April 4, 2020

iMonk 101: “The Happy Enough Protestant”

happy-baby.pngFrom March ’08.

Because I’ve been wrestling with Protestant/Catholic issues throughout this past year, I receive a lot of email from those who have moved outside of their lifelong evangelicalism and somewhere within sight of the catholic tradition, if not the Roman Catholic church.

Some of that mail takes me to blogs and the writing of people who are in a tortured state of mind and heart. Some are ministers strongly drawn to Roman Catholicism. They have read Hahn and Howard. They are listening to The Coming Home Network on EWTN. They are tired of evangelicalism’s circus atmosphere, its deficits and its many problems.

The unity, antiquity and beauty of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy stand in stark contrast to the divisions, innovations and shallowness of evangelicalism. I have no problem understanding this attraction. It seems that Luther made a terrible mistake, and every person who “goes home” can take satisfaction in healing that historically disastrous and unnecessary rift.

When you are reading those books and thinking about the many strong suits of Catholicism, it’s hard to feel good about being a Protestant. A recent “Coming Home to the Roman Catholic” church television ad recited so many wonderful things about Roman Catholicism- without a hint of the other side of the coin- that it was difficult to see why anyone would want to remain a Protestant.

But there is a different way to approach this situation than the back and forth of pleading apologetic arguments, collections of verses or authority claims. Without insult to any Roman Catholic or criticism of anyone who has converted or will convert in the future, I want to say some things to the rest of us.

The rest of us? Yes, those of us who are Protestant and will remain Protestant for the rest of our lives. Not because we are angry, but because we are “happy enough” to be Protestant.

We have varying feelings about Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the various divisions in Christianity, but we are not going to change our place as Protestants and evangelicals. We have deep respect and appreciation for the antiquity of these Christian traditions, and we have abandoned the idea that we are able to understand evangelicalism without them. But we are not changing churches because we believe we are part of the church.

We believe that the churches we have grown up in, the churches that we have served and that have served and nurtured us, are the churches God himself sovereignly brought us into. The debate about “what is the true church?” is not a compelling one for us, because we believe that all of us who belong to Christ are joined with him in his church.

Phrases about ecclesial bodies or less than fully communing churches are not heard by us in the same way they are heard by those who have a Roman Catholic view of the church. These are our churches and we love them. They have given Christ to us and many of us have given our lives in service and devotion to them. Unlike some of our brothers and sisters, we do not want to leave our Protestant churches behind, but we want to see the presence of Christ among his people in them more deeply manifested and demonstrated. We are “happy enough” to be embraced by imperfect Protestant churches and people as we make our pilgrim journey.

We love our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, and respect the godly spiritual leaders and Biblical voices within those traditions. We are embarrassed by much of the anti-Catholicism that exists in evangelicalism, though we understand it as we understand the anti-Protestantism that exists within some of the Roman Catholic community.

We are “Happy Enough” Protestants. A strange title, I know, but an important one. We are happy enough as Protestants to remain Protestants, and we are happy to be protestant. We seek to practice a kind of Protestantism that is not characterized by unrest, anxiety and anger in relations with Catholicism. Our goal, in simple terms, is to be happy to be Protestant because we are happy in Christ and the Gospel that we find in Protestantism, even with all its flaws.

We are not seeking to evangelize Roman Catholics or to sell our churches as superior. We regret the rhetoric that commodifies church and Christian experience to “mine is better than yours.” We seek, instead, to embody what Paul so often talked about in his letters: Joy in Christ in the midst of a historically imperfect church.

We regret that for many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, it has not been possible to be Protestant and be faithful to Christ or happy in the church. We may have found this difficult and discouraging at times, but we have not found it impossible. We believe our Protestant experience can be filled with Christ, the legacy of the whole church and the distinctives of both evangelicalism and catholicism.

We are “Happy Enough Protestants” because we believe that God, in his providence, called us to this part of his one, holy, catholic and apostolic body/church. We accept, even celebrate, his providence in allowing us to hear the Gospel clearly and simply in Protestantism, to be taught in its churches and schools, allowed to serve in its ministries, sit at the feel of its scholars and pastors, be inspired by its mission’s legacy, learn from its saints, be challenged by its openness to the Spirit and renewed by its ability to return, again and again, to the Bible for authority, nurture and truth.

We recognize the checkered, broken past of Protestantism, but we are happy in much of what we find in that past. We believe that though they were sinners, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, Whitefield, Cramner, the Puritans, Spurgeon, Asbury, Ryle, The Baptists, Edwards and many other Protestant lights were called and gifted of God for the building up of his church and the equipping of his saints. We believe that within the Protestant tradition, God continues to call, equip, build, empower and demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom through his people.

We are “happy enough” to not despise ourselves or torture ourselves over what is missing in our tradition. We will, in a joyous spirit, work for restoration and the strengthening of the church. We pray that the work of the Spirit will unite all churches with the riches of Christ, but we believe those riches are accessible to us all by grace through faith and in the humble reception of the word of God.

