I am unashamedly a Protestant. I believe in sola scriptura, sola fidei, solus Christus, and the rest. I am convinced that Luther was on to something when he articulated his view of justification succinctly: simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”).
But with the birth of Protestantism there necessarily came a rift within the western church. By ‘necessarily’ I mean that Protestants made it necessary by splitting from Rome. Jaroslav Pelikan had it right when he said that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. Protestants felt truth was to be prized over unity, but the follow-through was devastating. This same mindset began to infect all Protestant churches so that they continued to splinter off from each other. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations. One doesn’t see this level of fracturing in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Not even close.
“But unity in falsehood is no unity at all,” some will protest. To a degree that is true. If the unity of the church meant that we would all deny the bodily resurrection of the theanthropic person, then that would be unity against an essential of the Christian faith. But there is no thinking Christian who agrees lock, stock, and barrel with what his pastor teaches. Yet, he is a part of that church. In this respect, he has prized unity over truth. We all have to do this. If we didn’t, each Christian would be his or her own church. The fellowship would be awfully predictable and quite boring!
Several evangelical scholars have noted that the problem with Protestant ecclesiology is that there is no Protestant ecclesiology. In many denominations—and especially in non-denominational churches—there is no hierarchy of churches responsible to a central head, no accountability beyond the local congregation, no fellowship beyond the local assembly, no missional emphasis that gains support from hundreds of congregations, and no superiors to whom a local pastor must submit for doctrinal or ethical fidelity.
Three events have especially caused me to reflect on my own ecclesiological situation and long for something different.
First, I have spent a lot of time with Greek Orthodox folks. It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’ in our fellowship with the Triune God. The liturgy is precisely what bothers so many Protestants since their churches often try very hard to mute the voices from the past. “It’s just me and my Bible” is the motto of millions of evangelicals. They often intentionally forget the past two millennia and the possibility that the Spirit of God was working in the church during that time. Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.
In Protestantism, one really doesn’t know what he or she will experience from church to church. Even churches of the same denomination are widely divergent. Some have a rock-solid proclamation of the Word, while others play games and woo sinners to join their ranks without even the slightest suggestion that they should repent of anything. Too many Protestant churches look like social clubs where the offense of the gospel has been diluted to feel-good psycho-theology. And the problem is only getting worse with mega-churches with their mini-theology. This ought not to be.
Second, a man whom I mentored years ago became a pastor of a non-denominational church. Recently and tragically, he denied the full deity of Christ and proclaimed that the Church had gotten it wrong since Nicea. He got in with a group of heretics who were very persuasive. The elders of the church had no recourse to any governing authority over the local church; they were the governing authority and they were not equipped to handle his heterodox teaching. It smelled wrong to them and they consulted me and another evangelical teacher for help. It took some time before they could show the pastor the door, and they were bewildered and troubled during the process. The congregation wasn’t sure which way was up. Doubts about the cornerstone of orthodoxy—the deity of Christ—arose. This cancer could have been cut out more swiftly and cleanly if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches. And the damage would have been less severe and less traumatic for the church.
Third, a book by David Dungan called Constantine’s Bible makes an astounding point about the shape of the canon in the ancient church. Dungan discusses the passage in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (6.12) when this church father famously spoke of four categories of literary candidates for the canon—homolegoumena, antilegomena, apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha. Dungan mentions that for Eusebius to speak of any books as homolegoumena—those twenty books that had universal consent in his day as canonical—he was speaking of an unbroken chain of bishops, from the first century to the fourth, who affirmed authorship and authenticity of such books. What is significant is that for the ancient church, canonicity was intrinsically linked to ecclesiology. It was the bishops rather than the congregations that gave their opinion of a book’s credentials. Not just any bishops, but bishops of the major sees of the ancient church. Dungan went on to say that Eusebius must have looked up the records in the church annals and could speak thus only on the basis of such records. If Dungan is right, then the issue of the authorship of certain books (most notably the seven disputed letters of Paul) is settled. And it’s settled by appeal to an ecclesiological structure that is other than what Protestants embrace. The irony is that today evangelicals especially argue for authenticity of the disputed letters of Paul, yet they are arguing with one hand tied behind their back. And it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity.
So, how do we deal with these matters? I once wrote a blogpost at Parchment & Pen called “The Ideal Church.” In it I said, “The ideal church can’t exist. And a large part of the reason it can’t is because we’ve made a terrible mess of things.”
I’m not sure of the solution, or even if there is one. But we can take steps toward a solution even if we will never get there in this world. First of all, we Protestants can be more sensitive about the deficiencies in our own ecclesiology rather than think that we’ve got a corner on truth. We need to humbly recognize that the two other branches of Christendom have done a better job in this area. Second, we can be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability, fellowship beyond our local church, and ministry with others whose essentials but not necessarily particulars don’t line up with ours. Third, we can begin to listen again to the voice of the Spirit speaking through church fathers and embrace some of the liturgy that has been used for centuries. Obviously, it must all be subject to biblical authority, but we dare not neglect the last twenty centuries unless we think that the Spirit has been sleeping all that time.