In 2017 we Protestants mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that Martin Luther launched and that John Calvin did so much to advance. It is an auspicious time to reflect on the state of Protestantism as a whole as we near this historic milestone. What does it mean to be “protestant” today? Who or what are we protesting against? Is it part of our ecclesiastical DNA to always be protesting something?
Obviously it was our mother, the Roman Catholic Church, our Reformation forbears so vigorously protested against. And with good reason — Luther alone came up with 95. One of the chief causes of enduring division was the doctrine of justification. Protestants generally patted themselves on the back for being “grace oriented” while caricaturing the Catholics as “works oriented”. I grew up around Southern Baptists in the Deep South where Catholics were not even considered Christian. The Presbyterians I knew seemed to be a bit more gracious as we considered them “almost Christian.”
Protestants are not entirely to blame for this animosity. It took 450 years after the Reformation for the Roman Church to consider us “separated brethren.” As progressive as Vatican II was, Catholics still could not bring themselves to consider Protestants as members of the true “Church.” But we have come a long way in the last few decades. John Paul II was perhaps the first pope to have wide appeal to Christians of every tradition. His unwavering opposition to communism and his staunch social conservatism led to new alliances with Protestant evangelicalism in the US — an astonishing development considering the longstanding distrust of the Roman See from that community. The universal outpouring of sympathy and grief over his death was also a turning point: the centuries old tradition of yoking the papacy with the antichrist was over.
In 1999 official representatives of the Worldwide Lutheran Federation and the Roman Catholic Church concluded two decades of dialogue by releasing a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Not only did these two church bodies find common ground on a point of doctrine that the Lutheran Reformation considered “the first and chief article”; more significantly, the mutual condemnations pronounced by the Lutheran Confessions and the Council of Trent over this doctrine were lifted after more than 400 years.
The withdrawal of official anathemas is not the only sign of change. Today, most Protestants and Catholics consider the other to be Christian. That is a major paradigmatic shift that is even more evident on the ground than in cloistered meetings of high-church officialdom. What used to be a war between mutually exclusive religions has become in recent years not much more than an intramural debate, a sibling rivalry. In this new era the logic of remaining separate church bodies collapses on itself. The apostle Paul makes this plea to the church: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:1-6).
This passage should be of special significance to Presbyterians for whom “calling” is a central tenet. We were not called only to be saved, but to be one. We have been called as Christians to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Unity is the fruit of our faith in Christ. Jesus himself made this prayer concerning unity: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).
Jesus does not pray for our unity simply for unity’s sake, but so that the world may believe! What is the world’s impression of Islam when we see Sunni Muslims killing Shiite Muslims killing Kurdish Muslims in Iraq? What about black Arab Muslims killing black African Muslims in Darfur? We live in a small world today where such divisions and hypocrisies cannot easily be hidden. Do we Christians think that the ecclesiastical tribalism of our countless denominational entities goes unnoticed by a world desperate to believe?
Calvin and Knox bequeathed to us a formula that says that when you have right preaching, right administration of sacraments and right discipline, there you have the true church. But more than a thousand years before that, the Council of Nicaea defined the marks of the true church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Can the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Pentecostal bodies claim all four of those marks? In that sense, no church is truly church; we have all failed to lead a life worthy of our calling to maintain the unity of Christ’s body.
A major obstacle is that Christians have organized their theology and power around various “popes.” The Roman pontiff is not the only such pope. We Protestants also have our popes, papas, fathers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — except that they serve in perpetuity. Like the Roman pope, these permanent Protestant popes also unofficially possess the power of ex cathedra infallibility — their teachings are usually not questioned, and serve as final authority. Jesus taught, Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26). Do we not need to relinquish the sole claim that we grant to Calvin over our life together as a church, if that claim excludes the great cloud of witnesses to whom the church owes its true identity? There are an estimated 38,000 denominations around the world, not in communion with one another (except in rare cases). Will we not humbly confess that the Reformed tradition has contributed a lion’s share to that division in the last 500 years?
I believe that the mainline churches, as descendents of the magisterial Reformation, sense this paradox of being church and yet not being fully church. Significant obstacles remain to visible unity, but that we have blithely accepted the division of the body of Christ without grieving that division serves as an indictment on this generation. Doctrinal differences among the various interest groups within one denomination like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pale in comparison to the monumental task of reconciliation between Catholics, the Orthodox and Protestants. Even though every denomination considers itself theologically “orthodox,” my contention is that we are all ecclesiastically heterodox — all of Christendom today suffers from the Donatist heresy, considering other Christians outside the bounds of the true church. If visible unity remains our calling, and if Jesus’ prayer that we be one still stands, then we cannot move in the direction of schism, no matter how intolerable our theological opponents seem.