We are “happy enough” to rejoice in the many statements of gracious inclusion and respect that have been offered in the ecumenical spirit, most particularly by the Roman Catholic church in Vatican II. But we are also “happy enough” to say we view the reformation as those who have benefited from it, and feel the responsibility to treasure and protect what was good and continually necessary in it. We believe that a tragic necessity need not remove all joy and mutual affection, nor abrogate the presence of all that is of value. We are determined in generosity and charity, to not allow all that the Reformation recovered to vanish in debates about authority and antiquity. God has sovereignly and graciously been at work in Protestantism, as well as in all Christian traditions.

In a spirit of mutual respect, we intend to be “happy enough” to tell the truth. As we repent of much in our tradition and as we see what is valuable in other traditions, we are unapologetic that much in our tradition exists more robustly and helpfully in Protestantism than elsewhere. It serves no good purpose to ignore the participation of laity, the starting of new churches, the extent of theological education, the use of congregational music, the depth of rigorous scholarship, the faithfulness in persecution, the emphasis on reform, the use of innovation in ministry or the healthy focus on personal evangelism. We will be “happy enough” to say these Protestant legacies are not to be abandoned or minimized, but should be gifts to the whole church.

At the points of our greatest disagreements, over authority, sacraments and justification, it is our prayer that we will all be “happy” in our convictions, and that should we find ourselves speaking over the greatest points of our separation, we will now have no agenda beyond living in the fruit of a joyful, “happy” experience of the truth. That someone should disagree with us should not send us into a tailspin of uncertainty or an attack-mode of anxiety. We are determined to be “happy enough” to speak of our convictions positively, winsomely and certainly without embarrassment before other Christians

I believe there are likely thousands of us who are “happy enough” Protestants and will remain so throughout our lives. We are not preparing to go to Rome, nor are we asking Rome to become Protestant. Our conversations should not be dominated by such an agenda and we repent of those occasions when such has been the case. We seek the day we can recognize Christ in one another, stand in the church of Jesus on both sides of the Tiber (and elsewhere) and be grateful to God for what he has done and what we all appreciate in our varying and various traditions. May all of us grow in the grace and goodness of Jesus and the mission of his people.

Comments

  1. Meant to say ‘in water and the Spirit’…

  2. Memphis Aggie says

    Joe

    I don’t think we can because it’s not just Papal infallibility it’s also the sacraments. Sure I believe in The Holy Spirit and I also believe in the Real actual miraculous presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. The difference between that belief and the belief in a symbolic remembrance is not at all small to me, why do you think it’s small? I don’t expect you to share my belief, certainly, but I do expect you to at least recognize the significance of the differences between us.

  3. Sue,

    Saying my church is the only true church is an arrogant remark no matter who’s church it is.

    This gets at, I believe, one of the most (if not the most) fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics and Protestants have a very different conception of what Christ founded. Protestants generally believe that Christ did not found a visible, hierarchically organized Body. But Catholics believe that Christ founded precisely that, and gave its keys to Peter. That paradigm difference makes Protestants perceive the claim by Catholics that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded, not just as false, but as arrogant. Protestants are not saying, “No, it is not the Catholic Church that Christ founded, it is this *other* Body over here that He founded.” The very idea doesn’t fit the paradigm, and so they construe the Catholic claim as arrogant, because obviously (in their mind) no ‘denomination’ has any more claim to being “the true Church” than any other denomination. And that rejoinder would surely be true if all visible hierarchically organized bodies were founded by mere men. But it wouldn’t be true if one visible hierarchically organized Body was founded by the God-man. So the claim that Catholics are being *arrogant* in claiming that theirs is the Church that Christ founded, begs the question. It assumes the truth of the Protestant paradigm. It does so just as a person might respond to Jesus’ claim to be God by saying that any man who claims to be God is arrogant. Such a response presumes the impossibility of the Incarnation, and so begs the question. In order for Protestants and Catholics to understand each other, we have to be able to see each other’s paradigms, and not just see the other from our own paradigm.

    Blessed Good Friday to you. (And to you Michael.)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Morgan Dendler says

    this is in responce to JoAnna;s statement that Jesus established ONE church and that staying in the Lutheren church would be wrong. JoAnna …are you saying then that ALL churchs other then RC are not the church?..Do you see Monks point. Jesus said “I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH” and as I see it there is One Church with many rooms..Your in teh Catholic room others are in the Lutheren room or the Baptist room or the pentecostal room or teh orthodox room. Now of course if your in a particular room you feel your in THE room….Understand this Jesus is the head of those other churchs…try hard to understand this and you will be blessed with a much bigger family.

  5. sue kephart says

    Bryan,

    I do understand what you are saying. And I agree I see it from not the Roman Church’s point of view. Saying Christ founded a church and it is my Church and is the one and only one Christ founded does not make it true. Only some Roman Catholics believe this. The RC Church makes this claim but can not PROVE it. It is what you BELIEVE to be true. But what if it isn’t?

    Would you love Jesus just as much?

