05 February 2010

500 Years After Rome

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a priest, teaching at the University of Wittenberg; John Calvin was not yet one year old; Ulrich Zwingli was a college student at the University of Vienna; Menno Simons was not yet four; King Henry VIII had only recently ascended to the English throne; and Western Europe had one faith and one Church.

Today, the situation is quite different. We have gone from a society with one Church, to a society with many Churches, to a society that believes the Church does not matter.

Many of us may object to this, exclaiming that our faith matters very much, and that we are fully committed to living a Christian life. I do not doubt this. What I do doubt, in many cases, is our commitment to and belief in the Church.

Consider, if you will, where we attend services on Sunday. What sort of name is on the sign or printed on the bulletin? It may say, “First Baptist Church,” or perhaps, “St. Paul’s United Methodist Church,” or some such thing, but in many cases it probably says something like, “ Town Name Christian Center,” or, “Town Name Community Church.” With some churches, in very small print, we might see written, “a Free Methodist congregation,” or “a free and independent member of the SBC,” but there is often no indication of denominational affiliation at all.

“Bravo!” some will cry out. “We are all followers of Christ. Denominations do not matter. Let us break down these barriers and rejoice in our common faith.”

It is a noble-sounding sentiment, and it fits well in a time when tolerance is seen as the highest virtue. However, if I may quote G.K. Chesterton, “Tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions.”

To clarify, the reason our theological differences do not matter is that we do not truly believe in our own theologies. The average Christian in the pew may profess a great deal of love for Christ, as he or she may understand him, but few would be willing to die in the defense of their church’s distinctive doctrines.

Unity is certainly something to be sought after, but the unity we rejoice in today is a result of reducing Christianity to the lowest common denominator. This process is still ongoing, and it does not show signs of stopping anytime soon. The dogmatic certainty of the early sixteenth century Church has been diluted to “mere Christianity,” which is itself on its way to “mere spirituality.”

Many of us will disagree, I realize. We will say, perhaps, that we believe the Bible is true. We will say we firmly believe in the existence of Christ and the reliability of the Christian faith. I applaud this, I really do. However, I must take this a step further. We believe in the truth of Scripture and the Christian religion? In that case, is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the importance of baptism and what it does? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the nature of Holy Communion and what it really is? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to demonstrable gifts of the Holy Spirit? Is it important to believe rightly when it comes to the assurance of salvation?

At this point, many will say that these are “non-essentials,” and that disagreement on these issues should not prevent unity. It is important to note, however, that this list of non-essentials was not so long fifty years ago, and it certainly was not five hundred years ago. Care to guess how long this list might be in another fifty years? As time is passing, less and less Christian doctrine is considered to be important. If nothing is done to halt this trend, in a few centuries or less, will there be any Christianity left?

This progression from orthodox Christian belief to modern relativism stems largely from the rejection of authority. We disagree with our church’s stand on a particular issue or issues, so we reject our church’s authority and form our own. And, really, to be honest, is this so surprising? For the children of the Reformation, all of our churches exist because of a previous rejection of authority. As we storm out of the church and form a new one down the street, what can our former pastors say? If we are rebels, then so are they, and so are their spiritual forebears.

To continue, once we, as a society, decided that it was legitimate and proper to throw off the authority of one Church, why should it be a surprise that it has become common practice to throw off the authority of every Church? Our religion is increasingly becoming the religion of the individual and his or her interpretation of the Bible. There is no recourse to an authoritative Church. Rather, individual Christians, many of whom likely believe the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility to be a damnable heresy, believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding them to an infallible interpretation whenever they pray for guidance and read the Holy Scriptures.

We are left with a problem, however, because we Holy Spirit-seeking, independent Christians disagree about any number of doctrinal matters. If there are a hundred of us in a room, there are probably a hundred different sets of doctrine. Odds are that many of us are quite sincere in our search for truth, and yet we still disagree and come to contradictory conclusions.

At this point, I believe we must consider the possibility that perhaps the one person and his or her Bible system does not work. Perhaps the wholesale rejection of authority is not the best way for Christianity to operate. Perhaps, and this is the shocking part, we were better off five hundred years ago than we are today.

“You would return us to the darkness of Romish papism!” some will cry out, wringing their hands and looking frantically about for Spanish inquisitors. It is a rather significant thing to consider, I will admit, and I realize that, for many of us, the thought has not dared to cross our minds. It lies in forbidden territory, inscribed with the warning, “Here there be monsters,” on our Protestant maps.

And yet, that is the Church from which we came. Sometimes I think we forget this, as if somehow Christianity was on pause for fifteen hundred years. We think we can go from the book of Acts to Martin Luther, ignoring fifteen centuries of men and women who served Christ and belonged to His Church.

Perhaps we do not agree with every doctrine of the Catholic Church, but can we at least say that these men and women were Christians? If we Protestants can call each other Christians, despite our various theological differences, can we not say the same about these Catholics? Or, while tolerating the errors of our misguided brethren down the street who formed their particular sect in 1892 or 1986 or 2009, are we truly going to deny the Christian faith of those within the Church that we all came from and that dates back to the time of the apostles?

Were people going to heaven under the care of the Catholic Church? Were they being encouraged to live righteous lives? Were they told to love God and love their neighbor? If people were being saved within the Catholic Church, has the splintering, chaotic explosion that is Protestantism proved to be any kind of an improvement? Are we as Christians and as a civilization better off now?

1 Timothy 3:15 says that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. If we agree with Scripture, can we really say that leaving the Church behind was such a good idea? Some will say that the “Church” is an “invisible body of believers, scattered throughout thousands of denominations.” Perhaps I am old fashioned, but it seems that a pillar and foundation that people can see and identify and look to for truth is a superior kind of pillar and foundation. Foundations and pillars are strong, and they hold up large and tall buildings. If the foundation and pillar were to be broken apart and scattered, the building would fall. Since the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, if the pillar and foundation are invisible, the truth is much more difficult to find.

We rejected the authority of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Since then, we have been steadily rejecting more and more of traditional Christian doctrine and practice. Would the apostles recognize our churches? Would the early Protestant reformers even recognize our churches? We have established a pattern of rebellion, continually breaking away from what is old and embracing what is new and different. When our children leave the faith entirely and take up atheism or some new and exciting foreign religion, they are going down the same path that Martin Luther and John Calvin and their compatriots took all those years ago.

As this comes to a close, I want to point out that this is not intended to be an attack on anyone’s faith in Christ. I see this as more of a critique of a system, a system that has shown itself to be flawed. This is not a work of Catholic apologetics. I am not at a place in my life where I could write such a thing. I am a class of ’07 RCIA dropout, with great affection for Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, along with an appreciation for all that is good (and there is much) in my Protestant heritage. I think, however, that we have been taking the Protestant system for granted, assuming that it is the way things ought to be. With all respect, and with great love for all people, I ask you to at least consider the possibility that it is not.

May God bless us all and guide us to the truth.