May 7, 2004

The Besetting Sin of Protestantism

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

The latest issue of Reformation and Revival Journal (to which I recommend subscribing: I like it more and more) arrived at my house this week.

This issue focuses on Christian Oneness, a topic that warms my heart, and contains articles by two of my acquaintances, Rich Lusk and Travis Tamerius. The first article, however, is by T. M. Moore. It’s entitled “That They May Be One: Facing Up to the Besetting Sin of Protestantism.” Here’s how the article starts (I’ve broken it into shorter paragraphs for easier reading):

I had just finished a sermon exhorting our congregation to faith and boldness in taking up the challenge of a new stage in our ministry’s development, a sermon which I ended by quoting a wonderful prayer which Robert Van de Meyer attributes to St. Brendan (fl. ca. A.D. 560), which, tradition tells us, he offered just prior to departing in a leather boat with sixteen companions for points west across the uncharted sea.

The first person to approach me at the door was a minister of my denomination, who was visiting with us that day. I held out my hand to greet him, but he declined, looking first at my outstretched hand, and then, coming very close to my face, saying, “Couldn’t you find some worthy Reformed saint for your illustration? Did you have to use that Catholic?”

Note the emphasis: Not a Protestant saint, but a Reformed one. For this pastor it would not have been sufficient merely to draw on an example from the Protestant heritage; it had to be Reformed.

This anecdote speaks to me of much that is wrong in Protestantism. Not only does it demonstrate a fixation on form over substance — the jots and tittles of doctrine rather than the heart of faith — but it witnesses to a problem endemic in Protestant churches from the earliest days of the Reformation: Protestants too easily become ensnared in denominationalism, with the result that, at least among many pastors and church leaders, we fail to nurture and express the love of Christ much beyond the confines of our own fellowships. We tend to clog the veins and arteries of the Body of Christ with the plaque of denominational distinctives — doctrinal, liturgical, traditional, and practical — and impede the free flow of the love of Christ among the communions and members of his Body.

Here, more than in any single area, the sin of unbelief, which so easily besets the followers of Christ, has attached itself to Protestantism, and is choking life from the Body and suffocating our witness to the watching world. I agree with Edmund Clowney when he writes, “Only as the Church binds together those whom selfishness and hate have cut apart will its message be heard and its ministry of hope to the friendless be received.” The failure of Protestant churches to achieve that binding among themselves is one of the primary reasons that our witness for Christ has not been more effective over the past several generations (pp. 12-13).

While I might quibble with some of what Moore says here (I’m not convinced that “substance” and “form” can so easily be divided, for instance), I appreciate his point. As a Reformed pastor, I sometimes get the impression that the Reformed world is a bit too cosy and close-knit. We don’t associate much with the other churches around us. Some Reformed churches don’t admit to the Table members from non-Reformed churches.

I recall reading an old Bible study geared toward young adults in which the author, a venerable pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, asked the question, “How can we increase loyalty to our denomination?” Is that really what we want? Or would it be better to have loyalty to Christ and His church throughout the world? What about our loyalty to the guy in the other church down the street who is united to the same Christ we are?

I look forward to reading these articles in this issue of Reformation and Revival Journal, and I commend R&R for publishing them.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:17 pm | Discuss (0)

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