  6. Sue, I would submit that the RC Church HAS proven it, but that’s my fallible, but FAITHFUL RC, praying to Mary and the Saints (for their prayers to God THRU Jesus of course) opinion based on “sola scriptura.” But I won’t continue the argument, because it is fruitless, and would be more ME than Him. I must decrease, He must increase.

    Prayers and Peace,
    tony

    Holy, Holy, Holy,
    Lord, God Sabaoth,
    Heaven and Earth are filled with Your Glory,
    Hosannah in the Highest!

    Blessed + is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
    Hosannah in the Highest!

  7. As a Roman Catholic convert — and as one who has inhabited several other church communities on the way — I have become fond of pointing out something that evangelical churches do RIGHT more often than anyone else in my experience. It is this:

    *Everyone* in the Evangelical church I attended goes to Sunday School. Adults and children. Every week. Becoming educated is as much a part of the community’s practice as worship.

    Catholics seem to get most of their religious education as children: once you’re an adult it stops, unless you make some efforts to seek it out.

    Would that it were otherwise.

  8. Sue,

    Happy Easter!

    The RC Church makes this claim but can not PROVE it. It is what you BELIEVE to be true. But what if it isn’t?

    I agree that the Catholic Church cannot “prove” that she is the Church that Christ founded, if we are using the term ‘prove’ to mean demonstrate indubitably. But with that sense of the word ‘prove’, I don’t think anyone can prove that Jesus rose from the dead, or ascended into heaven. Of course, we would agree that the evidence fits with it. (cf. Strobel’s book) But, if one is coming from a Humean or naturalistic worldview, the data can be explained in other ways. (Just go to the main atheistic websites to see that.) This is why we (Christians) believe that faith is a gift from God. Faith is not reducible to reason; that would be rationalism. The irreducibility of faith to reason does not mean that faith is irrational, or that faith amounts to fideism, i.e. a complete separation of faith from reason. Faith does not reduce either to rationalism or fideism. (Here I’m thinking of JPII’s Fides et Ratio.) Everything I’ve said so far, you probably agree with. But here’s where we might disagree. Catholics believe that faith is act of trust in Christ by trusting those whom Christ authorized and sent. So we believe in the resurrection and ascension of Christ not because those doctrines can be proven true, but because those whom Christ authorized and sent taught it, and demonstrated their authority. Likewise, Catholics believe that the visible hierarchical nature of the Church is also something that Christ’s representatives taught. So, for Catholics, this doctrine (of the visible hierarchical nature of the Church) is a matter of faith, like the doctrines of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. When we recite the Creed, we specifically speak about the Church and its four marks. So the nature of the Church is, for Catholics, itself part of the gospel. Obviously that doesn’t resolve the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics. But, maybe it might help clarify how Catholics understand the question that you are raising.

    At least we can rejoice together that our Lord is risen, and that death is conquered!

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. sue kephart says

    Bryan,
    Happy Easter to you as well. You are correct in saying I agree with some what you are saying but not all. I am involved with indenominational ministries and believe me I have heard allot of much more outraggious claims than what you have put froth by members of other churches.

    I am sure you don’t like it when some Protestants say Roman Catholics aren’t really Christians. They have been taught that by their church. They will explain to me why it is true. I don’t argue I just say, “hum, I know many Roman Catholics who are very profound Christians”.

    When I was in college, I had a Baptist Prof who explained to our class that if you weren’t totally submerged when you were Baptized you would go to Hell when you died. After other Baptists asked him to stop saying that because that wasn’t everyones tradition and he wouldn’t, six Baptists got up and walked out of the class. There was a grade punishment for doing that so it cost them something.

    Whenever I am in a situation where it’s easy just to let it go and not defend fellow Christians I think of them.

    I will let God straighten it out. His ways are to wonderful for me to understand.

  10. Sue,

    Your observation about the college professor should be in the irony thread as well. He’s a Baptist and they tend to not need the physical for salvation and his idea is harsher than even us Catholics. We do allow for God working without using the sacraments. (and consider a baby baptized by a lay woman while in the arms of a rabbi to be valid.)

    BIG GRIN

    Isn’t God marvelous.

  11. Memphis Aggie says

    “We do allow for God working without using the sacraments. (and consider a baby baptized by a lay woman while in the arms of a rabbi to be valid.)”

    Anna,

    Your example doesn’t work. Baptism is a sacrament requiring both proper form and proper intent. It just doesn’t require a priest to take effect. How is that an example of God working without the sacraments?

    Not that I don’t agree with your main point – God is not at all limited to the sacraments. However the sacraments are revealed as beneficial graces, while other graces beyond the “visible boundaries” of the Church are extraordinary, novel and complete mysteries.

  12. “Bill: Thanks for the laugh. How true that the pacifists do not have blood on their hands.”

    This is not entirely self-evident. A case could be made that extreme pacifism encourages aggression, resulting in increased bloodshed.

    I don’t want to start picking on the Anabaptists now because I agree with Michael’s concept of a larger unity. But I think that the question of whether one is responsible for the shedding of blood is not identical to the question of whether one has personally taken up arms.

    Besides that, I’m sure there have been some pacifist Christians who have violated their beliefs, who ought not be disowned by their pacifist brethren.