upon with those folks at your door.