Why the Protestant Church needs another Ninety-Five Theses . . .
In 2017 Protestants will celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation. A lot has changed since 1517, from Gutenberg’s printing press to Zuckerberg’s Facebook and the advent of social media. Much has changed within Protestantism too, but one sad, painful legacy remains: As Protestants, we have been infected with a propensity for schism that began at the birth of our movement. Instead of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I propose we ponder the troubling legacy of division that has followed in its wake.
Therefore, humbly and out of a desire to restore the radiance of Christ’s Bride, I submit the following 95 considerations for reflection, prayer, and comment.
Rev. Mark Barnard, President, Blessing Point Ministries
- That God has allowed the Protestant Church to suffer manifold divisions for the past 500 years should raise strong curiosity among evangelical historians and theologians.
- While the Catholic Church has remained intact and unified, and despite the Reformation’s unifying theme of a rediscovered Gospel, Protestantism has been sullied by innumerable, acrimonious splits, between churches and denominations.
- Justifying the ongoing narrative of division among Protestants, especially in light of Jesus’ prayer for our unity, proves difficult at best. (John 17:11)
- The Protestant Reformation, like the Tower of Babel, has resulted in the “confusion of (theological) languages,” multiplying discordant sects.
- Having discarded a flawed hermeneutic which elevated church fathers and popes above Scripture, a cacophony of divided theological positions filled the void.
- Whereas Protestants rejected extra-biblical authorities and appealed only to Scripture, we quickly made idols of our own favored teachers – repeating the pattern we once condemned.
- Entire schools of theology arose from our chosen teachers, whose followers became as unbending as the group from which we originally parted.
- Arising on the wings of this theological rigidity, the new denominations derived from these schools later crash landed and splintered further.
- Those who held variant interpretations of Scripture on secondary issues (such as the Anabaptists) endured unspeakable persecution by other Protestant groups.
- We departed the Roman Catholic Church and then soon persecuted brethren who left with us, even to the shedding of blood.
- To believe that Jesus approves of our division and violence flies in the face of scriptural teaching. (Matthew 26:51-52)
- The Protestant movement, birthed in such pain, continued to breed pain in her “children,” like the effects of a nasty divorce.
- These Protestant sects obviously carried wounds from the original split within their “spiritual bodies,” and failed to realize it, dooming them to ongoing division.
- Protestant groups have continued to split at both local church and denominational levels for the past five centuries without abating.
Analyzing the Protestant spirit
- The spirit exhibited among Protestants resembles that of the woman who insisted on dividing “her baby” before King Solomon. We’d rather inflict harm or death on something God considers precious than yield our point. We have forgotten Whose “baby” it is.
- Protestant leaders have overlooked the fact that how they handle a controversy is as important to God as the controversy itself.
- Protestants have historically failed to differentiate between doctrines held and the spirit with which we hold them.
- We have behaved as if every doctrine, no matter how obscure, requires us to proclaim, “Here I stand; I can do no other!”
- When brethren assail our position on secondary concerns we should instead declare, “Here I stand, but I make room for others!”
- Protestantism infused “being right” (our convictions about “the truth”) with Papal primacy, elevating it over every other Christian virtue.
- The Protestant need to always “be right” flowed from our insecurity over the pain we experienced (and caused) as the Reformation unfolded.
- Our dogmatism, like an autoimmune disease, menaces other members of the same body.
- Martin Luther’s strict upbringing contributed to his scathing tongue and short temper, and his spiritual progeny inherit his harshness and prejudices in dealing with each other.
- We have historically overlooked the way wounds from our family backgrounds can undermine Christian leaders and mar the Gospel if they are not courageously addressed.
- As Protestants we defended the “Apostolic faith” but the severe tone we chose to employ created divisions, wars, and ugliness on a scale that resulted in many turning away from the Gospel.
- Some of our children witness us devouring each other and flee the church rather than joining our cannibalism. Generations have thus been lost.
- Others of our children witness our divisiveness and inherit the same brutal spirit.
Our tendency toward division
- A layman could observe our behavior and astutely ask questions such as, “Where is discernment? Where is wisdom? Why have Protestants been so inclined to make war against brethren who disagree with them? Why wield the sword against one’s own?” (1 Kings 12:24)
- Again, he or she could probe “Where is God when an Evangelical denomination or local church splits? Has that old snake Satan outsmarted the Lord Jesus, Head of the Church?”
