Protestant Christianity is coming up on its 500th birthday. In just 5 years, I expect we’ll see news articles and television specials commemorating half a millennium since Father Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg’s church. Only today, the movement spawned by Luther’s hammer counts twice as many adherents in places like Nigeria than in his homeland of Germany. Far from being a blip on the radar of history, the loose coalition of churches known as “Protestantism” now boasts a global population of over 800 million – or 37% of all Christians.
We in the United States have been shaped by a Protestant Christian identity more than perhaps any other country. Notions of freedom, individualism, and personal responsibility are deeply rooted in a Protestant ethos that has influenced our society on everything from the way we vote to the things we believe to the stuff we buy. Interestingly, in spite of the well publicized decline of the historic “mainline” Protestant denominations (Protestants still make up a thin majority of all Americans), America will likely continue to be “Protestant” even if it ceases to be so in church membership.
There’s no doubt that Protestantism, as a movement, has been a successful one if you’re looking at numbers and influence. But has it achieved what it set out to do as a movement within the Christian Church? In other words, what exactly are Protestants “protesting” anymore?
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
The medieval Church was corrupt. Luther wasn’t the only one saying so. He just managed to say it loud enough to get kicked out. Sure, he turned out to be crazy about a few things, but Luther’s excommunication is one of the saddest moments in the Church’s history. Like any divorce, blame falls on both sides. And even if the separation was necessary, it is certainly nothing to celebrate.
Ironically, or perhaps tragically, the Catholic (or “counter”) Reformation that followed Luther’s exit ended up addressing many of the reformers’ concerns. Even more of those original protests have been answered by the staggering amount of change embraced by the Catholic Church over the past century. Mass in the peoples’ language? Check. Empowering the laity? Check. Freedom of conscience? Check. Bible studies and Protestant hymns? Check (check your missal). Justification by grace alone through faith? Double check!
While the Catholic Church is looking more “Protestant,” Protestantism has fallen victim to the thing Catholicism has always most criticized it for. Without one central focus of unity and authority, it continues its never-ending course of fragmentation into thousands of denominations. Today, after a brief period of ecumenical consolidation, independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches and mainline squabbles over sexuality threaten to splinter historic Protestantism beyond recognition.
Life outside the Catholic Church for Protestants has always been a necessary evil until the reformers’ “protests” have been addressed. Now they have. We’ve achieved what we set out to do as a movement. What we must now address is the unnecessary evil of remaining divided in spite of Jesus’ prayer that we “might be one…so that the world will believe.”
It’s time to end the protest.
LET'S GET TOGETHER, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH
I’m not saying that all Protestants should rush over to the nearest Catholic parish and sign up for RCIA. I was born and raised a Protestant Christian and as a Methodist minister, I am determined to work for unity from this side of the Reformation divorce. Neither can I (or any self-respecting Protestant, for that matter) accept the Catholic claim to be the only true church, especially in an age where half of all baptized Christians aren’t Catholic!
What we Protestants can and should do is acknowledge the negative consequences of the Reformation on our unity and witness as Christians in the world today. Our current sad, divided state of affairs makes this seem self-evident. In an effort to protect individual freedom, we have too often been willing to ignore wider Christian tradition and permit (or condone!) unnecessary further divisions within the Body of Christ. Given our current disjointed state, we can certainly say that although we do not need a pope to be “church” – the office could certainly be useful as a visible sign of unity and authority!
In addition to acknowledging the harm of our present divisions, we Protestants should affirm that we no longer believe that our differences with the Catholic Church present a sufficient barrier to unity. Most people sitting in Protestant and Catholic pews already believe this to be true! But before we can make such a positive claim, it is important that we are clear on what it is that we already hold in common. I believe Ephesians 4:5 provides a beautiful starting point and rallying cry: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” One Lord Jesus Christ, God with us, the Savior of the world. One faith as contained in the Bible and interpreted by tradition, reason, and experience. One baptism by water and the Spirit into the family of God.
Here is the essence of Christianity. We already hold it in common: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The only thing that holds us back from greater unity is the insistence that we must accept more than this to truly be brothers and sisters. We’re ending the protest.
Of course, the Catholic Church would not welcome Protestants back into their fold without some kind of re-ordination (which would, conceivably, exclude at least all women – a deal breaker for my own United Methodist tradition). But at least, we Protestants would no longer be defining ourselves negatively as “protesters” against the Catholic Church but by what we hold in common and the potential for greater unity. We’d be saying that we need each other; that we’re ready to take steps toward healing this divorce if and when our Catholic brothers and sisters are willing to meet us halfway.
For sure, living in separate communities for 500 years provides lots of practical challenges, not least of which are those boring issues of denominational property and pension plans. But the recent Anglican Ordinariate provides some cause for hope (or at least some creative imagination). Here are married (re-ordained, yes) Anglican priests being received into the Catholic Church and allowed to continue many elements of their worship and traditions! What if we could retain our own denominations’ gifts and emphases? What if particularly befuddling Catholic dogmas could be re-presented to us Protestants (since we were excluded from most of those conversations in the first place)? What if the ordination of future Protestant pastors included Catholic bishops as a (for Catholics, necessary; for Protestants, useful) step toward full unity? What if there was a day when whole Protestant denominations could exist in communion with Rome as autonomous churches like the Byzantine Catholics?
That’s a lot of what ifs. But maybe it starts with ending the protest.