Why would this average, born-n-raised Protestant ever wish he could be Catholic?
— Because Protestantism is a mess!
Back Story & Full Disclosure
I was raised within Protestantism by Methodist parents. Early on we attended what I would call liberal Protestant churches. Then, we moved into the Evangelical Protestant stream where I first heard the gospel, but not in a way I understood. Later, we moved on to Pentecostalism, where I understood enough of the gospel to know that faith in Jesus was my only hope for God’s forgiveness and heaven. At that time I accepted the gospel to be true (as best I understood it at the time), trusted in Christ to save me and began a life of following Him.
I stayed within the Pentecostal movement for 20+ years, while I slowly became more and more disenchanted with its grasp on Scripture. Ultimately, I faced a my-theology-versus-my-church crisis in 1999 and decided to step down as pastor of my Pentecostal congregation. Today I align myself with the “Reformed” stream of Protestantism (think The Reformation that birthed Protestantism in the 1500’s), because I believe it has the best understanding of the Faith that God revealed through Scripture and His Son.
The Problem with Pro / test / ant / ism
I said all this to admit that I’m a living example of the problem – an average example of the mess that I’m lamenting in this post.
What mess? — The awful, Christ-dishonoring disunity in Protestantism. We are a disheveled tangle of denominations, sects, splinter groups, outright cults, and self-made apostles, prophets and bishops, some of whom hold doctrines that were condemned as heresy by the historic church. These abound because we all follow different versions of Christianity while all claiming to be Bible believers.
The mass media age has compounded the problem by churning out a string of celebrity mega-pastors and mega-evangelists teaching dubious doctrines since the 1970’s. This has the effect of mainstreaming their errors, making it harder and harder for the average American Christian to imagine that any popular and sincere voice might be sincerely wrong.
In such an environment could there ever be a single, authoritative doctrinal voice to straighten this mess out? It seems unlikely.
Too Much Doctrine Isn’t the Problem
You might think doctrine itself is the problem. “Doctrine divides,” some say. “Not so,” say I.
Rather, it’s new doctrines, and bad doctrines, and neglect of the historic, central doctrines of our Faith that has given rise to the mess we’re in. Ironically the seeds of new, bad doctrines took root in a potting mix of highly-educated Protestant Liberalism (birthed in Europe) and anti-educational Fundamentalism (birthed in America) over a hundred years ago. And today they flourish in a mass-produced fertilizer that values subjective personal experiences over objective revealed truths.
But, the giants of Christianity – men like Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon – were men of intense study who placed doctrine first. They studied Scripture and those who had studied before them in order to understand the divinely revealed truths that should shape their experience. However today, anyone who can read an English translation of the Bible and gather a crowd can invent a fad teaching, publish a book, influence tens of thousands, and consider himself or herself a Teacher (capital “T”) of the Faith, even if they never heard of the real giants who preceded them. In this context, the core doctrines of Scripture are often ignored or perverted, old heresies are revived, and new teachings multiply like hydra’s heads dividing, and sub-dividing the Church.
Catholics Said This Would Happen
Roman Catholicism doesn’t have this problem.
Disunity is a uniquely Protestant curse.
And here is more irony: The doctrinal seeds that divide us were made possible by the Reformation itself, which gave every averageus a Bible in our own language. The Catholic Church of the 1500’s saw the mess coming and insisted on keeping the Bible in Latin, and in the hands of a few scholars who were responsible for upholding church doctrine. But, the Reformers rightly put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people. However, they never dreamed that so many of them would presume to speak for God while ignoring Church history and the historic creeds, disdaining theological education, and invent doctrines that distort Scripture beyond recognition.
What a sad, sad state we are in. The Protestantism of which I am a part dishonors the very prayer of Jesus for the unity of His followers in John chapter 17.
Is there a way out? Is there a way forward? Better, is there a way back to Protestant unity?
Honestly, I’m not sure that there is, and this disheartens me.
But, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t just accept hundreds or thousands of Protestant groups as normal for Christ’s Church. And if there is a way back to unity, I think we Protestants may have to look to our Catholic friends for advice on what that way may be.
And, I’ll think that over with you in my next post.
Do you think there is a solution to Christian disunity? Does it matter?
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