The rise of the megachurch movement may have more to do with mainline flight than any other single factor. While wonderful fruit is being borne by many of these churches, megachurches on the whole seem to be just as individualistic, consumeristic, racially divided and sectarian as their mainline counterparts. I look at it this way: When a ship begins to sink, one end usually sinks first, causing the other end to rise. People will instinctively run toward the end above water, but sooner or later, the whole ship will go down. I don’t see much of a future for the megachurches as they currently stand. If anything, the small congregation modeled after the early church may have the greatest potential.
It is not that the demise of the Presbyterian Church itself would be a catastrophic event; who knows if that might not be God’s will? After all, none of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation lasted more than a century or so, even the ones Jesus commended. The temple in Jerusalem was not so sacred that God did not allow its destruction — twice! I am not suggesting more money, energy, and resources be put into institutional preservation. But to actively seek the rending of the church for the sake of “purity” is moving the church in the wrong trajectory. We need to embrace the ministry of reconciliation to witness to God’s deeds of power to the world.
Presbyterians in particular teach the sovereignty of God. Is our case for God’s sovereignty not weakened when we divide? Is the current brokenness of our communion with other Christian churches not damaging enough to our witness? If the Lutherans and Catholics can heal a breach that has lasted almost 500 years, can Presbyterians of different ideological commitments not remain one church? If we split, our fractured witness will be a stumbling block to those who believe and those who hunger to believe. Jesus said to his disciples: Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble (Luke 17:1-2).
We must not delude ourselves. The enduring brokenness of the church is a stumbling block to the world and a millstone around the church’s neck. We cannot move toward schism without risking being on the wrong side of the Spirit’s leading.
I believe that the Presbyterian Church has exhausted itself. We have come to a theological and ecclesiological cul-de-sac. We are descendents of protestors, so we have an instinctive need to protest. But without our historic enemy to help define who we are, what indeed does it mean to be a Presbyterian, a Protestant? With the war against an outside enemy gone, we Presbyterians have turned on each other — we are Protestant after all! This is a larger problem as we see the same pattern being repeated in every mainline church.
The “conservatives” claim that if only we returned to a more rigorous orthodoxy, the pews would be filled again. The “liberals” contend that if only the church flung open its doors to gay folk, the church would grow again. These arguments are laughable. More “orthodox” like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? More “inclusive” like the United Church of Christ? Why can’t we just admit the truth that we Presbyterians in America no longer know how to be church in a world that has changed from under our feet? We are bewildered, and angry that we cannot figure this out on our own. But the world has become too complex for us to go it alone. We simply do not have the resources internally to be renewed without active engagement with Christians from other denominations, other nations, and yes, even the Roman Catholic Church.
This is the central insight of being part of a multicultural church: mutual affirmation of one another’s culture as God’s good gift, and simultaneously, mutual correction of idolatries rooted in every culture, speaking the truth in love. How do we do this among the various ecclesial bodies, cultures, languages, and ideologies? How do we overcome the party spirit so prevalent in Paul’s day and our own times? Does it really matter in the end whether we follow Paul, Apollos or Cephas, the Pharisees, Sadducees or the Zealots?
How do we transcend the base tribalism, which infects us all as the old creation, and continue to become the new creation in Jesus Christ? Is not the existence of the Roman Church and the Protestant movement, the Presbyterian denomination and the Baptist denomination, the Black church and the White church, the liberal wing and the conservative wing — is this not evidence that we are still dominated by forces of the old creation? Do we to our shame remain captive to our ancient tribalism?
The ministry of reconciliation will be the most urgent ministry in the 21st century. Our divisions, arrogance, and hateful passions will be broadcast instantly in today’s world. Our fractured witness will be more a stumbling block to evangelism than ever before. Our brokenness will dilute our efforts at peace and justice. The Presbyterian Church must hold together not because we are important, but because our witness matters to the world. The world will know whether we are part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer, or whether we go on in defiance of it.
Perhaps our growing reconciliation will lead to reconciliation among the various church bodies. Perhaps making peace among Christians will give us the credibility to be peacemakers in this violent world. But let us now confess our wretchedness together instead of pointing fingers at one another. Perhaps God will have pity on us and show compassion on us. To paraphrase Paul: Wretched church that we are! Who will rescue us from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Jin S. Kim is pastor of the Church of All Nations PC(USA) in Minneapolis, Minn. He is also chair of the advisory board, Cross Cultural Alliance of Ministries.