- Again, an observer could ponder, “Perhaps, after 500 years, it’s time for the Protestant Church to ask the question Gideon posed, ‘If God is with us, why has all this happened to us?’” (Judges 6:13)
- Like Jeroboam’s twin calves, which kept Israel divided, we have set up our own idols and divided over infant baptism and the Lord’s Table. (1 Kings 12:25-30)
- We are no better than Israel’s enemies who turned on each other when God fought against them. (Judges 7:21-22)
- God, in His limitless mercy, continues to use Protestant churches for His glory in spite of our fragmentation.
- Though we have been unable to stay unified for long, the Gospel has gone forth from us, but it has been tarnished by our divisions.
- Some suggest that God raised up the innumerable Protestant denominations through these painful splits, but unity and our love for one another was to be the proof of His Presence, not splits.
- Some contend that each group appeals to a different portion of the population as defined by race, social status, education, or temperament, but that is building the walls of separation Jesus died to tear down (Eph. 2:14-15).
- If God reaches anyone through such hostile divisions, it only reflects God’s mercy, or sense of humor.
- That God uses a fractured, conflicted Church for His purposes in no way justifies the unspiritual way many Protestant churches and denominations came into existence.
- Protestant denominations started by a split continue to experience painful splitting, at the local church and denominational level.
- The Protestant Church, as distinct from the Catholic Church, accepts ecclesiastical amputation as a means of problem-solving.
- The speed with which we revolt against spiritual authorities who disagree with our views displays our propensity toward rebellion, ignoring the fact that rebellion against divinely appointed authorities equals rebellion against God. (John 19:11; Romans 13:1)
- When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you,” he acknowledges the presence of divisions threatening their spiritual health, yet the church retained its singular corporate identity. (1 Cor. 11:19)
- Paul did not envision the Corinthian church splitting over such factions, but rather he describes a messy unity until those who are approved become evident.
- Factions within the church at Corinth had not lead to the Second, Third or Fourth Corinthian church!
- On that basis it will be more tolerable at the judgment for the troubled Corinthian Church than for many divided churches within Protestantism.
Division’s impact on Christian behavior
- Protestant believers have ignored the plain teaching of Scripture on Christian love and unity, growing accustomed instead to becoming estranged from one another. (Ephesians 4:1-3; Psalm 133:1; Colossians 3:14)
- Protestant leaders champion passages of the Bible which cast a favorable light on their preferred views rather than embracing a fair and even-handed reading of Scripture.
- As Protestants, we often come to the Bible seeking ammunition against our brethren, our motives and manner falling far short of the Spirit of Christ.
- Protestant teachers publicly created straw men and vilified other believers, to fend off perceived challenges to their “distinctives” from other godly people.
- The Holy Spirit grieves at the lack of grace we have displayed toward those with differing “distinctives,” especially since it was the doctrines of grace that first brought us together. (Eph. 4:29-31)
- We have divided into camps defined by certain spiritual gifts, losing the benefits of particular gifts when their possessors are excluded from our fellowship.
- As a result, our whole body “becomes an eye,” or a foot or a hand, creating spiritually bland churches consisting of people with similar temperaments and gifting.
- We’ve divided along divergent views of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will and done great harm to each other as a result.
- We fail to discern that tension between varying theological perspectives differs from conflict. One strengthens the body; the other weakens it.
- Spiritual people should have discerned the benefits of tension in the body without causing injury to the body.
- We sometimes behave as if our particular brand of theology were “inerrant,” elevating it to a standard reserved for God’s holy word.
- Let the authority of Scripture be the bond among Protestants, not our divergent views on what the Bible teaches. (2 Timothy 3:16)
- The stink of denominational arrogance and exclusivism sticks to us like the stubborn scent of a skunk.
- We seem to be unable to glory in our theological positions without casting prejudice on other groups of faithful believers who see these secondary issues differently.
- A group’s over-emphasis of a favored doctrine, reading every Scripture through its lens, eventually distorts the whole counsel of God within that group.
- We take communion while tolerating ill will toward other groups of believers, failing to judge the body rightly. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)
- Our Lord rejects our offerings when we remain unreconciled with other bodies of believers. (Matthew 5:23-24)
- God does not overlook our failure to be humble in conflict, nor does He ignore our militant, reactive spirit.
