Should Protestantism Still Be a Thing?


Roger-Smith-cc-rosary-bibleFor years now, I have described my place in the Christian family as a “Protesting Catholic“. I love Catholicism (by the way, Orthodoxy, I’m so sorry you are so frequently left out of these discussions–I’m as guilty of doing this as any). I love the entire Church family, in fact, and I can’t think of a tradition from which I have not benefited greatly from it nuancing, sharpening, refining, or deepening my theological thinking in some way. A friend posted this interview with Stanley Hauerwas, on his new book on the “end times”. It’s a brief interview with some nice quotes and sentiments from the elder public theologian, but this set of lines particularly caught my eye:

My suggestion [that Protestantism may be coming to an end] is meant to be a reminder that Protestantism is a reform movement. When it becomes an end in itself it becomes unintelligible to itself. Protestants who don’t long for Christian unity are not Protestant. There is also the ongoing problem that Catholics have responded to the Protestant critique in a way that the Protestant critique no longer makes much sense. Accordingly, the question is: why do we continue to be kept apart?

I wholeheartedly agree with Hauerwas about the heart of Protestantism and how it should long for unity and, eventually and hopefully, end. So why is Protestantism still a thing I embrace? Why am I not fleeing to Rome, to our Mother Church? Let me offer a few words. To me, this all comes down to the individual (and local, communal) Christian conscience. Just as in the Trinity, where there is a personal diversity rooted in essential unity, I think Christians can and should feel free to reside, worship, and serve in a diversity of Church contexts, even while they maintain an essential sense unity with all other Christians. I disagree with Catholics and Orthodox on a lot of theological, ecclesial, cultural, and dogmatic issues; not to the point that I’d say they were in “sin” or were no longer Christian, but to the point that my conscience would be ill at ease and distracted from a sense of worship, freedom, and participation in this part of the Family. In other words, I would stop being a Protestant and wholeheartedly re-join the Catholic Church if Catholicism became flexible enough to allow room for communities within itself that held the theological and ecclesial convictions that I (and my church community) do. For example, in my denomination, we allow for a lot of diversity on a bunch of issues. I’ve watched a pastor who doesn’t believe women should pastor or preach lay hands on and pray for a woman who was being ordained by us to do just that. He didn’t change his mind on the issue. He just holds the mission, and Christian unity, as higher than the dogma. These are two pastors that disagree passionately with each other on a pretty major issue, and yet, they serve together in the same corner of the Church. As a denomination, we’re even starting to do this with other denominations (here’s a beautiful piece about this in The Washington Post.) Why can’t Catholicism be that way? Oh, I wish it was. My primary problem with Catholicism and Orthodoxy isn’t necessarily the theological conclusions they draw as much as the lack of theological freedom they give their people, the near-absence of ecclesial freedom they give to their parishes, and how specifically and dogmatically they define their particulars of the faith. The slightest deviation or diversity of thought, technically, can get your “Catholic” or “Orthodox” card revoked. In the end, that is what I am protesting more than any particular theological issues. As a Protestant, I am protesting the right that every member and community of the family of God has to express their particular convictions and still be seen as full brothers and sisters in Christ. Not labeled as schismatics. Not as rebels. Not as individualists seeking autonomous self-rule. But as those that, with the same heart and desire to see God clearly, have simply come to sincere yet different conclusions about the ways he has revealed himself, and the way we are to relate to him. So yeah, I wish Protestantism would come to an end. I wish every Church had the same name out front. But I wish each of those churches, even with the same name on their signs, had their own personality, ethos, and theological convictions. Yet I don’t know that this is a simple matter of Protestants laying down our weapons and “coming back to the fold”. This discussion is often portrayed as if that’s the case. But we want to come back as we are, and as we have been made to be, and not on the condition of being made into that which we are not. I for one would be happy to re-embrace the arms we left long ago, but it’s far easier to enter into arms that are open and ready to enfold, rather than crossed and ready to condemn. And yes, that goes for all sides in this family disagreement. There is certainly enough repentance to go around, many times over. May we with ears to hear, let us hear. Here are some prayers for us from this year’s prayer guide for the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Most loving and gracious God, we give thanks for the gifts of your grace that we experience in our own tradition and in the traditions of other churches. By the grace of your Holy Spirit, may our gratitude continue to grow as we encounter one another and experience your gift of unity in new ways. This we pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper you prayed to the Father that all should be one. Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name and seek to serve you. Strengthen our faith in you, and lead us to love one another in humility. May we who have been reborn in one baptism be united in one faith under one Shepherd. Amen. We give you thanks, O God, that you bless each and every member of the body of Christ with the gifts of your Spirit. Help us to be supportive of one another, to be respectful of our differences, and to work for the unity of all throughout the world who call upon Jesus as Lord. Amen. Gracious God, you sent your son Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to redeem your people. Unite us in our diversity, that we might affirm and proclaim together the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Christ for a world in need of his gospel. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “Should Protestantism Still Be a Thing?

  1. An interesting piece. I think you are definitely in the minority as a Protestant who wishes Protestantism to end. To note the commenter above me: I’ve often mused that Protestantism doesn’t seem to have a reason for being in itself, a positive dogma in itself, apart from its protest and rejection of Catholicism.

    I tend to think that there is much more room for theological diversity (and certainly cultural diversity) than most people realize. A look at the great diversity not only in culture and language, but in theological conceptions and reckoning, that exist in the Catholic Church, especially among the Uniate Churches of the East, confirms this. I can imagine, just as we’re not seeing an “Anglican use” among Anglicans who have reunited with the Catholic Church, outward forms of Catholicism that retain Lutheran trappings, Presbyterian trappings, even Southern Baptist or Evangelical trappings. Because the outward forms are accidental; the core truths of the faith are the only non-negotiables. I don’t know what your specific issues with the Church are — but I note that very often “diversity” is a code word for opinions that in the timeless judgment of the Church, are contradictory to the Christian faith having been received.

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  2. I, first, always enjoy your posts, but there are a few things I must comment on.

    I am a Catholic but I have fellowshipped in Pentecostal, LDS, Episcopal, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, IFB, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. They have all added to the wealth and beauty of my faith in some way or the other but my heart remains true to my Catholic faith. (By Catholic I am including the Eastern churches and to a lesser extent the Orthodox ones as well.)
    What brought me to the Church in the first place, was exactly what is keeping you away from it. I love how detailed she is, how there is an answer for every question, and how that answer does not vary no matter where you are in the world. I love just how set she is in her theological teachings and dogma, I believe Christ’s church is unchanging in that way.

    But what kind of perturbed me was your insinuation that this in any way stagnates a Catholic’s or Orthodox’s right to personal spiritual progress, individual alignment with teachings, and, to use your words, “ecclesiastical freedom.” That undermines the catholic nature of the Catholic faith. There are many nuances in the church that lend to her a very free and individualistic spirit, like Folk Catholicism found in Mexico, the Philippines, and Haiti. The Eastern rites all bring a very distinct flavor to the Catholic round table.

    My point is, it was through Her that I learned to embrace my own spiritual path, as she taught me to question everything, to open my eyes, to believe that there is more than one way out there.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense but the point was that the Catholic church is not as hard-up and stale as it once was. Since JP2 there has been a lot of support of personal spiritual exploration of the faith and individual expressions therein.

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