- Evangelicals. For evangelicals (who would rarely self-identify as "Protestant"), Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and the Spirit-filled individual. Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible according to its plain meaning and their own conscience. (You begin to see why there are so many varieties of Baptists and Pentecostals...)
- Historic Protestants. For historic Protestants, Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and Spirit-filled tradition. Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible within the boundaries of historic Christianity as expressed in the great creeds and catechisms of the Church (though the specific catechisms may vary by denomination).
Historic Protestants were generally part of the World Council of Churches and also members of their own "confessional family" like the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, and World Communion of Reformed Churches. While some visible church unions did occur, historic Protestants tended to cooperate on social justice issues.
Evangelicals, who had rejected membership in the World Council of Churches, organized their own ecumenical confederations like the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal World Fellowship - aimed not at visible church unions or social justice, but cooperation in missions and evangelism.
Now, however, I believe we are witnessing the blurring of these former lines of ecumenical cooperation. This is the "realignment" of American religion around human sexuality that is erasing the middle ground that historic Protestants used to occupy in the United States. For example, you now have Lutherans and Anglicans who identify more with evangelicals and Catholics than with fellow historic Protestants who happen to support the ordination of LGBT persons. This realignment threatens to dismember the former unity over what it means to be "Anglican" or "Lutheran" in favor of a more individualistic interpretation of what "I think" the Bible teaches about human sexuality.
Still, there are voices that are reaching across this new divide as well as the old one. It just so happens that two of the most compelling ecumenical Protestant voices are Lutherans.
According to an article by the Christian Post, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation and presiding bishop of the ELCA, recently "encouraged Christians to begin the conversation by identifying what they have in common – such as 'we are all sexual beings' – rather than from a position of judgment. He expressed concerns over emerging conversations in some Lutheran churches about what it means to be truly Lutheran. 'I sense that there is a growing desire on the part of some to look at our rich, shared confessions not as a reason for conversation about how we can live in that confessional tradition, but rather as a way of determining who is truly Lutheran and who is not,' he said, noting that he desires to see full unity among Lutherans themselves. 'That would be an unfortunate breakdown.' Hanson called for not only affirming the theological and confessional foundations they share as Lutherans, but also for renewing a commitment 'that to be Lutheran is to be both evangelical and ecumenical.'"
Meanwhile, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, has concentrated much of his efforts on reaching out to evangelicals and Pentecostals. Rev. Tveit gave the first ever addresses by a WCC general secretary at the assemblies of the World Pentecostal Alliance and the ongoing Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization in Cape Town, which, according to the Christian Century, originated as "an evangelical counterpart to the ecumenical WCC."
In his address on opening day, Rev. Tveit stressed the need for evangelicals and historic Protestants to learn from each other in order to participate together in God's mission. "We are called to be one, to be reconciled, so that the world may believe that God reconciles the world to himself in Christ." "Hinting at a history of wariness between evangelicals, Pentecostals, and the World Council of Churches, he said that 'the distance between Lausanne and Geneva is not very far, and it should not be. Let us keep the road open and the dialogue going.'"
What do you think? Can the old divide between evangelicals and historic Protestants be bridged? Can the unfolding divide over human sexuality be prevented?