- It does not please Him when more prominent gifts of the body are always valued more highly than those with less conspicuous gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:21)
- He grieves when those with less conspicuous gifts compensate for, rather than confront, headier parts of the body when they err. (1 Corinthians 12:22)
- When the body’s “parts” do not learn to work together or understand how they need each other, amputation is soon to follow. (1 Corinthians 12:15, 25)
Division’s wider impact
- With a few taps on a Wittenberg door Europe came alive for Christ, however a chain of violence linked to the Reformation soon followed beginning with the Anabaptist persecution and Peasant’s War (1521-25).
- The Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in central Europe after the Reformation (1618-1648) provided another “link” quickening the pace of darkness and secularism as the intellectuals of the time came to view Christianity as bankrupt.
- The English Civil Wars (1618-49) linked the Reformation to conflict between Puritans and the British monarchy.
- Puritan angst toward the monarchy and Enlightenment philosophies contributed to the revolt against British rule at the American Revolution, both influences tracing their roots to the Reformation.
- By showing ourselves unable to be or stay unified, Protestants have granted implied permission for national governments to mimic our behavior.
- The American Civil war erupted because, within the Protestant denominations, godly leaders could not discern a righteous way to resolve the slavery issue a decade before. If they couldn’t do it, the nation had no chance.
- An ingrained spirit of division and rebellion against authority plagues the so-called “United” States to this day, linked as we are to the Reformation schism.
Healing the disease
- The Protestant Church suffers from a disease that resists treatment and spreads quickly, its penchant to rebel against authority.
- The disease flows from an infection of willfulness contracted at Leipzig and Marburg castle.
- In all schisms, motives become mixed, the heat of the moment giving occasion to the flesh, no matter how noble the cause or how important God says love and unity are to the Gospel.
- Political agendas intermingled with spiritual reformation further compromised the life and relational impact of the Protestant movement.
- We have done more than wound human relationships. Much as Israel did with its idolatry, we have damaged our Protestant corporate relationship with God.
- Such damage, like Achan’s hidden sin, overlooked for so long, awaits a healing touch.
- Since the Reformation, it has become commonplace to blaspheme constituted spiritual authorities (like pastors, elders, denominational leaders, evangelists) in the church.
- Those in spiritual authority have often abused those under them, creating a justification for rebellion by people under them.
- However, when righting injustice caused by abuse from someone in spiritual authority, we trample, reject and devalue the office itself, an appointed spiritual authority which God ordained.
- We have not seen the need to cleanse the office from moral stains, lest future officers inherit the broken trust the stains caused, breeding yet more division.
- Cleansing a spiritual role or office in the Body of Christ requires the use of Divinely-instituted mediatorial authority, a teaching overshadowed by the “priesthood of all believers” subsequent to the Reformation.
- Mediatorial authority allows spiritual leaders to mediate between God and the congregation, repenting of corporate sin as Moses, David, Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel did to the benefit of Israel. (Numbers 14; 2 Samuel 21; Ezra 9, Nehemiah 1; Daniel 9)
- The absence of teaching and an understanding of mediatorial authority since the Reformation, limits Protestant efforts to get free from its endless cycles of division.
- Unless we take responsibility for, grieve over, and repent of our collective sin of division, Protestantism faces continued acrimony and splitting, with the corresponding spiritual weakness and defilement of the Gospel. (Matt. 23:29-32)
Call to repentance
- God, in His loving discipline, has allowed us to experience reoccurring painful division to draw our attention to unresolved deeper issues before Him. (Revelation 2:12-17)
- He waits for the Protestant Church to repent of the damage we have caused to the Gospel for centuries since the Reformation unfolded.
- The Lord Jesus Christ longs for us to repent over splitting of His local churches.
- The Protestant Church shall not overcome its penchant for dismemberment until those in spiritual leadership and authority take responsibility for the sins of our “fathers” as well as our present sins.
- When genuine brokenness over our division and rebellion ensues, a new spirit can fill the Protestant Church, creating a God-honoring unity that our Lord will bless and a power to the Gospel we have not seen in a long time.
- If we do not address the pain of the past then we will experience amplified pain in the future.
- We continue as ignorant pawns of our dark enemy as long as our partisan spirit remains and continues to multiply.
- Until we Protestants humble ourselves for defiling the Bride of Christ the way we have for 500 years, the blessing we seek on our ministries will prove mixed at best.
Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries. Blessing Point works to restore the radiance of Christ’s Bride. Barnard is the author of the several books including, The Path of Revival – Restoring Our Nation One Church at a Time.